‘Better, Faster, Cheaper’ Automation Brings Diamonds To Market

Technology now gets diamonds to the market faster and tells us how well they are made. But it also makes selling even more competitive – and threatens the gem expert’s value

New diamond polishing technology, largely in Israel but increasingly worldwide, has revolutionized the tradition-bound diamond trade in just the past five years. It has speeded the diamond-cutting process, improved yield and make and allowed diamond manufacturers to create shapes and identical calibrated sizes never before possible.

Technology also has made machine grading for proportion and cut a reality. “Mass production” of these grades is creating its own revolution in the consumer diamond market, particularly in Japan.

These developments give consumers in the U.S. and worldwide a better choice of well-made diamonds, especially those larger than a third of a carat. Increasing diamond industry automation also means they’ll see new diamond shapes which would be too costly and time consuming to produce conventionally, calibrated-cut diamonds in much greater numbers than ever before and even “exact fit” assembled diamond jewelry. (The latter combines two or more stones seamlessly to give the look of one larger stone at a much lower price.)

Moreover, automation now offers jewelers and consumers more information about their diamond than ever before. Proponents argue that retailers and consumers who spend thousands of dollars on a diamond are entitled to know exactly what they are getting so they can buy with greater confidence. Such knowledge should strengthen the hand of retailers selling quality diamonds and designer diamond jewelry.

The bad news is that all this information will further “commoditize” diamonds, diminish their mystique and render the skilled gemologist obsolete. Diamonds will become even easier to comparison shop, causing ever more price competition and lower margins throughout the diamond pipeline.

Harry Garnett, market liaison for De Beers’ Central Selling Organisation, sees both sides: “This [availability of more information] obviously comes from consumers’ needs working back through the diamond pipeline,” he explains. “The Japanese – especially department stores – demand more information about diamonds because consumers there are always comparison shopping and this makes diamonds much easier to sell.”

But Garnett laments the dwindling mystique of diamonds.

“I wish that many Japanese jewelers and consumers could look into the heart of a diamond to see the beauty of it instead of reading a label printed by a machine.”

Garnett believes use of machines to grade make will further the price competition begun 20 years ago by certificates: “There’s no doubt that this will contribute to the trend of declining margins because it invites more comparison shopping,” he says. “On the other hand, there’s little doubt they will help increase diamond sales.”

Chicago diamond dealer Larry Englehart believes the good will eventually outweigh the bad: “I think consumers need a break because they’ve been lied to a lot over the years. This will help them get more information about what they are getting and where the real value of a diamond is.”

High-tech polishing: De Beers officials estimate that as much as 70% of all polished coming from Israel undergoes some form of automated polishing. They say the share would be much greater if fancy shapes could be fully automated. Half of all diamonds exported from India and Antwerp also are subjected to some sort of automation, though India’s mechanization consists largely of laser kerfing – cutting the grooves for cleavers who divide irregularly-shaped or poorer-quality rough in two.

The technological revolution covers several key areas of the production process:

  • Precision centering of the diamond on the dop, or arm, which holds the the rough while it is given its primary form.

  • Automated bruting. Computer-directed bruting machines can shape round diamonds perfectly with a small but significant improvement in yield which often makes the difference between profit and loss.

  • Improved laser technology which allows sawing, bruting and cutting of all shapes of diamonds.

  • Almost instantaneous measuring of both polished and rough which allows manufacturers and dealers to impart weight and proportion information in one procedure without time-consuming hand measuring.

Tying all of these processes together is the adaptation of state-of-the-art computer and optical technology that gives these new machines the precision to improve both yield and make.

Today in Israel virtually every process producing round brilliants is automated, from the setting of the rough diamonds into the machines to the final facets. The result is nothing less than revolution. Indeed, there have been more radical changes in diamond factories in the 1990s than in all the previous years of this century. The ingredients of this revolution came from the high-tech industries: computers add precision to every step of the process, while scanning and video advances allow computers to control the machines that fashion diamonds.

How it all got started: The catalyst for the movement was the De Beers-sponsored 1991 Technological Symposium in Tel Aviv. It brought together all of the diverse ingredients that made this revolution: high-tech firms, diamond processing equipment manufacturers and the diamond manufacturing industry itself. This meeting helped create the critical mass which the Israel Diamond Institute, the country’s trade organization, then carried on. The Institute embarked on a program to funnel research into adapting the nation’s high-tech industry to the diamond trade and to help diamond people through the changes with training and technical advice.

Akiva Caspi, director of technology and deputy managing director for the Institute, says the changes have been so quick and so profound that only those doing specialties like very large stones can survive using traditional methods.

“In the past four years there’s been a new industrial revolution in the diamond manufacturing industry,” says Caspi. “Manufacturers can no longer use the old ways and remain competitive. In short, it’s adapt or die in today’s world.”

Even the look of a diamond factory is totally different today. Computers are everywhere. Bruters and polishers aren’t. In their stead, a few computer technicians watch over the machines and even fewer supervisors – who still are real diamond people – watch over everything.

The cost of new technology is high. Setting up a factory now requires six to ten times the capital of a plant using primarily manual equipment. This does limit the numbers of newcomers into the industry, says Caspi, but those who can muster the finances find the savings from automation are big.

Most importantly, these machines increase yield. Adding 2% to the yield of each rough diamond going through a large factory can add millions of dollars to the bottom line. Then there are the savings accrued from faster returns on diamonds which move through the pipeline as much as a third more quickly and from somewhat lower labor costs.

The early aim of this revolution was to lower labor costs to combat the onslaught of low-wage competition, say Israeli manufacturers. But they quickly learned that labor wasn’t the key; improving yield would reap far greater rewards than lopping off workers. (In any case, the need to hire higher salaried computer and factory technicians nearly offset the cutbacks in factory workers.)

Grading by computer: The latest technological innovation actually is a first step in “machine diamond grading.” It uses technology derived from software used to model rough diamonds for cutting.

The Sarin Diamension Machine of Sarin Technologies in Ramat Gan, Israel, scans a diamond and automatically enters its proportions into a computer. The computer then provides all of the stone’s key measurements – including crown angle, table size, pavilion depth, culet and girdle – and automatically assigns a make grade.

Israeli dealers say this “make grade by machine” is creating a revolution in Japan, home to the world’s most notorious comparison shoppers.

“The better Japanese jewelers and department stores want only excellent makes, so this Sarin machine can grade our entire output quickly and automatically,” says Edy Rafii, technology manager for Lorenzi Diamonds, Tel Aviv. “It even prints labels with the make grade and all of the proportion statistics for each diamond.”

The automatic make grade labels give Lorenzi a competitive edge in a market which demands grading reports and just about every other kind of information about a diamond.

“It’s nearly impossible to sell a diamond over a half carat in Japan without a certificate and a make grade,” says Rafii, noting that Japan has dozens of gem labs issuing color, clarity and make grades. The Sarin machine eliminates the extra cost of getting a make grade from a lab, he says.

Sarin’s make grade standards for rounds come from the Association of Japan Gem Labs which generally follows the Lazare Kaplan Ideal Cut standards, according to Ze’ev Leshem, general manager of Sarin. An “Excellent” make has a table range of 52.5% to 58.4% and crown angles ranging from 32.5 degrees to 35.4 degrees. “Very Good” grades go to diamonds with table sizes from 51.5% to 63.4% and crown angles from 31.5 degrees to 36.4 degrees.

While most find the Sarin machine useful, dealers caution that it does have its limitations.

David Samuels of Lustig & Samuels, a joint Israeli-New York firm, says the machine cannot always read holes and crevices in rough diamonds, which causes inaccurate readings. “We still have to have experienced people looking at each rough before we manufacture it,” he says.

Samuels also sees mass-produced make grades creating a dichotomy in the polished market. “Excellent” and “Very Good” makes will become easier to sell while the “Good,” “Fair” and “Poor” makes will become much harder to sell – and probably trade at even bigger discounts when the system is in wider use.

“In the past we used to sell all types of makes, but now the machine can kick out all makes that aren’t very good or excellent,” says Samuels. He adds that mass merchandisers in the U.S. still look for lesser makes, but having them labeled “Fair” and “Poor” for all to see will make them harder to sell.

The bruting revolution: The most all-embracing advances in diamond technology have occurred in the bruting process, where the basic shape of the diamond is fashioned. Robotic polishing machines have been around for decades. But as recently as a decade ago, factories in virtually every diamond center in the world employed armies of bruters who laboriously shaped a diamond by rotating one stone against another. Bruters also had to hand-set both diamonds into “pots” before they began work, then constantly realign them to be certain the stones were exactly centered during the grinding process. If the diamond slipped a bit, or wasn’t quite centered to begin with, the final result would be “out of round” or have to be re-bruted with a terrible waste of valuable weight.

Sarin was one of the first to come up with a computer-controlled diamond centering machine for bruting.

Briefly the unit precenters the rough diamond on a dop so it’s aligned exactly with the center of rotation before it gets to the bruter. This step is essential in getting the maximum yield from a rough diamond, explains Sarin’s Ze’ev Leshem.

The Dia-Center is designed to be used in tandem with several commercial automated bruting machines now widely used. These machines scan the rough diamond’s shape into a computer monitor. A technician moves the circle (for a finished round diamond) out to its widest point over the image of the rough and records the measurements. The machine then brutes the stone to those exact measurements. The result is a perfectly round diamond weighing an average 2% more than a diamond which is measured and bruted by hand.

The next generation of software, which Sarin calls the Dia-Expert, is now on the market. Leshem says that it allows diamond cutters a series of choices, altering the proportions a bit here and there to derive the best combination of make and price.

“Sometimes the highest yield doesn’t bring the best make or the highest price,” says Leshem. “So Dia-Expert shows the cutter what he can do to get the highest yield from a better make so he can make more on the stone.”

The Dia-Expert takes a 3D view of the rough and shows all the possibilities of the final polished along with a price grid so the cutter can find the most profitable option.

“We aren’t trying to replace the rough buyer and the cutter’s expertise,” Leshem explains. “We’re trying to give them the tools to support their decisions.” Manufacturers who use them add that the machines cannot replace experts because they cannot read inclusions or smaller crevices.

“As long as there are rough diamonds, we’ll need experts to evaluate them for cutting,” says Charles Hollander of H & R Diamonds, Tel Aviv.

Speed and quality: The main benefits of automatic bruting are speed and quality, says Isi Offen, director of Milano Industries, the equipment division of Schachter-Namdar, one of Israel’s largest diamond manufacturers.

Machines cannot speed the bruting process itself, but manufacturers say it’s cheaper to add a number of the $5,000 to $10,000 machines than add conventional bruting machines and the workers to go with them. Machines speed the production process greatly, they say, while saving 20% to 30% over comparable labor costs.

Moving more goods more quickly also helps large manufacturers maintain an even, consistent production schedule. That further speeds the trip through the pipeline and makes the process more efficient.

Moshe Namdar, who heads Schachter-Namdar’s polishing factory, recalls that in the days of hand bruting the factory often ran out of bruted stones, forcing polishing operations to hold up while supplies were replenished.

“This never happens now,” he says.

Conversely, when rough supplies are low or business lags, no workers need be laid off.

“In the past we’d have to furlough workers during slow periods,” says Namdar. “The danger was that once you let skilled people go, you lost them. With machines, you only have to turn them off.”

The quality issue is even more critical to the bottom line. In today’s era of certificates and sophisticated consumers, badly made diamonds are increasingly hard to sell. Computer-controlled bruters get the diamond perfectly round – every time. That not only makes it look better, but also speeds the polishing process. Out-of-round diamonds routinely throw off robotic polishing machines, which apply all 58 facets of a round diamond based on preprogrammed angles. If a diamond is slightly out of proportion, polishing machines will do the facets wrong, leaving mismatched angles.

Though automatic bruting systems are widely used in Israel, they do have one major limitation: they cannot do fancy shapes.

“Rounds are simple, two diamonds rotating against each other to make the shape,” says Isi Offen of Milano Industries. “But fancies are much more complex and no one has yet figured how to do marquises, pears and straight-edged cuts. I think that’s in the future, though I doubt whether anyone can ever do these goods mechanically without having workers do some ‘clean up’ finishing on them.”

Lasers are the cutting edge: The future for fancy-shape bruting certainly lies in laser cutting.

The laser is rapidly becoming the most versatile tool in new diamond factories, from the initial contact with the rough to carving out the final shape. It’s also the wave of the future for producing calibrated cut diamonds, products that didn’t exist a few years ago.

The laser has been around the industry for 25 years, burning out ugly black inclusions to improve a diamond’s appearance. The first step beyond came a decade ago when diamond manufacturers in India and Israel began using lasers for kerfing (cutting the groove in the rough for cleaving) and for sawing rough in two. Until recently, however, laser sawing was reserved for very difficult cases which couldn’t be done mechanically because the laser beam burned off as much as 8% of the diamond. That is three to four times greater than the loss incurred in conventional sawing. Some laser systems also overheated the diamonds, causing cracks (gletzes) and even breakage.

The breakthrough came about four years ago, after the Israel Diamond Institute began a concerted effort to bring together the country’s flourishing high-tech industry and the diamond trade.

Dr. Ziv Karni, director of Orziv Ltd. of Ranana, Israel, now a leading manufacturer of laser systems for diamond manufacturing, says he knew very little about the diamond trade before 1991. “The Diamond Institute approached us then to see about improving the systems they were using and reducing the losses,” he says.

Karni found the industry was using outmoded equipment and lacked the resources to maintain it properly. For example, lasers would go out of focus, which reduced their ability to cut diamonds while allowing great heat to build up within the stone. As a result, manufacturers found that the lasers created gletzes in as many as 2% to 3% of the stones they worked on. Lasers also burned rough edges on the stones they were sawing which had to be polished down, creating more labor costs and higher weight loss.

“All of this soured a lot of industry people on lasers in the beginning,” says Karni. “That’s why they used lasers only on goods that couldn’t be sawn any other way.”

Orziv went to work on these problems by adapting a newer-generation laser which can cut a much narrower groove. This greatly reduced the amount of diamond burned off in the process.

“In the past three years we’ve gotten the average weight loss down to about 3%, and we’re working on reducing that by another 1%,” says Karni. He explains that a new-generation laser has unlimited narrow focus which can make the groove as tight as possible. “Today the losses are virtually identical to mechanical sawing,” he adds.

A $100,000 system operated by a single technician can process 5 to 7 carats of rough an hour, much faster than mechanical methods, says Karni. “It can saw a half-carat rough stone in a few minutes versus an hour or more.”

He estimates that 10% to 15% of all rough processed in Israel now is laser sawn and says that percentage is growing as manufacturers overcome their earlier reservations about the process.

Other developments: Karni stresses that many other innovations now make laser systems much faster and more efficient than the old methods. Manufacturers have adapted the lasering machine to mass production – a move that required an entirely new generation of equipment and computer software to completely automate the process.

First Orziv borrowed casettes from the electronics industry to precision-mount each diamond to be processed. Unlike previous mountings, these deviate less than a single micron which allows cutting of smoother edges. Computer software allows rough of different shapes and sizes to be processed on the same casette, says Karni; additional software ensures the laser remains in focus while the casette moves back and forth under the laser beam.

The next challenge, notes Karni, was to create diamond shapes from the rough, replacing the traditional bruting process in which a diamond is ground down to its basic shape by milling it against another diamond.

This was accomplished by using a camera or the Sarin Diamension machine to enter the image of a rough diamond into the computer, then selecting the shape and measurements required. This is all saved on a disc which is entered into the laser that cuts the rough precisely to the specifications on the disc.

“This has created a revolution in diamond cutting,” says Karni. “Because it allows us to produce calibrated cut diamonds of exact measurements very consistently for the first time.”

Wave of the future? Top Israeli manufacturers agree the laser may be the wave of the future, but some remain unconvinced that the future is upon them. They say the machines must be recalibrated too quickly and that gletzes and other damage are still too common.

They also say that lasers still can’t do everything, so companies need to keep bruters and blockers on staff. That eliminates any labor savings.

One manufacturer says, for example, that the laser still cannot cut heart shapes without seriously risking damage to the stone.

“We can do the basic pear shape, but we have to keep bruters to do the cleft at the top of the stone,” he says. He explains that the laser must stop at the bottom of the cleft before it starts on the other side, which creates a “hot spot” that could crack the diamond.

In addition, lasers can cut only two dimensional shapes. “Obviously all diamond cuts are three dimensional, so we still need blockers to finish the stones,” says the manufacturer.

Sales of lasers slowed in Israel once several dozen of the more technologically-oriented firms installed systems in their factories. Since then, most of Orziv’s clients have been Indian and (to a lesser extent) Russian operations.

“Lately we’ve found more receptivity in India, where technology is really taking off,” says Karni. He believes many Israeli companies are reluctant to spend money on systems which may be superseded at any time. Indeed, Karni is hard at work developing a new generation of lasers which are much smaller, more energy saving and able to do 3D bruting and blocking in a single process.

“These are still some time away, but we’re constantly working,” says Karni.

Technicians and diamond people agree that with the possible exception of diamond grading, the age of technological quantum leaps is over. Most future developments will be refinements and improvements on existing systems.

Bruting machines may be programmed to do marquise and other fancy shapes and lasers may be improved to cut any shape without risk. But there will always be a need for skilled diamond people.

Blocking fancy-shaped diamonds will be very, very diffcult because these shapes have too many compound angles which vary greatly with each facet.

Since every piece of rough is different, skilled rough buyers and cutters will have to evaluate every diamond. And while machine-processed mass-produced diamonds usually are of better quality than those produced by hand labor, true perfection remains the sole domain of the skilled craftsman.

“If we want an Ideal Cut polished to perfection for the Japanese market, we still do this by hand because the polishing machines don’t have an absolutely perfect finish,” says H & R Diamonds’ Charles Hollander.

The biggest challenge in the future will be getting the industry, already hard strapped for immediate cash, to keep up with the revolution.

The Israel Diamond Institute’s Akiva Caspi doesn’t foresee too many problems. “Years ago, the trade predicted that automation would wipe out the little guys because only the larger companies could afford the equipment,” he says. But the equipment has become more affordable since more companies have been installing it. “I’m certain the smaller manufacturers will continue to make new equipment a priority – particularly if they believe they can’t compete without it.”

De Beers also believes that automation will remain critically important but says it is but one piece of the package.

“There are many parts to a good diamond business,” says Harry Garnett. “A company has to market its production effectively and it needs good workers and a strong financial situation. Automation is only one part of this equation.”