Circular Thinking: How the brilliant round diamond was born
By Beth Bernstein
Before we look into the history of round cut diamonds, let’s talk about the entrancing, enticing attributes of all diamonds and why they are written about in literature, ascribed different powers and represent permanence and stability in an ever-changing world. They are the only gem with the ability to withstand fire, are extremely durable, are beloved for their hypnotic unique personalities and are steeped in symbolism, lore and legend. The Greeks called diamonds “Adamas’ which means unconquerable and they have been. No other stone has such an enduring place in history; it has continued to attract and be desired in every culture and by royalty to rap stars to red carpet celebrities to real women like you and me.
Round One: The Rose-Cut
Primitively cut diamonds were available from the 14th century through to the 16th century, by which time the table cut – an unpolished octahedral with the top ground down into a square – had come to the fore. During the 17th century, diamonds became more readily available, imported by the jewelers of King Louis XIV of France from the famed Golconda mines in India. At the same time, new cutting techniques were being introduced by gem cutters in Antwerp and Amsterdam. The rose cut, with its triangular- faceted domed top and its flat bottom, was cut in the 1700s and soon reigned supreme. Yet these diamonds were cut by hand and therefore had limitations –in color and quality. Jewelers compensated by setting these cuts into silver or silver- topped gold, allowing the diamonds to sparkle against the white metal. Closed backs also allowed for the insertion of silver foil between the stone and its setting, which detracted from the imperfections of color and inherent inclusions and gave the diamonds a whiter and brighter look. Cut-back collet settings allowed the diamonds to show without too much metal detracting from the design of the pieces of jewelry.
A Brilliant Effect: The Old-Mine Cut
Soon after, the first version of the brilliant-cut diamond was born, which showed diamonds to the best effect it could at the time due to new polishing techniques. The difference between the modern brilliant, which arrived during the Art Deco period, and the 18th-century version is that the modern brilliant has 58 facets that are perfectly proportioned, while antique brilliants (which we refer to as old-mine cuts) were much more cushion or pillow in shape (Hence the term cushion cut). It is notable that it is precisely this supposed defect, which imbued the diamond with unique character that now attracts antique collectors who find the flaws of these diamonds appealing and full of charm. These old-mine/cushion cuts had more brilliance than the rose cut but it was a soft glow which was perfect for wearing in candlelight.
The discovery of South African diamond mines in the 1870s at Kimberley, and then in German South West Africa (now Namibia), led to hundreds of thousands of carats being transported to Britain and Western Europe. This new found availability led to more bountiful and affordable designs. No longer were diamond enjoyed and worn by only the royals or high society but could be purchased and worn by more of the masses. More advances also led to allowing the diamonds shine on their own—the backs began being open, and the diamonds were no longer enhanced with foil in later Georgian and early Victorian times.
The Cycle of The Circular: The European Cut and The Modern Brilliant Cut
The late 19th saw the creation of the European cut diamond which was now circular in shape and the ancestor to the modern brilliant cut. There were more versions in between such as the ‘transitional cut’ but European cuts were and still are extremely popular for all antique and vintage categories of jewelry.
It was the invention of what is called the bruting machine that allowed for perfectly round circular shapes. However the round brilliant wasn’t created until around 1914 by Antwerp cutter Marcel Tolkowsky who created a formula for proportionally cutting diamonds. Since then, technology has brought the brilliant round cut diamond to perfection.
Multiple Personalities: The different traits of each round incarnation in diamonds:
-Rose cuts when they have both life and soulful character are perfect for the antique purist who wants a subtle glow instead of all out sparkle when it comes to diamond jewelry.
-Old-mine cuts are also an antique devotee’s choice when it comes to diamonds. These have more brilliance yet still offer a more subdued effect and each one had its own very unique personality since they were cut by hand.
-European cuts are for those who prefer their round diamonds to be definitively circular in shape yet still offer a period feeling.
-Modern brilliant round diamonds, when of high quality offer the cut, brilliance, scintillation and life that is associated with 20th century jewelry cutting and beyond. These pieces can still be set into vintage settings but are filled with the sparkle and shine for which these diamonds have become famous.
Setting The Style: The Jewels In Which Rounds Were Set
In the 18th to early 19th century, rose cuts and old mine cuts, as we discussed were set into closed foil back settings. They glimmered in half hoop rings and dormouse earring (single drops that could be worn day or night). Old mine cut were also set into riviere necklaces that graduated from the center stone to smaller stones as the necklace tapered to the back. This style would continue well into the 20th and 21st centuries in different incarnations. Many jewelers of the time were ingenious in their ability to mix rose cuts of different sizes, shapes and colors together in one design. They created intricate cluster rings and earrings, which became wildly popular and highlighting the skill of the artisans in the Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian/Belle Epoque eras in different settings, metals and design techniques.
During the Victorian era we saw greater artistic expression in jewelry, as societal and cultural trends influenced the design and fabrication of diamond jewelry. Backs were open, there were solitaire, three stone and toi-et moi (you and me) rose cut and old-mine cut diamond rings and double drop earrings.
The motifs of the Belle Époque focused on delicate versions of garland and floral motifs, as well as bows and scrolls. Platinum was now the metal of choice. As one of the most durable metals, it could be used for much smaller settings and for delicately detailed pieces with piercing, engraving and filigree work. The steely matte surface of platinum was the perfect backdrop for showcasing sparkly white diamonds as the central stone which were mostly European cuts, with smaller diamonds in the lacy openwork of the designs. Negligee necklaces featured asymmetrical length diamond drops with milgrain bezels and multi-drop earrings with mine-cut and European cut stones.
The linear geometry of the Art Deco movement, named after the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris offered the first of the modern brilliant cut round diamonds as well and many other fancy cuts to be seen on the market. (more about this in later installments).
Throughout the 20th century, the riviere necklace had many make overs—in yellow gold, in white gold, in platinum and were re-worked into bracelets in bezel and prong settings. These were now more structured; diamonds were the same size or graduated. They were also called eternity necklaces and bracelets and then tennis necklaces and bracelets after Chris Evert stopped a match to find her ‘diamond tennis’ bracelet which went flying off of her wrist in 1978.
But let’s back up for a moment. In 1947, The single line ‘A diamond is forever’ was the brainchild of advertising executive Frances Gerety of N.Y. Ayers, which she devised for diamond distributors De Beers. The slogan enforced the diamond as the gem for engagement rings and created a belief that diamonds were the key to a couple’s enduring love and longevity. The diamond, which was chosen most often and still is today a round engagement ring of a diamond solitaire.
Fast forward to the 1970s and Elsa Peretti hit the scene with her Diamonds by The Yard for Tiffany & Co. Halston, for whom she worked and enjoyed a friendship for years, named her diamond designs that seemed to float on a chain. The ‘70s were much more low key when it came to diamond jewelry and Peretti’s Diamonds By The Yard in different lengths bezel set stations on a thin chain become one of the most popular modern diamond necklaces to date—widely copied and imitated.
Brilliant cut round diamond stud earrings, solitaire necklaces and engagement rings became the must haves for generations in different sizes and grades of diamonds, These were and still are the staples of a woman’s jewelry wardrobe from which to build upon. Just look at Gwyneth Paltrow’s character’s chic clothes and elegant yet understated jewelry in the film A Perfect Murder in which she wears all of these pieces mentioned, and for evening adds in a round cut diamond riviere necklace. The only piece that is not set with a round brilliant is her Cathy Waterman wedding band in the film.
Star Power: The Famed Jewels in this shape: Whether in films or on the red carpet, celebrities have been showing off their round diamonds in all different shapes and sizes. In George Cukor’s 1938 film Holiday staring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, Hepburn’s character wears a triple strand collet set necklace design by Verdura when he worked for Flato.
Some famous engagement rings with round cut diamonds include Queen Elizabeth II’s engagement ring, given to her by Prince Phillip. The center stone came from a tiara and the diamond originally belonged to Philip’s mother, Princess Alice of Greece which she received from Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra of Russia. The center stone is a round diamond of three-carats. It is flanked with a cluster of smaller gems. Zoe Kravitz wears an antique three stone rose cut diamond engagement ring while other contemporary women: Amy Adams, First Lady Michele Obama and Kiera Knightly all were proposed to in brilliant cut round engagement rings. There are countless more from nobility to Hollywood royalty who don or have owned brilliant round engagement rings.
The most famous diamond that became a round brilliant cut from its once rose cut shape. There have been books and pages and pages of history written about when and where this diamond is actually from and who is the rightful owner of the stone. But let’s jump ahead for our purposes to see where it wound up. In 1739, it was named Koh-I-Noor when a Persian conqueror invaded and overtook Delhi and the diamond. The name of the diamond means ‘Mountain of Light’. It passed through the hands of different rulers and through much turmoil and bloodshed. It wound up back in India in 1813 with the ruler Ranjit Singh. By 1850, the 186-carat was forcibly signed over to the British and was passed along and given to Queen Victoria in 1850 and in 1852. Due to a poor reception of the diamond, Prince Albert had it recut and repolished into a diamond weighing somewhere between a little over 105 carats and 108.93 carats as there are different reports on the weight of the stone. Queen Victoria wore it as a brooch. But it eventually became part of the Crown Jewels. It was set into the crown of Queen Alexandra (the wife of Edward VII) and then in the crown of Queen Mary. In 1937, The diamond was set in the front of the crown worn by the Queen Mother. It is presently on display among the crown jewels in the Tower of London.
Today, it’s a matter of personal choice whether to go for all out sparkle or the soft glow of antique round diamond stones set into a pedant, earrings or an engagement ring. One thing is certain the circular cut of the rose, European or modern brilliant will always be around and is a timeless enduring shape.
Beth Bernstein is a jewelry historian, collector of period and modern jewelry and a purveyor of all things sparkly. She has penned three books—'My Charmed Life,' a memoir; 'Jewelry's Shining Stars,' a modern jewelry design coffee table book; and 'If These Jewels Could Talk,' an in-depth look at celebrities and the stories behind their legendary jewels on the silver screen and in real life—with a fourth one in the works. She has written and continues to write for major print and online magazines on all subjects pertaining to jewelry and style.
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