The Diamond Story

For jewelers who wonder how diamonds became the most prominent gemstone sought by U.S. consumers today, Diamonds, A Century of Spectacular Jewels by Marion Fasel and Penny Proddow is the book to read.

The new coffee table-size tome, published by Harry Abrams, New York City, shows how an extraordinary confluence of circumstances – mainly the discovery of diamonds in South Africa, an emerging class of late-19th and early-20th century wealthy merchant Americans and the talents of a golden age of jewelry design – led to diamonds’ legendary century.

The authors begin the diamond’s modern journey at the auction of the French crown jewels in 1887, where Tiffany & Co. made many successful bids. Symbolic of the shift in wealth and power away from monarchies and toward industrialists, many of the jewels ended up worn by rich American women, the so-called queens of the Gilded Age. It’s hard to decide, especially because of the book’s lavish photos, whether it was diamonds’ costliness or their sheer beauty that made them such winners. In truth, it was probably both, as flaunting wealth went hand-in-hand with a genuine appreciation of the arts that flowered around the turn of the century.

20th century rocks: When Proddow and Fasel cover the subject of diamonds before World War I, they illustrate the lavish use of diamonds in Edwardian-era platinum juxtaposed against the minimal, but complementary, use in French Art Nouveau pieces.

The authors move on to the Art Deco period, when such jewelers as Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels mixed the diamond’s translucent glitter with opaque stones such as coral and onyx.

In America, however, Art Deco diamond jewelry went through a second wave that was to define the way Americans like their diamonds best: unadorned by other stones. The Deco look, long associated with flappers and early film stars, featured angular, geometric-shaped diamonds – and lots of them. The style was white-on-white, thanks to the prominence of platinum, but these jewels were a far cry from the delicate lacy styles and dog collars that adorned Edwardian ladies. Shockingly modern and as architecturally designed as the Chrysler Building, diamond jewelry matched the revolution in clothing and style that came during the 1920s.

From Depression to war, again: Jewelers in the 1930s returned to natural shapes just as Marcel Tolkowsky’s round brilliant cut became the accepted standard for maximum diamond brilliance, the authors report. Designers accented pavé

diamond flowers and dangled the stones from antique-inspired brooches. Empress Eugenie styles were back, as period movies starring Bette Davis and Greta Garbo renewed the fascination with old French court styles. But jewelers fought back a little, determined to keep up-to-date. They eschewed the fussier details of garlands and ribbons in favor of lush flowers and foliage, say the authors. It made the antique-look decidedly modern. Colored stones crept back into the picture, as back-to-nature designs required some color.

When World War II swept platinum off the market, jewelers began their love affair with gold and diamonds, leading to the look to which many designers still cling. The authors show why: it’s clear that diamonds hold their own against the glitter of gold.

Postwar ostentation: The “diamonds as rocks” era came about in the 1950s, when enormous gems set by publicity-conscious jewelers such as Harry Winston became stars in their own right, independent of their settings. Finally, America had its own version of the crown jewels of England, much on people’s minds as

Elizabeth II ascended the throne in 1953. The diamond was truly on top, with jewelry itself playing second fiddle, at least in the popular imagination. This was also the second decade of the diamond advertising campaigns sponsored by De Beers, when every engaged woman had to have her piece of a rock.

Nevertheless, artistic jewelry didn’t die in the ’50s or ’60s, thanks largely to the efforts of creative souls such as Jean Schlumberger at Tiffany and other designers, such as David Webb, say the authors. The most sophisticated American social, political and arts mavens – such as Babe Paley, Jackie Kennedy and Audrey Hepburn – embraced these art-inspired styles. Like the early Art Deco jewelers in France, Schlumberger and others brought diamonds back into harmony with colored stones and enamels, in creative pairings that again showed off diamonds’ brilliance by contrast.

The Baby Boom weighs in: The authors end the book with a look at the past 25 years, from Elsa Peretti’s minimalist and again-popular Diamonds by the Yard styles from the ’70s to the ’90’s emphasis on Retro styles and modern design. The latter is typified by the currently popular Angel Rings by clothing designer Isaac Mizrahi, who has embraced diamonds and platinum in an interesting close to a century that began with the same combination.

What goes around comes around, but never more so than with the eternally popular diamond.

Isaac Mizrahi’s Angel Rings are collected on a slender platinum chain as symbols of love or friendship. A very ’90s diamond style.