In every culture and part of the globe, April’s birthstone, diamonds have been ascribed certain values and powers, symbolism, lore and legends.
For centuries diamonds have represented permanence and stability. The Greeks called diamonds adamas, meaning unconquerable. Perhaps it is due to the diamond’s ability to withstand fire, the hardness of the stone, and the fact that diamonds have been traded, sold, stolen and found again; or perhaps it is the entrancing nature of them, even as they come out of the earth, or their brilliance and sparkle that have contributed to the gem’s enduring place in history.
While primitively cut diamonds existed during the 14th-16th centuries, it was during the 17th century that the stone became more obtainable, when the jewelers of King Louis XIV of France brought back diamonds from the famed Golconda mines in India. The rose cut with its six-faceted domed top and flat bottom was born, while the 18th century welcomed the mine cut, which had more facets and deeper culet to let in light.
Due to the limitations of early cutting techniques jewelers compensated for quality by setting these cuts into silver-topped gold, with the gold adding strength and the silver allowing the diamonds to shine against the oxidizing of the white metal. Closed backs allowed for foil, which detracted from the imperfect color and gave the diamonds a whiter look.
For antique collectors of this time period, these jewels are a main attraction but they are also witnessing a huge following among new collectors who find their flaws charming and full of personality.
The auction of ‘The Diamonds of the Crown of France’ at the Louvre in Paris in 1887 ushered in a new age that would forever change the cut of diamonds, styles of jewelry, and the accessibility for the new moneyed classes to own and wear the stone. Jewelers from around the globe attended the sale. Many of the jewels in the collection reflected the popular style of the times, set by the Empress Eugénie of France, who had a preference for motifs including bows, ribbons, flowers and other formal and regal flourishes. Tiffany & Co. bought the largest number of lots— approximately a third of the collection for £480,000 and then sold the items on to New York’s elite, including Doris Duke who purchased an exquisite rock from the renowned house and had them turn it into a ring.
Among the other buyers at the sale was Bapst, the French jeweler who created many of the original designs and bought back some of his own pieces; and the co-founder of Van Cleef & Arpels, Alfred Van Cleef, who bought a floweret, which would become a motif of the company. Frédéric Boucheron acquired a host of diamonds at the auction, among them the celebrated Mazarin diamonds, and one of Empress Eugénie’s most beautiful jewels which Boucheron bought to set in a ring for his wife. Soon diamonds, which had only been worn by European royalty, began gracing the fingers, wrists and necks of renowned socialites, heiresses and Hollywood stars.
The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw greater artistic expression in jewelry design, where societal and cultural trends influenced the design and fabrication of diamond jewelry. The motifs of the Belle Epoque eras focused on delicate versions of garland and floral motifs, bows and scrolls. Platinum was now the metal of choice. As one of the most durable metals, it could be used for much smaller settings and delicately detailed piece, its steely matte surface was the perfect backdrop for showcasing sparkly white diamonds.
The linear geometry of the Art Deco movement, named after 1925 Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, was born of technological advances in diamond stone cutting, creating the round brilliant with its fifty-eight facets, as well as other unique shapes for the time: marquise, half-moon, baguette and pear. These ultra-streamlined designs were favored by some of the same houses that purchased pieces from the 1887 auction and their popularity endured for more than a decade.
Both of the eras have continually been a source of inspiration for collector’s as well as modern designers who borrow details from the aesthetics of both movements.
In 1932, in what would seem a paradoxical move for someone known for the simplicity of her fashion creations and her love of piles and faux and genuine strands of pearls, chain and colored gemstones, Coco Chanel presented her first fine diamond jewelry collection. With the onset of the Great Depression, fashions were changing, but Chanel pulled away from the drabness of bleak austerity. She accepted a commission from the International Diamond Guild to help boost sales. Breaking with tradition and with the techniques of formal jewelry design, she worked with some of her favorite motifs. She presented a dazzlingly lavish collection, a galaxy of constellations: shooting stars, crescent moons and comets all set with melée diamonds, offering the twinkling lights found in the evening sky, all set against her signature chic black outfits. Like her fashion designs, her pieces were easy to wear, versatile and practical; many pieces were convertible – necklaces became bracelets and pendants became brooches. To celebrate the 80th Anniversary of her Bijoux de Diamants exhibit in 2012, the house of Chanel launched the aptly named 1932 collection of fine jewelry based on the original pieces which continue to twinkle brightly in the high collection today.
From 1949-1953, Harry Winston, also known as “The King of Diamonds” exhibits some of his most precious and important diamonds and gemstones in a cross-country tour called “The Court of Jewels”, a collection of museum-quality historical gems including the Hope, Jonker and Golconda diamonds. The Golconda diamond was originally named the ‘McLean Diamond’ after its previous owner, mining heiress and socialite Evalyn Walsh McLean (who also owned the Hope Diamond, the Star of the East and the Star of the South). Winston purchased Evalyn’s collection in 1949 and then sold the cushion- shaped, D-colored 31.26-carat diamond to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
During the late 1950s and early ’60s, diamonds continued to be the favored gem, whether in artfully detailed designs or in big rocks that became synonymous with the stars and royalty who wore them. Successes of the highly talented were often celebrated with jewelry.
With the political and social changes of the 1970s, the mood for diamonds and lavish jewels changed. There was a new, more stripped-down attitude toward jewelry and fashion, a more minimalistic approach that would prove to be challenging for many of the well-known jewelry houses.
Tiffany & Co. brought in new designers, including in 1974 Elsa Peretti, a former model and designer for fashion designer Halston. Peretti was asked to create a simplified version of diamonds for women on a budget. For her first delicate, versatile jewel, she stationed twelve small diamonds set in gold bezels at uneven lengths on a 36-inch chain. In seeing the long chains with small diamonds an inch or so apart, Halston ingeniously dubbed them ‘Diamonds by the Yard’. The name stuck. She varied the style by adding different sizes of diamonds and lengths of chain. Peretti made diamonds wearable, versatile and understandable in times of great social change and modern versions are still being produced today.
From the 1990s through current times, designers have been inspired by antique and vintage jewelry, old cuts of diamonds and a return to the craftsmanship of bygone eras. Independent designers and renowned brands continue to test their creativity in everything from polished rough cuts and opaque rose cuts for a rough-hewn approach to alternative looks in diamond jewelry to exclusive shapes in white diamonds and from glamorous to minimalistic settings. There are a range of choices for April’s birthday girl and all women who want to shine in this glorious gem.