Talk about a monumental task. We set out to identify 10 products that have changed the face of jewelry retailing forever, products so iconic—to their makers and their categories—that they've spawned countless iterations, earning honorary membership in the jewelry hall of fame.
Naively, we thought the answers would be obvious. And, to some extent, they were—only we didn't anticipate the passion with which everyone offered and defended their choices. Arguments were made. Debates ensued. So we took our questions to a handful of experts. Little surprise—no two people agreed on the same list of 10.
The "products" we ended up with include jewels, watches, techniques, and even something as ambiguous as a concept (De Beers' very own game changer, the three-stone ring campaign). The common denominator? All the items are considered so essential to the jewelry business today that we take for granted the revolutions they started. By that definition, it appears we have our winners.
1. The Tiffany & Co. Six-Prong Setting
Forget the 1961 Audrey Hepburn movie and the robin's-egg blue. Tiffany & Co.'s most famous contribution to the jewelry world remains its engagement ring setting. The classic design features six skinny, spiderlike platinum prongs that shoot out from the ring's base, propelling the diamond sturdily above the band in a way that allows for a more complete return of light from the stone, as well as maximum brilliance. Invented by the retailer in 1886, 50 years after its founding, the deceptively simple but ingenious mounting for round brilliants soon became an industry standard. More than a century later, the setting is still widely used, and not just by its creator—in fact, the phrase Tiffany setting is sometimes used to refer to four-pronged mountings as well.
2. Van Cleef & Arpels' Mystery Setting
Van Cleef & Arpels' Ruban bracelet, Mystery-Set with sapphires and diamonds
Thanks to today's advanced cutting techniques, invisible settings aren't so hard to find. They're not even hard to approximate: Consider the ubiquity of micro-pavé. But no one does the original metal-obscuring design better than—or trademarked it before—Van Cleef & Arpels. The key to the serti mysterieux ("mysterious setting"), patented in 1933, is not so mysterious: Tiny parallel grooves are cut along the girdles of the stones, which are placed, one by one, onto a gold or platinum net. It's an arduous process—about 300 hours for a brooch—and an ever-evolving one, too. Its Mystery Setting for diamonds was developed only in 1990.
3. The Rolex Oyster Perpetual
The Rolex self-winding GMT-Master II in stainless steel with Oysterlock bracelet
Few would dispute Rolex's reputation as a global luxury icon and king of the Swiss watch industry, with crown trademark to match. Headquartered in Geneva, the firm produces some 650,000–800,000 timepieces annually yet remains the epitome of exclusivity. Movements, cases, straps, even gold are made in-house or by Rolex-owned contractors, allowing the company rare control over virtually every facet of its supply chain. It all began in 1926, when founder Hans Wilsdorf debuted the Rolex Oyster, the first truly water-resistant watch. But it was five years later, with the Oyster Perpetual, the first self-winding wristwatch, that Rolex sealed its fate. That timepiece paved the way not only for a stream of breakthroughs—the 1945 Datejust, the first chronometer with an automatic date-changing mechanism; the 1953 Submariner, the first diving watch, water-resistant to 100 meters; the 1955 GMT-Master, the first watch to keep time in two time zones—but also for the century's killer new category: the sports watch.
4. The Chanel J12 Timepiece
Coco Chanel probably never envisioned the fashion house she founded becoming a trendsetter in the rarefied realm of high-end horology. Then again, her iconoclastic DNA is written all over the J12, the unisex ceramic timepiece introduced in 2000 that made Swiss watchmakers sit up and take notice. Knocked off, imitated, emulated, and admired, the J12 has since spawned complicated versions, including the widely praised J12 Rétrograde Mystérieuse, launched at Baselworld 2010. But the collection's lasting impact was on the business of watchmaking. "Prompted by [Chanel's] success…other fashion houses have followed suit, turning their attention and resources toward the creation of credible haute horology timepieces," wrote the International Herald Tribune in March 2010, concluding that the upstart fashion brand had finally "made it into haute horology's big leagues."
5. Mikimoto's Pearl Strand
Mikimoto's 32-inch akoya strand with signature 18k white gold clasp
When Kokichi Mikimoto debuted the first-ever semi-round cultured akoya pearl to the world in 1893—followed by a perfectly round one in 1905—he was on a mission to "adorn the necks of all women around the world with pearls," he told Emperor Meiji that year. Mission accomplished, as cultured white pearl strands—including those made with South Seas and Chinese freshwater pearls—are now an undisputed staple in women's jewelry wardrobes worldwide, from Barbara Bush to Hollywood starlets, socialites, and brides. Pearls from other countries may be available in abundance at low costs and boasting a luster that rivals Japanese pearls, but the Mikimoto strand will always be known as the original.
6. David Yurman's Cable Bracelet
David Yurman Color Classics cable bracelets in sterling silver with amethyst, prasiolite, and blue topaz
In the early 1980s, a young New York City–based sculptor-artist named David Yurman made the first model of what would become his signature style: a silver cable cuff bracelet—a twisted-helix design fitted with gemstone-capped finial ends. He wasn't the first to make jewelry out of the Celtic-inspired design, but he was the first to invest heavily in advertising, persuading Americans to pay a premium for what was then called "bridge jewelry." Today, Yurman's motif is copied ad nauseam—just ask the firm's busy litigation team—but even more important, the cable cuff marked the birth of the designer jewelry brand. Jewelers creating and marketing baubles under their own names can thank Yurman for doing the heavy lifting.
7. De Beers' Three-Stone Ring
A classic De Beers three-stone platinum ring
The three-stone ring was always a jeweler's basic. But a clever campaign spearheaded by J. Walter Thompson, De Beers' then-advertising agency, transformed it into a phenomenon. In the late 1990s, the agency attached the "past, present, future" positioning to three-stone rings—meaning the ring's rocks would not only commemorate a couple's history, but assure good things to come. De Beers cemented this in the consumer mind in part by a memorable 2000 commercial featuring a man taking his wife into a movie theater—except, instead of a standard film, they watch highlights of their wedding video. The commercial and surrounding PR efforts sparked a significant jump in three-stone ring sales, and many jewelers still use the "past, present, future" tagline even without the De Beers advertising. Today, the campaign stands as one of the company's finest moments.
8. Ideal-Cut Diamonds
A close-up look at an ideal-cut diamond
Is there a best way to cut a round brilliant diamond—and could that method be proved mathematically? In 1919, Belgian diamond cutter Marcel Tolkowsky penned a now-legendary treatise, "Diamond Design," which popularized what we now call "ideal" proportions. Soon, ideals were championed by boutique diamond houses such as Lazare Kaplan (they proved particularly popular in the Far East). By the 1990s, ideal-mania spread to the United States, when the American Gem Society Laboratory adopted the ideal cut as the standard for its cut grading system. Then in 1998, the GIA launched a massive study of cut, which evidenced a significant change of heart; then-president Bill Boyajian declared he "could not recommend" the term ideal, arguing other proportions produce top-performing stones. Today, the debate continues, but ideal fans note that nearly 100 years after Tolkowsky released his work, ideal cuts still receive the highest grades on both the AGS and GIA systems.
9. Todd Reed's Rough Diamonds
Todd Reed's 22k yellow gold macle and raw cube diamond cuff with uncut rubies
"The most perfect diamond in the world," according to designer Todd Reed, is not a D-color, flawless ideal cut—the holy grail to many jewelers. It's the raw diamond. "Uncut. Unpolished. Natural, perfect geometry," explains Reed. Of course, he's not the first to discover the intrinsic beauty of the rough diamond: Hundreds, and thousands, of years ago, the uncut gems were highly prized; they were used as talismans to ward off evil, worn as protection in battle, even swallowed to cure sickness (gulp). Yet Reed had the cheek to launch his line in the early '90s, when diamonds were all about polish, fire, and brilliance—it didn't mean a thing if it didn't bling. Turns out he had a bit of foresight as well.
10. De Grisogono's Black Diamonds
Tubetto drop earrings by de Grisogono with 11.74 cts. t.w. black diamonds set in 18k white gold
For most of the 20th century, conventional wisdom in the industry dictated that white, or colorless, was the only desirable color for diamonds. Everything else was "off-color." Then along came Fawaz Gruosi, an Italian-Lebanese businessman with an ambitious idea for a jewelry brand. In 1995, shortly after founding de Grisogono, he shocked the jewelry establishment in Switzerland when he dared to use natural black diamonds in his haute joaillerie designs. "People started to talk," Gruosi said. "Geneva is a small village—international, but small. People looked at them in the shop and asked if they were onyx. Black diamonds were considered coal. But I understood we were on the right track when my competitors—Chanel, Cartier, Chopard—started to use them." In the decade and a half since, designers have gravitated to the dark gems in droves. Gruosi, however, is still recognized as the "king of black diamonds."