The Rise of the House of Asscher

The history of the Royal Asscher Diamond Company begins in 1854 with master cutter Isaac Joseph Asscher (1843-1902) and his firm, the I.J. Asscher Diamond Company. In the mid-1800s, diamonds cut in Amsterdam were mined in Brazil, then the leading source of diamonds. Brazil had produced 25,000 to 100,000 carats annually since 1730, but by 1870, production was tapering off, and by 1880, it was only 5,000 carats. Scant supplies of rough to the Amsterdam trade caused chaos in the market and forced some cutters out of business.

In 1870, a major diamond strike in South Africa led to the founding of De Beers Mining Company by Cecil Rhodes. Thousands of carats of diamonds flowed into Amsterdam for cutting. I.J. Asscher stayed in business and became one of De Beers’ original sightholders.

Excelsior! When the Excelsior diamond, a rough crystal weighing 995.2 cts., was discovered on June 30, 1893, De Beers asked the I.J. Asscher Diamond Company to cut it. I.J. Asscher passed away a year before the 3-in. x 1.5-in. diamond arrived in Amsterdam in 1903. In 1904, his eldest son Joseph (a cleaving specialist and co-owner of the company with his brother Abraham) took up the knife and cleaved the largest rough diamond crystal in the world. His expertise yielded several large, finished pear-shaped diamonds weighing 69.68 cts., 47.03 cts., 46.90 cts., 34.91 cts., and 24.31 cts.; three large marquises weighing 40.23 cts., 28.61 cts., and 26.30 cts.; and several round brilliants.

The Cullinan. A year later, in 1905, the Cullinan diamond was discovered. It weighed 3,106 cts. in the rough and was—and still is—the largest gem diamond ever found. The Transvaal Province government purchased the stone and presented it as a gift to King Edward VII of England. In 1908, King Edward, who knew about Asscher’s success with the Excelsior, gave the diamond to Asscher to cut.

Joseph was the cleaver. As a group of family members and important friends watched, he set the blade of the knife into the mark and swung. The knife blade broke in two. The diamond remained intact. Joseph took a moment to regain his composure, ushered all but a notary out of the room, and made another attempt with a new blade. This time, the Cullinan was successfully cleaved.

The stones from the Cullinan are part of the British Crown Jewels, on display in the Tower of London. The largest, a 530.2-ct. pear-shape brilliant, is mounted atop the Imperial Scepter. The Cullinan II is a 317.4-ct. cushion-cut brilliant, set prominently in the front of the Imperial State Crown.

The Emerald Cut. Joseph wasn’t just a cleaver. He was also a visionary. On Dec. 2, 1902, he patented a square diamond with a three-step crown, a seven-step pavilion, and dramatic corners—the first step-cut diamond, a square emerald cut that became known worldwide as the Asscher Cut.

The Asscher Cut was modified, and by the 1920s it showed two or three upper girdle step facets and only three or four lower girdle steps. This gave the stone more brilliance and lent itself to the angular Art Deco style of the time. It was the Asscher Cut’s most popular facet arrangement.

As styles changed, so did diamond cutting. Culets became smaller, and tables became larger. The square style became elongated, and sometime during the late ’30s or early ’40s, the Asscher Cut gave way to the shallower, longer, and more modern emerald cut.

In 1936, brothers Abraham and Joseph changed the name of the business to the Asscher Diamond Company.

World War II. During the German occupation of the Netherlands in World War II, the entire Asscher family was deported and interned in concentration camps. Their diamonds were stolen, and only Joseph (“Joop”) and Louis—Abraham’s sons—survived the camps.

In 1945, the Dutch diamond industry was in shambles. With no company to return to, Joop and Louis were invited to start anew in New York. But Amsterdam was home, so they decided to stay and rebuild the company. Before the war, Asscher had employed 500 polishers, but only 15 survived the war. Another problem was that they had no goods to work with. It was clear that the Asscher company needed help.

Harry Oppenheimer, son of De Beers’ chairman Sir Ernest Oppenheimer, came to Amsterdam to help rebuild the Dutch diamond industry. The Asscher family, of course, had a history with De Beers, and Oppenheimer agreed to supply the company with rough.

In 1953, just as the Dutch diamond industry was getting back to normal, it was crippled by a long strike by the diamond polishers’ union. To survive, many diamond companies moved to Antwerp or to the United States, but once again, the Asschers decided to remain in Amsterdam.

In the 1960s, Asscher had an exclusive contract for all diamonds from Indonesia. Because of the shape of Indonesian rough, the company specialized in fancy cuts. (Asscher has always been involved with De Beers’ collection sight goods, which are rough crystals shown only to a special group of sightholders. Asscher’s specials included rough that was cut into large fancy shapes, very large high colors, and fancy colors.) At this point it began selling branded Asscher diamonds to Japan, 40 years before the “Supplier of Choice” strategy was formulated. Asscher has long promoted solitaire diamond engagement rings and was in Japan just as De Beers began to create the love affair between Japanese women and the diamond. Asscher used the Seiko Watch Company as its sole Japanese distributor, and Seiko still serves as Asscher’s agent.

The royal ‘We.’ In 1980 the “Royal” prefix was bestowed upon the Asscher Diamond Company. It was the last royal title given by Her Majesty Queen Juliana before her abdication. The occasion was the retirement of Louis Asscher, then age 65, who had been with the company for 45 years.

To receive a “Royal” title, a company must be more than 100 years old and be of impeccable standing both commercially and socially. Granting the “Royal” designation is still a prerogative of the Crown.

Today at Royal Asscher. Because of the increased popularity of the Asscher Cut among estate dealers as well as the proliferation of unauthorized newly manufactured reproduction Asscher Cuts (see “New Old Miners,” JCK , June 2001, p. 78), the Royal Asscher Diamond Company has decided to make its own cut anew.

The challenge for today’s Asscher factory was deciding which original Asscher Cut to manufacture. Louis Asscher, now 86 years old, has two sons, Edward and Joop. Edward, now president of the Royal Asscher Diamond Company Ltd., runs the business with Joop. Edward tells the story of the remaking of the Asscher Cut:

“Basically, there are three generations of Asscher Cuts,” he says. “The first [is the] one with the patent dated 1902—almost 100 years old—developed by Joseph Asscher, the cleaver of the Cullinan. The second was the one we developed in the 1920s. That’s the Asscher Cut most American jewelers and dealers know at the moment, which is a modified emerald cut with large corners, built-up crown, and a small table.”

The third is the new Royal Asscher Cut, dated 2001. The Asscher Cut reproductions now found in the market have smaller corners and larger tables and look more like square emerald cuts than Asscher Cuts. “We stopped making them just prior to the Second World War, and since then we have not polished them,” Edward says. Thus, original true Asscher Cuts—assuming one can even find a specimen—are rare and expensive.

“When I was in the States a couple of years ago, I saw that there were so many different types of stones that were so-called ‘Asscher Cuts’ that I found it difficult to understand just what exactly was an Asscher Cut today,” says Asscher. “On top of that, we considered that we could probably improve on the brilliancy of the stone. So our intention was to take the old Asscher Cut and, using modern technology—computer analysis and simulation—make a new cut.” That’s what Asscher has done, and the result looks very similar to the Asscher-cut diamonds of the 1920s.

“That was two years ago,” notes Asscher, and during those two years, Asscher cut hundreds of stones before introducing the new Royal Asscher Cut.

“First we did trial-and-error, then we started the computer simulation,” says Asscher. The first step was to cut the 1902 design. “We became very nervous, because Joseph Asscher was considered one of the great diamantaires of all time, and when we started [to recreate the Asscher Cut] we realized that what we were trying to do was improve what he did—that was a tough job.” No one cuts, or even wants to cut, the stone of 1902. But that was the stone that set the stage for the modern emerald cut.

According to Asscher, the key to the Asscher Cut of the 1920s is what some dealers call “warmth.” That quality contrasts with today’s emerald cut, with its large table and shallow crown, which leaves many people cold. So the company took the design of known 1920s-style Asschers and began to study brilliance. “We decided for the improvement of the light reflection and refraction to make an extra break [step-facet] on the crown, and fewer on the pavilion,” Asscher says. “Once that was done, we went back to our master polisher and said, ‘Okay, this is what we’re going to make, and it’s up to you to do the final touch.’

“When you decide to make an extra break, you then still have to decide what the ideal proportions will be,” Asscher explains. “That’s where we did all of the research.”

Asscher notes that, even with scientific help, creating a beautiful cut ultimately depends on the eye of the cutter and on trial and error. “In the end, you should be able to say ‘Yes, that’s it,’ ” says Asscher. “A diamond should talk to you. It speaks to you. It should give you emotion. It’s a love affair.”

The new Asscher is very similar to the old one, with one noticeable difference at the bottom point. “There is a culet, but not as large as the original old cut,” Asscher explains. “That is the 74th facet.” Modern diamonds eschew the large culets of the past, which allowed too much light leakage and gave stones a hole-in-the-center look. “There must be a culet,” says Asscher. “It’s a tradition of the Asscher Cut family. All our diamonds have a culet, actually. But it’s not the old-fashioned culet that the stone can stand on.”

Asscher says today’s polishers must be taught how to cut an Asscher Cut from rough. “It takes him three months to learn how to polish it. You have to polish it like a chess player: What you do today decides how it looks three weeks from now,” he says.

“The warmth of the 1920s stone was the basis that we wanted for this diamond, for the new Royal Asscher Cut,” says Asscher. “And this is what we have today. It’s 74 facets, including table and culet—32 on the top, and 40 on the bottom. And we are quite happy with it.”

Each diamond is inscribed with the Royal Asscher symbol as well as an identification number that corresponds to a Royal Asscher Cut certificate of origin. “With this identification, jewelers and their customers—even 10, 20, 50 years from now—will be able to tell whether or not it is a true Asscher Cut,” says Edward Asscher. Each diamond is also graded by GIA’s Gem Trade Laboratory.

All in the families. In October 2000, Charles Fabrikant Fortgang, owner of M. Fabrikant & Sons, called Edward Asscher. “You don’t know me, but when you are in New York, come and visit us,” Fortgang said. “We’re interested in discussing selling branded diamonds with you.” Fortgang didn’t know about the new Royal Asscher Cut—nobody outside the Asscher company did.

Edward was intrigued enough to pay Fortgang a visit. On a second visit, both he and Joop met with the Fortgangs. Like Asscher, Fabrikant is a privately owned fourth-generation family business. The two families hit it off and struck up a working relationship for the North American distribution of the new Royal Asscher Cut. “It was the dynamism of the Fortgang family, their marketing organization, and the fact that they didn’t have a competing product on the market that made us decide in March of this year to join forces,” says Edward.

Fourth-generation owner Sue Fortgang, Ph.D., the daughter of Charles Fortgang, is president of Royal Asscher Cut LLD. “We were exploring opportunities in branding, and aware of the strength of the Asscher brand name,” she says. She also designed the jewelry line for the new Royal Asscher Cut.

Honored knight. Edward Asscher was knighted by the Queen in 1999 as an Officer of Oranje-Nassau—the family name of the Royal family. Edward was knighted for his work building small family homes for the mentally handicapped in Amsterdam; approximately 1,000 people now live in the homes. Edward’s father and grandfather had also received knighthoods.

The Royal Asscher Diamond Company in Amsterdam is now preparing its fifth generation to join the business. Mike Asscher, the youngest of Edward’s three children, has just completed GIA training. He is studying economics and working part time for Asscher and has already apprenticed as a diamond polisher in the firm. Joop has two children: a daughter in the theater academy and a son in high school.

The new Royal Asscher Cut. The Royal Asscher Diamond Company is now in its 147th year. During those years, the company reached the pinnacle of diamond-cutting success but also suffered the nearly complete annihilation of its founding family. Today, with its new Royal Asscher Cut, it’s poised once again to vault to new heights.

For more information regarding the Royal Asscher Diamond Company, log onto its Web site at www.Asscher.com. For more information about the new Royal Asscher Cut diamond, contact Sue Fortgang at M. Fabrikant & Sons in New York, (212) 554-9756, e-mail: suef@fabrikant.com.