Posts tagged diamonds

The Crown of Louis XV at the Louvre.  It is decorated with paste replicas of the important stones that once adorned it, including some of the famous Mazarin diamonds and the Sancy diamond on top.

The assembly of the greatest collection of jewels the world has ever seen began roughly with the accession of Pepin the Short in 752.  It is the first recorded legitimization of a French monarch under a Christian ceremony called the sacre, a ceremony which was to be performed on every French monarch in a more or less uninterrupted line until the French Revolution.

During medieval times, the French Crown jewels could only really be thought to consist of regalia which was thought to enhance the Divine Right of Kings.  These tended to be items such as sceptres, gold spurs, sceptres, golden Hands of Justice and orbs.  These are familiar to us from paintings and sculpture of the time and were in fact in frequent use.  Medieval kings of all countries wore these items during most high days and holidays: feast days, saints’ days, name days- in short, any occasion that demanded a show of power vested in a single person by the state.  A king normally had a new crown made for his sacre as it was traditional for the monarch to bequeath the item to the Abbey of St. Denis, in whose basilica French Monarchs were crowned.  The important stones, however, would be removed and reused by each successive king.  This collection of medieval ornaments, added to and enhanced by each successive monarch, came to be known as the Regalia (much like the British Crown Jewels).  This grew to include Church ceremonial plate and vestments and represented the apogee of medieval goldsmithing.

The concept of the French Crown Jewels as unalienable was instituted by Francis I in 1530.  By this time, the use of the medieval regalia outside the sacre had become an anachronism, but the King still needed to use the powerful imagery of splendid jewels to enhance his image of power.  At this time, there were 8 notable stones, the most important of which was the ‘Côte-de-Bretagne’ red spinel, a 105 carat stone originally thought to be a ruby.  Despite a partial dispersal of the jewels in 1590 due to disturbances caused by the Catholic League, the jewels were reconstituted by Henri IV. 

A replica of Louis XV's Order of the Golden Fleece, set with paste copies of the Cote de Bretagne spinel and the French Blue diamond, which was to pass into history as the infamous Hope diamond.

The Cross of the Order of the Saint Esprit rendered in diamonds.  Note how the dove, symbol of the Holy Spirit has been picked out in gems, the beak with a single ruby.

It is only fitting that the jewels should have started accelerating towards their glittering crescendo under the watch of Louis XIV, the Sun King.  The centre of his own universe, he needed to shine accordingly.  His first addition was the Mazarin diamonds, a collection of 18 near perfect stones gifted to him personally in 1661 by his minister, Cardinal Mazarin.  The most important of these stones was the Sancy diamond, a stone which originated in the 16th century in Turkey.  It had become part of the Crown Jewels under Henri III, stolen under Henri IV and bought back by Cardinal Mazarin. 

The collection continued to grow: when Louis XIV married Maria Theresa of Spain in 1660 she brought with her the famous pearl ‘La Pelegrina’, which was incorporated into the Crown Jewels.  Another stone of huge importance was the Tavernier Blue, acquired by the explorer Tavernier in India in 1666 and sold to the King a couple of years later. It was recut and christened the French Blue and it would pass down through history to become the Hope diamond.  Louis XIV clearly had a penchant for blue, as in 1691 he acquired an incredible sapphire known as the Ruspoli sapphire, a huge, flawless crystal weighing 135 carats cut with only 6 facets.

Louis XV's most important contribution to the Crown Jewels: the 20 plus carat Hortense Pink.

Inheriting this healthy collection from his great-grandfather, Louis XV continued adding to the Crown Jewels.  He wore them himself with panache, mounting the ‘Côte-de-Bretagne’ spinel with the French Blue into an Order of the Golden Fleece insignia.  Louis XV’s crown still survives in the Louvre, decorated with copies of some of these famous stones studded into it, giving a very accurate idea of what a priceless jewel this must have once been.  Louis XV’s most important addition was a pink diamond of over 20 carats which was to become known as the Hortense diamond.  To find such a stone today would be almost unthinkable

Under Louis XVI, the financial strains under which the nation was suffering were beginning to show and there were no major additions to the Crown Jewels- not that it was really necessary, as by this stage the Crown Treasury numbered tens of thousands of precious stones and pearls.  Marie Antoinette, however, was given some magnificent gifts by her grandfather-in-law, Louis XV, and Louis XVI her husband.  It is well recorded she was fond of diamonds and certainly enjoyed wearing them more than her reluctant husband.  Sadly this fondness was blown out of all proportion when she was caught up in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, falsely accused of buying a necklace worth 2 million livres behind her husband’s back while the people starved.  The Crown Jewels as they were known under the Ancien Regime were last seen on Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette at the State Opening of the States Generale in 1789.  Neither the jewels or the owners were to survive the cataclysm that was to come soon after.

Louis XIV in robes of State.  Note his use of some of the medieval regalia: his Crown, the Sceptre, the Hand of Justice and the Sword.

A State portrait of Marie Antoinette.  She is thought to be wearing the Hope diamond at her breast.


 A magnificent turban ornament by Cartier made in the 1920s.  The central emerald was an Indian heirloom emerald reset into a neo Indian design that successfully married the best elements of modern Art Deco and traditional Moghul design.

The Grand Duchess Maria Fedorovna in the 1780s. She wears an aigrette at the top of her hairstyle, which was inappropriate for a tiara.

The aigrette: not quite a tiara yet and more formal than a jewelled head comb, is an underrated piece of jewellery that does not quite get the attention of it deserves.  However much some may yearn the days where wearing tiaras was de rigueur for some formal occasion, the reality is that even in rarefied circles a woman will only wear one a few times in her life.  An aigrette, however, can be versatile, fun and add a touch of crowning glory to the wearer. 

The first ones almost certainly originated around the 12th century in India as the turban ornaments of Indian rulers, but they did not fully take off in Europe until around the 17th century.  During this time, like their oriental counterparts, they were extravagantly decorated with rare birds’ feathers, and that is how this jewel derived its name- aigrette is the French name for egret, a lesser white heron.  The aigrette’s popularity first peaked towards the end of the 18th century, when they were a more apt hair jewel for the towering hairstyles of the day than a tiara.  As hairstyles became lower after the French Revolution, they fell out of favour and the tiara reigned supreme.  They came back into fashion towards the 1870s, and society ladies considered them indispensable by the 1880s.  They could be more fantastical than tiaras and with all the rage for feathers at this time infinitely more wearable.  They were the perfect accessory for the great costume and masked balls of the age.  The great couturier Worth considered them essential and his former protégé and rival, Paul Poiret, made them his own.  Feathers for aigrettes were supplied by respected specialists and included exotic specimens such as bird of paradise from New Guinea, the Cape ostrich and the Egyptian ibis.  

Another inventive aigrette by Chaumet, circa 1885.  Gem set in the shape of a hummingbird, it can also be worn as a brooch.

Another inventive aigrette by Chaumet, circa 1885.  Gem set in the shape of a hummingbird, it can also be worn as a brooch.

Design by Chaumet for a ruby and diamond winged aigrette.

The heiress Evalyn Walsh McLean in 1912 wearing a feathered aigrette set with a diamond of a stupendous side.  Round her neck is the infamous Hope diamond.

The most inventive, noteworthy aigrettes were made by Chaumet, followed a close second by Cartier.  All manner of precious stones and feathers were showcased.  Chaumet embraced the spirit of Art Nouveau by designing one as a pair of soaring wings that could be worn as a pair of brooches.  Not surprisingly, the scope for movement was taken advantage of, and delicate sprays of flowers, insects and wheat ears were teamed with briolettes for trembling naturalism.  As large, gaudy feathers began to fall out of fashion, the feathers themselves began to be represented in precious stones. 

The First World War inevitably heralded the demise of very grand jewellery.  The clean lines of the flapper, bobbed hair and Art Deco just didn’t lend itself to it.  However, it was perfect for the aigrette.  As was mentioned earlier, not being as formal as a tiara, aigrettes were the finishing touch to a soignée look.  They had a second flowering in the 1920s and 30s, when they were heavily influenced by Cartier’s neo-Indian look.  Very rich, very bored Indian maharajas were ordering masses of jewels from all the great Parisian jewellers: Cartier, Boucheron, Van Cleef and Chaumet, amongst many, were busy refashioning great heirloom Indian jewels.  This was successfully married to the best elements of Art Deco and this new style became dominant.  These jewels designed as headdresses for maharajas’ turbans could not but directly influence women’s hair ornaments. 

The Second World War put an effective end to the more frivolous elements of fashion- tiaras were retained to be worn with increasing scarcity to very grand occasions, and the informality of the ensuing decades saw no need for gem studded head ornaments.  However, this is changing with fine and high jewellery heading towards more theatrical territory.  Collectors should be paying more attention to them- the really good ones are still relatively affordable at auction, the best ones being from the Belle Epoque era and which usually have the added bonus of being able to be transformed into a brooch.  Modern jewellers, sadly, have yet to match the technical inventiveness of early 20th century masters.


The beautiful Jubilee Ruby, with a weight of 15.99 carats, imaginatively set by Verdura.

The beautiful Jubilee Ruby, with a weight of 15.99 carats, imaginatively set by Verdura.

The jewellery auction season is over and now that the blizzard of publicity and eye watering numbers has stopped cascading towards us we can step back and take a measured look at how the sales have performed.

There have been several ‘Biggest Ever’ stones offered at auction this year.  These stones were exceptional not only in size, but also in quality.  We must add a mention here for the largely unsung hero that is the stone cutter.  Coloured stones take months of studying before faceting; not only does the cutter have to remove the maximum amount of flaws to maximise the clarity, he also has to ensure the colour is evenly spread.  Coloured stones are rarely evenly coloured and the cutter must ensure that the colour is as close to the centre of the stone as possible in order to ensure maximum colour saturation.  The cutter is solely responsible for maximising a gem’s potential.

 But I digress- the prices achieved this year did not disappoint.  The Unique Pink Diamond sold by Sotheby’s in May fetched a world record as the most expensive pink diamond ever sold; at 15.38 carats it was the largest pear shaped pink diamond to be sold at auction and it fetched $31.56 million.  It sold to an anonymous Asian buyer who was bidding over the telephone and so far their identity remains secret.

A trio of blues of exceptional quality and size also held auction watchers agog.  The Oppenheimer Blue, a beautiful emerald cut of over 14 carats smashed its $29 million top estimate, fetching $57.5 million. It made it the most expensive blue diamond ever sold, also setting a record sale time of just 25 minutes.

More nervous were Christie’s during the sale of the Cullinan Dream, the 24.18 carat blue behemoth, the largest blue diamond in the world ever to be auctioned.  They had reason to be, after the disastrous withdrawal of the Shirley Temple Blue Diamond earlier that month, which had failed to reach its reserve.  Bidding was slow on this lot and the price went up agonisingly slowly.  However, it managed to reach $25.3 million- still a remarkable sum for a single gem, by any standards.

One more stone that deserves an honourable mention is the Jubilee Ruby sold by Christie’s, beautifully set by Verdura (I do often wonder why some of these amazing stones aren’t more imaginatively set).  A rare stone of just under 16 carats, it set a US record with a hammer price of $12.5 million, plus fees.

Overall, it was a good year for gem auctions.  Although prices held very well, other than the stones mentioned above, no other records were broken and most lots came in just shy of their high estimates, with a few exceptional stones coming in short of their low estimates.

The Oppenheimer Blue Diamond, the most expensive blue diamond ever sold at auction.

The 14.38 carat Unique Pink Diamond.

Paraiba tourmaline and diamond necklace by Giampiero Bodino.

Paraiba tourmaline and diamond necklace by Giampiero Bodino.

I had the great fortune yesterday of being invited to attend the Giampiero Bodino High Jewellery event in the Connaught Hotel, in London.  These were jewels that were eye catching for all the right reasons: every single one was a one off piece, with breathtaking attention to detail.  The array of stones was wonderful in its variety, ranging from tanzanites to spinels, Paraiba tourmalines to coloured sapphires.

The House of Giampiero Bodino is the Richemont Group’s latest foray into high jewellery.  The designer is well versed in the decorative arts and a firm grounding in fine art.  Born in Turin, he trained as an architect; his love of shapes and three dimensional concepts led him to design cars for Italdesign and while he was there, he caught the eye of Gianni Bulgari.  This led to a long and happy collaboration with the Italian jewellery firm, after which he opened his own jewellery and watch studio.  As Bodino’s work for the Richemont Group grew, he became exclusive to them and was created Art Director in 2002.

'Simonetta' necklace in multi coloured diamonds and emeralds.

With the group’s backing, the House of Giampiero Bodino opened in 2013.  Its business model takes us back to the days of unique pieces, beautifully made by talented craftsmen- but unlike most of its counterparts, this brand will not open worldwide.  Bodino has its headquarters in Milan and will host private viewing events.  This immediately cuts the overheads of a prohibitive retail operation and delivers jewellery which is admittedly expensive, but not overpriced.

Bodino aims to create pieces with ‘Anima’, or soul, and he certainly succeeds.  The sources of inspiration are varied and disparate: Art Deco, Baroque, nature, India, feminine form, architecture; yet there is a stylistic coherence rarely seen in other designers.

Personally, I loved the use of colour, a subject very close to my heart- the mixing of hugely valuable rubies and diamonds with more humble materials, such as amethysts and chalcedony.  I enjoyed seeing these pieces yesterday and look forward to seeing what Bodino produces in the future.

'Theodora' cuff in chrysophase, purple sapphires and diamonds.

Choosing an Emerald: African or Colombian?
Angelina Jolie wearing Lorraine Schwartz Colombian emerald earrings.

Angelina Jolie wearing Lorraine Schwartz Colombian emerald earrings.

To the layman, Colombian emeralds have always been touted as being the best of the best, up there in mystique with Golconda diamonds, Burmese rubies and Kashmiri sapphires.  However, to add interest to the mix and not a little confusion, African (and especially Zambian) emeralds have carved out a considerable niche in the jewellery world.

Emeralds are 100 times rarer than diamonds.  Colombian emeralds (which still account for 50-90% of world production, depending on the year) have long been treasured for their deep, saturated green velvety colour.  Having been plundered by the Spanish in South America, some of the finest examples found their way to India via Europe.  These stones were often magnificently carved and then set into extravagant jewels and objects.

Old vs. New: 16th century watch found in the Cheapside hoard carved from a single emerald, displayed next to a Zambian emerald crystal.

However, Zambian emeralds have become more and more common in the use of jewellery, with Zambia now accounting for almost 20% of world production.  The greatest producer of these is Gemfields, whose company philosophy is to produce ethically sourced emeralds. According to their website, they have achieved over three thousand consecutive shifts free of reportable injuries since taking over the Kagem mine.

Emeralds occur in hues ranging from yellow-green to blue-green; for a stone to be considered a proper emerald, the tone must be medium to dark and green must be the primary hue.  Yellow and blue secondary hues are normal.  Emeralds derive their colour from the presence of chromium and vanadium.  African emeralds have less vanadium and more iron, which makes them bluer.  As African and Colombian emeralds come from different mineral beds, the latter tend to have less inclusions and therefore more clarity.

Bvlgari Colombian emerald and diamond necklace.

So which to buy: greener emeralds from Colombia, or bluish-green, slightly less included from Zambia?  The answer lies entirely with personal preference.  If you place two stones from different parts of the world side by side, the difference is noticeable and the buyer must go with the hue that they like best.  As long as the stone is relatively clean and has a good saturation with as little grey tone as possible, there is no other guideline.  The great jewellery houses pay less and less distinction to the source and you are likely to find both Colombian and Zambian in the collections of Cartier, Van Cleef and Arpels and Bvlgari.   Regardless of origin, special attention must be paid to where the inclusion is in the stone- this can almost be done with the naked eye, as flawless emeralds are almost non-existent.  If the inclusion is near the surface and/or close to a facet, it will be a far more susceptible to breakage, and therefore only purchased with caution.

Faberge 'Devotion' ring, set with a Zambian emerald of over 7 carats.

Golconda Diamonds: Gems of the First Water

The Archduke Joseph diamond, a Golconda stone of 76.02 carats that sold for $21.5 million at Christie's in 2012.

Jewellery buyers have become increasingly discerning in the last few years and with that knowledge comes a desire for stones of the highest quality.  We have seen this in the price surge for important coloured gemstones, with several stones smashing world records at auction last year; we are seeing this now with diamonds mined from the Golconda.  In real terms, white diamonds have not proved to be a completely failsafe investment. According to Martin Rapapport, developer of the industry approved Rapapport Index, prices for diamonds of 1 carat have fallen 7% over the last year.

The Golconda Fort in India

It is a different story with Golconda diamonds. The Golconda was a fort in India fabled for holding diamonds from the nearby Kollur mine, in the Guntur district.  Not only was it one of the most productive mines in history, it was known to produce extremely high quality stones.  These were known in the 17th and 18th century as ‘Diamonds of the First Water’.  It is a term very rarely used nowadays and describes an elusive quality in a diamond, more commonly known as ‘brilliance’ or ‘life’.  We now have the skills to bring out the best in diamonds, but in those days of basic lapidary, a stone had to be judged on the purity of the crystal alone, or ‘water’.

The Dresden Green in its current eighteenth century setting.

The Kollur mine started operating in about 1570 and was written about by the famous French explorer Tavernier when he visited India in the 17th century.  After producing some of the most famous stones in history, including the Koh-i-Noor, the Regent and the Dresden Green, the mine was depleted by the mid 19th century and closed.  And as with most finite resources, these stones command a substantial premium.

Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother wearing the Koh-I-Noor in her crown at her Coronation in 1937.

Why?  Because Golconda diamonds are notable by the absence of nitrogen, which renders them remarkably pure and the classification is known as Type IIa.  This allows them to transmit UV and visible light, which Type I diamonds block.  Type IIa diamonds are now mined in South Africa and and Lesotho, and some diamond experts such as Laurence Graff use the term Golconda and Type IIa interchangeably.

Like so many things in the world, things that weren’t so rare 20 years ago are today as connoisseurs expand their expertise and fuel demand.

The S.B. Joel Diamond Corsage

There is an impressive Cartier jewel which deserves a mention: the Solomon Barnato Joel Diamond Corsage.

It is rare to see such an important Belle Epoque jewel still intact- most like this were broken up in the 1920s and 30s in order to re-set the stones and I assumed this is what had happened to this one.  This corsage piece was last seen when it was sold at Christie’s Geneva in 1991 for 3,850,000 Swiss francs and it re-emerged at last year’s Masterpiece Fair in London, where it was reportedly sold for $20 million.

The S.B. Joel Diamond Corsage, which was sold at Masterpiece London last year for a reported $20 million.

The S.B. Joel Diamond Corsage, which was sold at Masterpiece London last year for a reported $20 million.

 It was made by Cartier in 1912 and its swags of lily of the valley are simple and highly stylised, the flowery Garland Style already giving way to something simpler.  Designed to be worn on the bodice, it must have been a gloriously ostentatious piece even in the excessive age of the Belle Epoque.  As it is a particularly strong metal, platinum is used for very fine setting work and this is very much in evidence in this brooch, where the stones seem to almost float in space.  The total carat weight of the main stones (the four central stones in the pendant element of the brooch) is 67.65 carats.

The stones were the property of Londoner Solomon Barnato Joel, who with his uncle Barney Barnato made his fortune in the South African diamond mining rush of the late 19th century.  Having made his money, he returned to Europe not only to enjoy it but also to give large amounts away in various philanthropic gestures.  He lived life to the full and these were the best diamonds in his personal possession, which he asked Cartier to set in 1912 for the woman he loved.