Chasing Rainbows

Cloaked in mystery, endowed with strange stories and healing powers, diamonds were the special reserve of the rich and royal for centuries. Over the years, however, these most coveted gems have become democratized. The supply of diamonds increased with discoveries in Brazil and Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries. Improved gem-cutting and jewelry-making techniques further expanded their audience. Tremendous wealth generated during the Industrial Revolution supported burgeoning interest in fashion and luxury items, as the new rich basked in the status bestowed by magnificent diamonds and fine jewelry. Museum exhibits, books, television, and films have whetted the public’s appetite for diamonds, despite a proliferation of price wars that threaten to tarnish their aura of exclusivity.

Three events in the past year have reinforced the public’s fascination with the world of glittering jewels and at the same time sparked a tremendous interest in colored diamonds, the aristocrats among rare gems. In 1997, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History opened its new Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Gemology, Gems, and Minerals, with a state-of-the-art display for one of the museum’s biggest attractions, the 45.52-ct., grayish-blue Hope Diamond. Then the spotlight turned to New York – to Central Park West for the “Nature of Diamonds” exhibit that just ended at the American Museum of Natural History. And last March, the publication of Stephen Hofer’s Collecting and Classifying Coloured Diamonds: An Illustrated Study of the Aurora Collection generated even more excitement in the rarefied world of fine gems in general and colored diamonds in particular.

“Colored diamonds are in great demand,” says Alan Friedman, a California-based wholesale diamond dealer and third-generation jeweler. “It takes a high-spirited individual to wear them – someone who wants to make a statement about who they are.” Among Friedman’s private clients in Los Angeles, there’s no shortage of high-spirited customers and high-income celebrities who know who they are. “Everybody wants fancy yellow diamonds. It’s the most available color among these rare and costly gems.”

“People love color. They’re drawn by the fire in yellow, pink, and blue diamonds,” says Richard D. Eiseman Jr. of Richard D. Eiseman Jewels in Dallas. “Texas women love important jewelry and they love significant diamonds. In Texas that means big.”

The term “fancy” covers a wide spectrum of tints and hues in the complicated language of colored diamonds. The phrase itself doesn’t always accurately describe the color, hence the addition of words like light, dark, deep, intense, and vivid. Red is the rarest of the 12 prime diamond colors: white, gray, black, purple, pink, red, orange, brown, yellow, olive green, and blue.

Yellow diamonds have had both good and bad connotations throughout history. In 1867, one of the first diamonds found in South Africa was a 21-ct. yellow rough. The stone was later cut into a 10.73-ct. brilliant, appropriately called “Eureka” and described as canary yellow. Around the same time a number of washed-out, inferior yellow stones were also called “canaries,” giving the term and the color a bad name for many years. Diamonds with a weak hint of color are called “capes,” mistakenly named after Cape Town, South Africa.

Hofer’s book – a definitive work for both layman and specialist – untangles such errors and confusion rampant in the language of color. The author combines scientific color measurements with his knowledge of gemology and a comparison with the Aurora collection of 260 colored diamonds on display in the “Nature of Diamonds” exhibit.

The 768-page tome has more than 1,000 illustrations and color photographs, taken by noted gem photographer Tino Hammid. Quotations from literary and poetic works as well as from interviews enliven the text and make this rather daunting volume “user-friendly,” says the author.

Traditionally, colored diamonds were the domain of the great jewelry houses and other creators of magnificent, formal jewels. Today, contemporary jewelry designers have discovered colored diamonds and are unafraid to use them in untraditional, diamonds-for-daytime designs. New York’s Alexandria Moseley, for example, combines colored diamonds with mabé pearls, fresh-water or black pearls, and white diamonds. One of her most unique pieces is a brooch she calls “Scarabee,” in which she sets untreated natural beetle wings with white and colored diamonds in 18k gold. Moseley explains why she delights in these materials: “Colored diamonds can refract the entire rainbow spectrum in addition to one super-saturated color. Other gemstones can be exquisite in their richness but can’t deliver the visual impact of colored diamonds, especially in small sizes.”

Etienne Perret, based in Camden, Maine, has been using colored diamonds in his designs for years. His work is influenced by the clean lines, geometric shapes, and flush-setting techniques of modern German jewelry design. The difference is that where many of his German counterparts will choose white diamonds set in platinum, Perret sets a rainbow of colors in matte yellow gold.

“Color has only three requirements – a viewer, an object to be viewed, and light,” says Alan Bronstein, a New York colored diamond dealer who, with an assist from Harry Rodman, created the Aurora Collection. Bronstein, a consultant on Hofer’s book, loaned his collection of 260 colored diamonds to the American Museum of Natural History, where it was a focal point of the “Nature of Diamonds” exhibit (see “Diamonds Under Glass” on page 104).

Bronstein expressed his passion for colored diamonds the book. “Like an illusive rainbow that suddenly appears after a storm, a collection of natural fancy color diamonds inspires viewers with an uplifting emotional response.”

How do you hold a rainbow in your hand?

You don’t. You wear it.

Diamonds Under Glass

In September 1997, when the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History opened its new Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Gemology, Gems, and Minerals, one of America’s most beloved national treasures, the 45.52-ct., grayish-blue Hope Diamond, went back home. During the hall’s two-year renovation, the most famous diamond in the world essentially went on a little spa holiday – to New York to be cleaned at Harry Winston Inc. Upon its return home, the star of our national gem collection took up residence in a one-of-a-kind, state-of-the-art rotating display vault. Uncle Sam’s treasures are privy to security of the highest order, and the priceless gem descends into a vault when the museum closes.

“People have a strong reaction to the Hope Diamond,” says Dr. Jeffrey Post, curator of the National Gem and Minerals Collection. “The Hope Diamond is often the first exposure people have to a fine gem. In the old display, they didn’t always realize it was a colored diamond. The attraction was the history, the legends, the stories of a curse surrounding the stone that lured people into the gem hall. They didn’t see that it was a rich and rare blue. Now, with the new positioning and lighting, the first thing they notice is the color. Visitors are aware that the Hope Diamond is a very large blue diamond and are enchanted by it.”

In New York City, it’s been hard to miss the huge white standards emblazoned with gigantic colored diamonds flying over the entrance to the American Museum of Natural History on Central Park West. Banners flapping in the breeze like enormous Technicolor dreamcoats announced the museum’s lavish exhibition, “The Nature of Diamonds.”

The exhibit, sponsored by the Diamond Information Center on behalf of De Beers, featured both the scientific and the human fascination with diamonds from their geological creation to their effect on history, technology, fashion, and society. It’s estimated that hundreds of thousands of people passed through the exhibition; as a result of its popularity, the original closing date was extended for months until Aug. 30.

Even Hollywood has caught the colored diamond bug. Recently, the blockbuster film Titanic brought attention to the Hope Diamond when movie-goers felt they saw a resemblance between the real world-famous blue diamond and the film’s fictional blue, heart-shaped one. The only true similarity between the two stones is that they were both big, blue, and romantic – a mere coincidence or a case of Hollywood taking

A few poetic liberties?

You decide!

Going, going, gone

Jewelry auctions often have all the razzmatazz of a film premiere or musical comedy opening – publicity, celebrities, bright lights. The Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis estate sale, which included jewelry, was a mob scene. The auction of Eva Peron’s jewelry created a furor when Argentina’s leading TV star and an anonymous bidder jousted over a pin designed to resemble the Argentine flag – stripes of blue sapphires and white diamonds with a center star of yellow pavé diamonds. The winning bid of more than $990,000 – 10 times the $90,000 reserve – came from the unidentified bidder, rumored to be Madonna.

Newsmaking auctions aren’t limited to celebrity collections. Often one of nature’s own creations, i.e., a superb gem, takes the bows. In New York at Christie’s Magnificent Jewelry auction in the spring, a “fancy vivid yellow” 9.38-ct., pear-shaped diamond flanked by two pear-shaped diamonds in a gold ring signed Van Cleef & Arpels went on the block with a $400,000-$450,000 reserve. It sold for $855,000.

Who can forget the 1987 you-had-to-be-there-to-believe-it event at Christie’s in New York? Three weeks after the astounding take of more than $50 million at the Duchess of Windsor jewelry sale at Sotheby’s Geneva – drawing seven times its initial estimate – the auction of a collection of colored diamonds made headlines again.

When a 0.95-ct. red diamond, originally purchased by a Montana collector in 1955 for $8,000, disappeared from the auction room projection screen, the crowd froze. International jewelry director Francois Curiel gasped, “Oops!” The gem photo reappeared. Curiel joked. Laughter broke tension thick enough to cut with a gem cleaver.

Bids began at $275,000, leaping like wildfire to $550,000. Curiel asked for raises of $20,000, then $30,000. In a nanosecond, Theodore Horovitz, the late Swiss gem dealer, won the gem for $880,000 – or $926,000 per carat. (To compare, a 1-ct. D flawless diamond typically sells for around $15,000.)

The standing-room-only crowd rose as one with a burst of applause for the red diamond – the size and color of a holly berry. The last time diamonds drew such an ovation was the kudos after Carol Channing’s show-stopping song, “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend,” from the 1950 Broadway hit Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

According to author Hofer, the record-breaking per-carat price set by that red diamond is still in place. Legend – unproven – has it that only five red diamonds exist: the one Horovitz is rumored to have bought for the Sultan of Brunei, one in the Smithsonian, one owned by New York diamond dealer William Goldberg, and two more – whereabouts unknown. (In reality, experts believe there are probably more than five red diamonds, albeit not many.)

In the pink

For the past decade, Argyle Diamonds’ annual pink diamond tender sale in Geneva has been a key event on the industry’s social register. This year, for the first time, the Australian diamond mining firm is holding a pre-sale viewing of its latest collection in New York.

This is because American consumers are starting to appreciate them more, and the Asian market, where they were very popular as prestige pieces of high value, is now moribund.

The New York event is very, very private – aimed at those few dealers who can afford a piece of the multimillion-dollar collection of intense pinks, ranging from 1/3 ct. to 1 ct. or more. From New York, the diamonds will go to Tokyo, then back to Geneva for the sale. When the bids are counted, the diamonds will likely bring $100,000 per carat or more.

Until recently, colored diamonds were deemed too rich for the price-conscious American market. The top pinks and blues with intense or vivid colors can sell for 20 times the price of a D flawless diamond of comparable weight. Top yellows, with no brownish undertones, can command prices of five to 10 times those of comparable whites, while oranges and greenish yellows fall lower in the price scale.

Diamond dealers say retailers and consumers now understand the lofty prices of these diamonds and are willing to pay for something that’s distinctive and high-quality.

“These are for people who already have larger stones and can afford something unique in a smaller diamond,” says Robert Golask of Rahaminov Diamonds in Los Angeles.

More accessible are the smaller, less-intense pink diamonds that Argyle is introducing to the U.S. market in a less-private way. Those who can’t go into the six figures for a colored diamond are opting for melee-sized pinks, blues, or yellows as accent pieces for white solitaires, says Argyle’s sales manager, David Fardon, who sees this as a major market for many of the mine’s smaller pinks. With the Asian meltdown, supplies of these very scarce stones suddenly opened up.

“We are getting more and more inquiries from American retailers,” Fardon says. Argyle’s commercial lots of pinks are melee-sized and targeted to “about 10 to 12 jewelers or distributors who have a very up-market, discerning clientle.” Priority will be given to those jewelers who have custom manufacturing departments “who can present them in special, distinctive designs.”

Argyle plans no marketing push for these stones in the name of preserving their image of rarity and exclusivity. Fardon’s certain there will be sufficient consumer demand for these stones without a costly push, in any case.

– Russell Shor