A stunning investment grade sapphire and old European cut diamond Art Deco ring from the 1920s. While the slightly yellowish color of the central diamond would be undesirable in a modern cut diamond, it gives this antique cut stone a warm, inviting look.
Humans are easily seduced by the state-of-the-art. This maxim applies as readily to a sleek new iPhone as a stately BMW 7 series. However, in our obsessive pursuit of new and stimulating desires, occasionally we forget the charms of the old. And sometimes those old things are very, very charming indeed. One good example of this is diamonds. The most common cut in the diamond industry today is the round brilliant cut. It is bright, flashy and oh so photogenic. It is so ubiquitous that few people have even heard of its little known, but highly attractive ancestors - the old mine cut and the old European cut. These antique diamond forms may not compare to modern cuts in terms of precision or technical accomplishment, but they possess unique optical effects that are at once bewitching and refined.
Old mine cut and old European cut diamonds are the epitome of antique elegance. These remarkable precious gems have undoubtedly witnessed the full gamut of human emotion during their century or more of existence - passion, turmoil, temptation and more. When the wealthy and powerful of society attended manor house dinner parties or fashionable operas, they adorned themselves with these exquisite stones. Indoor lighting at these refined 18th and 19th century events was either candlelight or later, gas lights. Both old mine cut and old European cut diamonds are visually stunning in these dimly lit environments, flashing a rainbow of colors that can easily be seen across a large room. These gorgeous antique stones simultaneously exhibit an enticing warmth and undeniable charisma that is completely lacking in today's modern cut diamonds.
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Although round brilliant cut diamonds ostensibly balance the attributes of brilliance and fire, in reality very few modern stones manage to do this well. Brilliance refers to the flashes of white light that return to the eye from a faceted diamond, while fire refers to any flashes of colored light. Unfortunately, the mediocre cutting of most modern diamonds causes the overwhelming majority to display good brilliance, but poor or sometimes even nearly nonexistent fire. Well-cut, modern round brilliant diamonds do have their place, especially when one craves the dazzling, "white ice" look. But they cannot compare to the inviting warmth, subtle charm and exceptional fire of old cut diamonds.
To understand antique diamonds it is imperative to know the five major parts of a faceted gem. From top to bottom they are: the table, the crown, the girdle, the pavilion and the culet. The table is the large, central facet on the top of a stone. The crown is the entire upper portion of a stone - everything above the girdle. The girdle is the "waist" of the stone, the thin line that encircles a faceted gem at its widest point. The pavilion is the entire lower portion of a stone - everything below the girdle. The culet is the small point at the very bottom of a cut stone.
The old mine cut is a cushion-shaped cut that was popular from the early 18th century to the end of 19th century. They have small tables, high crowns, very thick girdles, deep pavilions and very open culets. An old mine cut diamond's unique character is utterly unmistakable - better experienced than simply seen. Its deep proportions grant the stone tremendous fire, although it comes at the cost of greatly reduced brilliance. Some degree of asymmetry is also usually apparent in almost all old mine cut specimens. This is a natural result of diamond cutters painstakingly handcrafting the gems without the benefit of automated machinery. Toward the end of the Victorian era, the old mine cut fell out of favor and was rapidly displaced by the old European cut.
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The old European cut is a logical evolution of the old mine cut, differing mainly in its round shape. It possesses a high crown, small table and very deep pavilion by modern standards. The culet was often open - not forming an exact point - but was usually smaller than the culet on old mine cut stones. The old European cut also shares the same intense fire and warm appearance of its predecessor the old mine cut. The old European cut came into vogue in the 1890s with the development of diamond cutting equipment that allowed rounded shapes to be created more easily and with less waste. By World War I, the old European cut had completely displaced old mine cut stones.
In 1919 a Belgian diamond cutter named Marcel Tolkowsky published a thesis that became the foundation of the modern round brilliant cut. This mathematical formula - sometimes known as the "ideal cut" - theoretically maximizes the amount of both fire and brilliance in a faceted diamond. In the wake of this revelation, the old European cut was rapidly abandoned, with few examples faceted after the 1930s. Occasionally, so-called "transitional" cuts from the 1920s through the 1950s are found. Transitional stones stand in-between the old European cut and the modern round brilliant cut in terms of composition.
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A good alternate source for scarce old cut diamonds is antique diamond solitaire or engagement rings. The diamond engagement ring first became popular as a declaration of eternal love towards the end of the 19th century. This places it well within the period when old mine and old European cut diamonds were produced. So it is still possible to find a fair number of Victorian, Edwardian and Art Deco diamond rings in the market. In fact, many of the loose old mine cut and old European cut diamonds available today originally came from antique engagement rings!
We normally think of diamonds as luxury goods extraordinaire - baubles of the rich - but that idea isn't really accurate. In reality, diamonds - white diamonds at least - are gems of the people, readily available to both the working class and affluent alike. At least 100 million carats of diamonds have been mined every year for the past 25 years. After all, you wouldn't be able to buy a diamond engagement ring for just a few thousand dollars if diamonds were exceptionally rare. Today's widespread availability of diamonds wasn't always the case throughout history, though.
In ancient and medieval times, India was the world's only meaningful source of diamonds. The legendary mines of India had an estimated annual average production of perhaps 10,000 carats. This effectively meant diamonds were restricted to kings, sultans, rajas, emperors and popes. In addition, almost every ruler along the torturously long trade routes from India to Europe kept the very best stones for themselves. As a consequence, European monarchs rarely managed to acquire truly fine, large stones until the beginning of the modern era.
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In 1725 however, rich diamond deposits were discovered in Brazil. This was good fortune, as the Indian mines were very nearly exhausted by this time. Production from Brazilian mines may have averaged 50,000 to 100,000 carats per annum. This increased the available supply of gem quality stones manyfold, allowing Europe's aristocracy and wealthy merchants to own the coveted gems. Diamonds were no longer reserved solely for kings.
In 1867, just as Brazilian production dropped precipitously, diamonds were discovered in South Africa. By 1872, annual output from this new, prolific source exceeded 1 million carats. This order of magnitude increase in supply completed the process of diamond democratization that had begun with the discoveries in Brazil 150 years before. Now everyone from Hollywood starlets to average, middle class housewives could afford to own diamonds.
Each old mine or old European cut diamond is a unique, hand-made creation that must be assessed on its own merits. Therefore, they cannot be strictly judged by modern diamond standards. For example, nearly all old cut stones are off-color. Vanishingly few would grade higher than G on the standard GIA D (colorless) to Z (light fancy) color scale. This is partly because diamonds from Brazil - the only available supply when many antique stones were cut - tend towards darker colors than those from South Africa. Those antique cut stones that were exceptionally white - grades D through F - have been ruthlessly re-cut into modern round brilliant stones. In addition, many other, less white stones have also been re-cut over the decades. Consequently, a substantial number of formerly antique stones - especially the whitest specimens - are now lost to us forever.
The most important factor to consider in choosing old mine cut or old European cut diamonds is overall eye appeal. Desirable gems will have strong fire, throwing countless refracted flashes of multi-colored light in all directions. They will also invariably seem very "chunky" due to their deep pavilions and high crowns. Fine stones will have a certain charisma that - although unmistakable - is difficult to define. Most old cut diamonds will also possess an inviting warmth that is notably absent in modern diamonds. This is attributable to their deep proportions combined with their very slight yellow or brown body tint.
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Only consider stones with a minimum weight of at least 0.25 carats. An old European cut diamond this size will have a diameter of approximately 4 millimeters, depending on the depth of the stone. Diamonds below this weight are generally considering melee - small stones used as accents pieces. While old cut diamond melee was used extensively in beautiful antique jewelry, it is too small to be investable on its own.
Although some asymmetry in old diamonds is both normal and acceptable, avoid excessively lop-sided examples. Likewise, steer clear of stones that have a GIA clarity grade of I2 or lower. Flaws of this magnitude are not only easily visible to the naked eye - reducing the beauty of the diamond - but can also potentially make it more susceptible to damage. Black carbon inclusions are also undesirable, even if the stone in question technically grades better than I2. However, minor carbon pinpoint inclusions in unobtrusive locations - near the girdle for instance - are acceptable.
As you can guess, pricing for antique cut diamonds depends greatly on quality. A highly flawed stone of poor color and symmetry with little eye appeal with always sell for much, much less than a beautiful, clean, white stone of the same weight. Diamond pricing also experiences price breaks at meaningful carat weights. A 0.51 carat stone will sell for substantially more per carat than a 0.49 carat stone. The same holds true of a 1.01 carat stone versus a 0.99 carat stone.
Pricing for both old mine cut and old European cut diamonds has changed dramatically over the last 20 years. Previously these stones always traded at considerable discounts to their modern cut siblings. This was because dealers only considered old cut diamonds to be raw material for re-cutting into more salable, modern round brilliant pieces. In order to cover the labor costs and weight loss involved in re-cutting a gem, these discounts were significant - usually 20% to 25%. However, now that connoisseurs have started to appreciate the unique charms of old mine cut and old European cut diamonds, these discounts have largely evaporated. But due to the illiquidity of the antique diamond market, pricing can still vary widely compared to modern cut stones.
The smallest acceptable investment-grade old mine cut or old European cut diamonds weigh between 0.25 to 0.40 carats. These specimens may trade for $1,000 to $1,500 per carat - meaning pricing realistically starts at about $400 per stone. Such a diamond mounted in an antique ring might sell for $600 or $700, due to the value added by the setting. Prices increase dramatically as the size of a diamond increases. A 2 carat gem can easily trade for $5,000 a carat, or $10,000 for the stone. If mounted in a fine antique platinum or gold setting, a stone of this caliber would be a truly stunning work of art, well worth its premium price. With a presence and elegance rarely seen in new jewelry, lovely old mine cut and old European cut diamonds are a truly exceptional way to hold concentrated wealth.