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Diamond Design - Historical

It is to Indian manuscripts and early Indian literature we turn when we want to find the origin of diamond cutting, for India has always been regarded as the natural and ancient home of the diamond.  It is there that they were first found :  up to 1728, the date of the discovery of the Brazilian deposits, practically the whole world's supply was derived from Indian sources.  They are found there in the valleys and beds of streams, and also, separated from the matrix in which they were formed, in strata of detrital matter that have since been covered by twelve to sixteen feet of earth by the accumulations of later centuries.  Diamonds have existed in these deposits within the reach of man for many ages, but the knowledge of the diamond as a gem or as a crystal with exceptional qualities does not go back in India to the unfathomable antiquity which books on diamonds generally refer to.  It was wholly unknown in the Vedic period, from which no specific names for precious stones are handed down at all.[1] The earliest systematic reference appears to be the Arthaçastra of Kautilya (about third century B.C.), where the author mentions six kinds of diamonds classified according to their mines, and describes them as differing in lustre and hardness.  He also writes that the best diamonds should be large, regular, heavy, capable of bearing blows,[2] able to scratch metal, refractive and brilliant.  In the Milinda-pañha (Questions of King Milinda) (about first century B.C.) we read that the diamond ought to be pure throughout, and that it is to be mounted together with the most costly gems.  This is the first manuscript in which the diamond is classed as a gem.

Note 1.  Berthold Laufer, The Diamond :  a Study in Chinese and Hellenistic Folklore (Chicago, 1915). 
Note 2.  This legend of the indestructibility of the diamond, which reappears in many other places, and to which the test of the diamond's capacity of bearing the strongest blows was due, has caused the destruction of perhaps a very large number of fine stones.  The legend was further embroidered by the remark that if the diamond had previously been placed in the fresh and still warm blood of a ram, it could then be broken, but with great difficulty.  This legend was still current in Europe as late as the middle of the thirteenth century.  The actual fact is that the diamond, although exceedingly hard (it is the hardest substance known), can easily be split by a light blow along a plane of crystallisation. 

It is therefore permissible to estimate with a sufficient degree of accuracy that the diamond became known in India during the Buddhist period, about the fourth century B.C., and that its use as a gem dates from that period.[3]

Note 3.  Laufer, loc. cit.

It is not known with certainty when and where the art of grinding or polishing diamonds originated.  There is as yet no source of ancient Indian literature in which the polishing of diamonds is distinctly set forth, although the fact that diamond is used for grinding gems generally is mentioned.  It is, however, likely that, where the polishing of other precious stones was accomplished in that manner, that of diamonds themselves cannot have been entirely unknown.  What polishing there was must at first have been limited to the smoothing of the faces of the crystals as they were found.  The first description of cut diamonds is given by Tavernier,[4] a French jeweller who travelled through India, and to whom we owe most of our knowledge of diamond cutting in India in the seventeenth century.  At the time of his visit (1665) the Indians were polishing over the natural faces of the crystal, and preferred, therefore, regularly crystallised gems.  They also used the knowledge they had of grinding diamonds to remove faulty places like spots, grains, or glesses.  If the fault was too deep, they attempted to hide it by covering the surface under which it lay with a great number of small facets.  It appears from Tavernier's writings that there were also European polishers in India at that time, and that it was to them that the larger stones were given for cutting.  Whether they had learnt the art independently or from Indians and attained greater proficiency than they, or whether they were acting as instructors and teaching the Indians a new or forgotten art, is uncertain.  Both views are equally likely in the present state of research upon that subject :  at the time of Tavernier's visit, diamond cutting had been known in Europe for more than two centuries.

Note 4.  Tavernier, Voyage en Turquie, en Perse et aux Indes (1679). 
fig. 1: 'Great Mogul'      fig. 2: 'Orlow'       fig. 3: 'Koh-i-Noor'       fig. 4: 'Great Table'

Among the several remarkable gems that Tavernier describes, the most noteworthy is the one known as the Great Mogul.  This diamond was of a weight of 280 cts. and was cut as sketched in fig. 1.  The polishing was the work of a Venetian, Hortensio Borgis, to whom it was given for that purpose by its owner, the Great Mogul Aurung Zeb, of Delhi.  This kind of cut is characteristic of most of the large Indian stones, such as the Orlow (fig. 2), which is now the largest diamond of the Russian crown jewels and weighs 193¾ cts.  The Koh-i-Noor (fig. 3), now among the British crown jewels, was of a somewhat similar shape before recutting.  It weighed then 186 cts. 

Tavernier also mentions several other types of cut which he met in India.  The Great Table (fig. 4), which he saw in 1642, weighed 242 cts.  Both the Great Table and the Great Mogul seem to have disappeared :  it is not known what has become of them since the seventeenth century. 

fig. 5: Another stone shape

Various other shapes are described, such as point stones, thick stones, table stones (fig. 5), etc.  But the chief characteristic remains :  all these diamonds have been cut with one aim constantly in view -- how to polish the stone with the smallest possible loss of weight.  As a consequence the polishing was generally accomplished by covering the surface of the stone with a large number of facets, and the original shape of the rough gem was, as far as possible, left unaltered. 

It was mentioned before that the art of diamond polishing had already been known in Europe for several centuries when Tavernier left for India.  We have as yet no certain source of information about diamond cutting in Europe before the fourteenth century.  The first reference thereto mentions that diamond polishers were working in Nurnberg (Germany) in 1375, where they formed a guild of free artisans, to which admission was only granted after an apprenticeship of five to six years.[5] We do not know, however, in what shape and by what method the stones were cut.

Note 5.  Jacobson's Technologisches Wörterbuch (1781). 

It is in the fifteenth century that European diamond cutting begins to become more definite, more characteristic.  And it is from that time that both on its technical and artistic sides progress is made at a rate, slow at first, but increasingly rapid later.

It is not difficult to find the chief reason for that change.

Up to that time, diamonds had almost exclusively been used by princes or priests.  To princes they were an emblem of power and wealth -- in those days diamonds were credited with extraordinary powers :  they were supposed to protect the wearer and to bring him luck.  Princes also found them convenient, as they have great value for a very small weight, and could easily be carried in case of flight.  Priests used them in the ornaments of temples or churches ;  they have not infrequently been set as eyes in the heads of statues of Buddha.

In the fifteenth century it became the fashion for women to wear diamonds as jewels.  This fashion was started by Agnes Sorel (about 1450) at the Court of Charles VII of France, and gradually spread from there to all the Courts of Europe.

This resulted in a very greatly increased demand, and gave a strong impulse to the development of diamond polishing.  The production increased, more men applied their brains to the problems that arose, and, as they solved them and the result of their work grew better, the increasing attractiveness of the gem increased the demand and gave a new impulse to the art.

At the beginning of the fifteenth century a clever diamond cutter named Hermann established a factory in Paris, where his work met with success, and where the industry started developing.

In or about 1476 Lodewyk (Louis) van Berquem, a Flemish polisher of Bruges, introduced absolute symmetry in the disposition of facets, and probably also improved the process of polishing.  Early authors gave credence to the statement of one of his descendants, Robert van Berquem,[6] who claims that his ancestor had invented the process of polishing the diamond by its own powder.  He adds :  " After having ground off redundant material from a stone by rubbing it against another one (the process known in modern practice as ' bruting ' or cutting), he collected the powder produced, by means of which he polished the diamond on a mill and certain iron wheels of his invention."

Note 6.  Robert de Berquem, Les merveilles des Indes :  Traité des pierres précieuses (Paris, in-4°, 1669), p. 12 :  " Louis de Berquem l'un de mes ayeuls a trouvé le premier l'invention en mil quatre cent soixante-seize de les tailler avec la poudre de diamant même.  Auparavant on fut contraint de les mettre en œuvre tels qu'on les rencontrait aux Indes, c'est-à-dire tout à fait bruts, sans ordre et sans grâce, sinon quelques faces an hasard, irrégulières et mal polies, tels enfin que la nature les produit.  Il mit deux diamants sur le ciment et après les avoir égrisés l'un contre l'autre, il vit manifestement que par le moyen de la poudre qui en tombait et à l'aide du moulin et certaines roues de fer qu'il avait inventées, il pourrait venir à bout de les polir parfaitement, même de les tailler en telle manière qu'il voudrait.  Charles devenu duc Bourgogne lui mit trois grands diamants pour les tailler avantageusement selon son adresse.  Il les tailla aussitôt, l'un épais, l'autre faible et le troisième en triangle et il y réussit si bien que le duc, ravi d'une invention si surprenante, lui donna 3000 ducats de récompense."

As has already been shown, we know now that diamonds were polished at least a century before Lodewyk van Berquem lived.  And as diamond is the hardest substance known, it can only be polished by its own powder.  Van Berquem cannot have invented that process.  He may perhaps have introduced some important improvement like the use of cast-iron polishing wheels, or possibly have discovered a more porous kind of cast iron -- one on which the diamond powder finds a better hold, and on which polishing is therefore correspondingly speedier.

fig. 6: 'Florentine' (a 'pendeloque' or 'briolette')

What Van Berquem probably did originate is, as already stated, rigid symmetry in the design of the cut stone.  The introduction of the shape known as pendeloque or briolette is generally ascribed to him.  The Sancy and the Florentine, which are both cut in this shape, have been said to have been polished by him.  The Sancy (53¾ cts.) belongs now to the Maharaja of Guttiola, and the Florentine (fig. 6), which is much larger (133 1/5 cts.), is at present among the Austrian crown jewels.  The history of both these gems is, however, very involved, and they may have been confused at some period or other with similar stones.  That is why it is not at all certain that they were the work of Van Berquem.  At any rate, they are typical of the kind of cut he introduced.

The pendeloque shape did not meet with any very wide success.  It was adopted in the case of a few large stones, but was gradually abandoned, and is not used to any large extent nowadays, and then in a modified form, and only when the shape of the rough stone is especially suitable.  This unpopularity was largely due to the fact that, although the loss of weight in cutting was fairly high, the play of light within the stone did not produce sufficient fire or brilliancy.

fig. 7: 'rose' or 'rosette' fig. 8: another 'rose' or 'rosette'

About the middle of the sixteenth century a new form of diamond was introduced.  It is known as the rose or rosette, and was made in various designs and proportions (figs. 7 and 8).  The rose spread rapidly and was in high vogue for about a century, as it gave a more pleasant effect than the pendeloque, and could be cut with a much smaller loss of weight.  It was also found very advantageous in the polishing of flat pieces of rough or split diamond.  Such material is even now frequently cut into roses, chiefly in the smaller sizes.

In the chapter upon the design of diamonds it will be shown that roses have to be made thick (somewhat thicker than in fig. 7) for the loss of light to be small, and that the flatter the rose the bigger the loss of light.  It will also be seen there that the fire of a rose cannot be very high.  These faults caused the rose to be superseded by the brilliant.

fig. 9: a 'Mazarin' or 'double-cut brilliant'             fig. 10: Peruzzi's 'triple-cut brilliant'             fig. 11: improved 'triple-cut brilliant'

We owe the introduction of the brilliant in the middle of the seventeenth century to Cardinal Mazarin -- or at any rate to his influence.  As a matter of fact, the first brilliants were known as Mazarins, and were of the design in fig. 9.  They had sixteen facets, excluding the table, on the upper side.  They are called double-cut brilliants.  Vincent Peruzzi, a Venetian polisher, increased the number of facets from sixteen to thirty-two (fig. 10) (triple-cut brilliants), thereby increasing very much the fire and brilliancy of the cut gem, which were already in the double-cut brilliant incomparably better than in the rose.  Yet diamonds of that cut, when seen nowadays, seem exceedingly dull compared to modern-cut ones.  This dullness is due to their too great thickness, and to a great extent also to the difference in angle between the corner facets and the side facets, so that even if the first were polished to the correct angle (which they were not) the second would be cut too steeply and give an effect of thickness.  Old-cut brilliants, as the triple-cut brilliants are generally called, were at first modified by making the size and angle of the facets more uniform (fig. 11), this bringing about a somewhat rounder stone.  With the introduction of mechanical bruting or cutting (an operation distinct from polishing ;  see p. 17) diamonds were made absolutely circular in plan (fig. 37).  The gradual shrinking in of the corners of an old-cut brilliant necessitated a less thickly cut stone with a consequent increasing fire and life, until a point of maximum brilliancy was reached.  This is the present-day brilliant.[7]

Note 7.  Some American writers claim that this change from the thick cut to that of maximum brilliancy was made by an American cutter, Henry D. Morse. It was, however, as explained, necessitated by the absolute roundness of the new cut.  Mr. Morse may have invented it independently in America.  But it is highly probable that it originated where practically all of the world's diamonds were polished, in Amsterdam or Antwerp, where also mechanical bruting was first introduced. 

Other designs for the brilliant have been tried, mostly attempts to decrease the loss of weight in cutting without impairing the brilliancy of the diamond, but they have not met with success.

We may note here that the general trend of European diamond polishing as opposed to Indian is the constant search for greater brilliancy, more life, a more vivid fire in the diamond, regardless of the loss of weight.  The weight of diamond removed by bruting and by polishing amounts in even the most favourable cases to 52 per cent. of the original rough weight for a perfectly cut brilliant.  In the next chapters the best proportions for a brilliant will be calculated without reference to the shape of a rough diamond, and it will be seen how startlingly near the calculated values the modern well-cut brilliant is polished.