The Power of Persistence: Cylindrical Gem Designs

Williamsburg, Mass., jewelry designer John J. Kennedy is one of only a dozen bench artists to patent a jewelry-manufacturing process in the 20th century. His two patented processes – channel- and aperture-setting of cylinder gemstones, or “Cylettes” – aren’t terribly complex. But there’s been nothing easy about getting where he is today.

Kennedy designs and manufactures jewelry set with cylinders of natural and synthetic gems. The shape of the gems gives Kennedy’s jewelry an appearance like no other. His aperture setting allows you to see color not only from above, but also through the cylinder ends. The recent addition of diamonds mounted at the aperture has resulted in brilliant white diamonds with flashes of Cylette colors.

Cylindrical gems are more durable than faceted stones; their added strength facilitates mixing of colors and creation of “vivid and striking combinations which you normally couldn’t do,” says Kennedy.

In the late 1980s, the self-taught jewelry designer decided it might be possible to create colored rods using gemstones. When he saw his linear-tube designs in other jewelry manufacturers’ catalogs, Kennedy soon realized he needed patent protection. He eventually obtained process patents for setting cylindrical gemstones.

Meanwhile, he had trouble finding anyone who could cut cylindrical gems. In 1992, he found a stone cutter in Idar-Oberstein, Germany. The cutter’s work was merely “okay,” says Kennedy; the cylinders were not always calibrated or even from end to end. “And it was very expensive,” he adds with a sigh. Still, Kennedy was ready to introduce Cylettes to the trade.

His cylindrical gem designs were a hit at the 1992 New York Jewelers of America show. He took orders, returned from the show, and immediately called his cutter to buy more stones. But the cutter declined, saying it was too difficult and time-consuming.

Once again Kennedy searched for a cutter. Fact is, cutting a cylinder is no easy task. “If I had a nickel for every poorly cut stone I still have, I would be a very wealthy person,” says Kennedy. “But if they can cut a 1-pointer with 58 facets, why can’t they cut a cylinder?”

There were also problems with the rough. It’s easy to find good-quality faceting material. But the same stones aren’t necessarily suitable for a cylinder, which requires a saturated color. On the upside, though, material deemed too dark for faceting can be used for cylinders.

For all his efforts, Kennedy could not convince a cutter to take on his project over the long term. He paid “ridiculous” prices for the few stones he was able to get. From these he made a few pieces but ended up losing the orders from the JA show when he couldn’t deliver.

Then he found Fritz Moore, who also hails from Idar. Moore could cut opaque gem cylinders of turquoise and onyx. Furthermore, Kennedy discovered Swiss watchmakers who make cylindrical “jewels” for watches. There was just one problem. The Swiss cutters could work only with synthetic ruby and sapphire. The natural material couldn’t resist breaking in their process.

Of the roughly 1,000 stones in his stock at this point, only about 10% were usable. “I couldn’t promise orders,” says Kennedy. “And prices were high because the cutters knew I couldn’t get it done elsewhere.”

But his luck was about to change. Kennedy was displaying his jewelry in Tucson when gem cutter Wolfgang Heringer stopped by his booth. “I liked what he was doing,” says Heringer, whose family has been cutting gems in Idar since the late 1600s. He took one look at Kennedy’s work and said, “I can do this.”

Kennedy was soon to learn that few retailers were willing to take on his designer line. Most regarded it as “too fringe,” he recalls. “But the retailers that have pioneered my line have done remarkably well.” The resort areas are his best market, especially the Caribbean. “Jewelers there have really invested in my line. They know that their customers can’t go back home and find it – there are only 150 stores in the United States that carry my designs.”

Cruise ships play a big part in the popularity of Kennedy’s Cylettes. Passengers can meet the designer and obtain pieces they can’t find locally. Many times customers return home as collectors, wishing to buy additional pieces.

Oh, Canada!

Diamonds continue to be discovered in the frozen hinterlands of Canada. Ashton Mining of Canada has found gem-quality diamonds in the Buffalo Head Hills area of Alberta, about 500 miles south of the Ekati mine, where commercial diamond mining recently began in the Northwest Territories (JCK, December 1998, p. 80).

A total of 56.45 cts. of diamonds were recovered from the sampling of one of the more recent finds. The two largest diamonds found so far weigh 0.90 ct. and 0.88 ct. Most of the diamonds are near-colorless or grayish. Some are faint brown, and a few cape (light yellow) stones have also been recovered. The diamonds haven’t yet been valued.

But so far, the area doesn’t seem to be worth commercially mining. The effective yield of 11.78 cts. per 100 tons would not support a full-scale operation. Even so, Ashton remains encouraged after uncovering two more kimberlites in December. The first is on Loon Lake, the second on Birch Mountain. Both were detected under some 200 ft. of overburden. With these recent additions, Ashton has uncovered a total of 25 kimberlites since the company began testing the region for diamonds in 1977. Sixteen of the first 23 kimberlites contained diamonds – a high proportion by world averages. Samples are still being tested from the latest two finds.

Among its other mining explorations, in 1996 and ’97 Ashton participated in a feasibility study for the Crater of Diamonds state park in Murfreesboro, Ark. The 35-acre field is an eroded surface of an ancient volcanic pipe. Diamonds were first discovered there in 1906. Since then, more than 70,000 diamonds have been found, including the 40.23-ct. “Uncle Sam.” Crater of Diamonds is the world’s only site open to the public where visitors can dig for diamonds and keep what they find. Fortunately for park visitors, the feasibility study determined that average diamond content of the park would not support a commercial operation.

Chatham’s Synthetic Project Moves to the States

After a 14-month standstill, Tom Chatham has resumed his synthetic diamond project, moving it from Russia to the United States. He and his Russian physicist are now “reinventing” the process with new equipment and high technology replacing the old “tube type/pulley and wire” method common in Russia. Chatham says it’s too soon to announce when the product will be launched.

Leaving Their Marks

A lot of people talk about spurring sales by adding value to their products. So it’s not surprising that many diamond merchants are finding the best way to do that is literally to leave their mark on the diamond. Now that the Gemological Institute of America’s new girdle inscriptions have caught the industry’s fancy, they’re being used for purposes as diverse as security and marketing.

Laser inscriptions on girdles have been around since 1983 but have seen a recent surge in popularity mainly resulting from a sharp drop in cost. At the beginning of the year, GIA’s Gem Trade Lab (GTL) installed new inscription technology, licensed from Lazare Kaplan, which made the service better, cheaper, and faster (see story on p. 30). Since then, requests for inscriptions have more than doubled. In fact, demand is growing so fast that some think inscriptions may one day be as ubiquitous as lab reports.

“Within five years, every solitaire will have some kind of girdle inscription,” predicts Glenn Rothman, CEO of Boston-based Di-Star, which puts girdle inscriptions on its branded “Hearts on Fire” cuts. In fact, notes GTL director Tom Yonelunas, “A lot of people get inscriptions now that don’t even get reports.”

The new technology has also led to the birth of the “Diamond Dossier” – the recently introduced “mini-cert” for stones under a carat. By placing an inscription on the diamond, GTL can do without a plotting diagram, which saves time in grading. GTL is so hot on the “Diamond Dossier” that it plans to market it directly to consumers beginning next year, in what will be the lab’s first-ever consumer marketing campaign.

With success comes competition. The International Gemmological Institute (IGI) in New York is now beefing up its inscription service. “We are revamping our equipment,” says IGI’s president, Jerry Ehrenwald. “We are looking to be as competitive as GIA.”

Many uses. The reduced price isn’t the only reason for this sudden popularity. Most people view inscriptions as a service that provides an extra sense of security. “You hear about bogus certs, or improper certs that don’t match up with the stone,” says Kim Smith of Fox’s Gem Shop in Seattle. An imprint right on the stone that the customer can read offers additional assurance.

Inscriptions also can provide assurance for customers after the purchase. “[Consumers] always have this phobia of having their diamond switched,” says retailer Michael McGivern of McGivern Jewelers in Perrysburg, Ohio, who touts the inscriptions in his advertising. “This way, even if they have the stone cleaned or checked or have work done on it, they always know it’s their diamond.” Of course, this works both ways: Phobic jewelers use the inscriptions to protect them from stone-switching consumers.

Inscriptions offer benefits for wholesalers as well, giving them a simple way to track inventory. “With a lot of the stones so similar, it’s easy to get them mixed up,” says Max Nussbaum of Superior Diamonds in New York. “This makes everything a little easier.” Harold Apfelbaum of Valuexchange Diamond Importers in San Francisco even finds they save time. “If I’m sending a stone to a jeweler and they are sending it back on memo, it takes a lot less time to check the stone when it comes back,” he says.

Beyond the practical applications, the inscriptions present marketing opportunities. Two of the industry’s most highly touted brands – Lazare Kaplan’s “Lazare” and Di-Star’s “Hearts on Fire” – have their logo and serial numbers inscribed on every “branded” stone.

And there are possibilities for retailers as well. “Let’s say you are a retailer like Marks Brothers,” says Ehrenwald. “The inscriptions let you sell Marks Brothers diamonds. No other company can sell those to the consumer.” James Ogino, the Los Angeles-based U.S. representative for

S. Muller and Sons, says retailers use the inscription to separate their inventory into “tiers.” “It’s an easy way for them to differentiate product levels in their store,” he says. Some clients “buy what we call our perfect Ideal cuts, and they inscribe that on the stone.”

What is inscribable is limited only by the dealer’s imagination, the size of the girdle, and, occasionally, GTL standards. Many retailers allow customers to order personalized inscriptions such as love messages, nicknames, biblical verses, the date of the gift, famous quotes, even a sketch of a heart. “We are very pleased with all the clever marketers out there,” Yonelunas says. Soon there will even be more options, as GTL is considering adding new fonts and characters. (Inscriptions are already available in Hebrew and Japanese.)

Certain inscriptions from GTL have been ruled off-limits – including color and clarity grades. “We will not inscribe any type of qualitative statement,” says Yonelunas. “When diamonds are [damaged or] repolished, the grades can change.” Nor will GTL inscribe anything on the stone’s table, because the process is more complicated and may affect the clarity grade.

GTL also will not inscribe anything considered inappropriate. “We have had some bizarre requests,” Yonelunas says. “I won’t name them. But everything must be in good taste.”