The Fascinating History of Diamond Cutting
A beautiful diamond is rich in history. Not only with it’s formation beneath the Earth’s crust billions of years ago; it’s also the end-result of thousands of years of development in technology and artistry to bring the stone to life through various cutting and polishing techniques. This fascinating history of diamond cutting should be enjoyed and appreciated as countless individuals dedicated their lives to strive for perfection in creating the perfect diamond cut.
Ancient History – Middle Ages (800 BC – 1499)
It is believed that diamonds were first discovered in India and kept as loose unpolished stones. They were considered to hold magical, spiritual and protective powers of strength and invincibility, and were worn by royalty in their uncut form in jewellery.
From the mid 14th century, the point cut emerged to improve the rough diamond’s appearance. Contrary to what the name suggests, the term “point cut” is actually a misnomer, and involved a simple polishing of the octahedral crystal faces to create even and unblemished facets.
By the mid 15th century, the point cut began to be improved upon. A little less than one half of the octahedron would be sawn off, creating a square with four step-down edges. This table cut was the first widely recognised diamond cut. The coveted emerald cut diamond that is so popular today, evolved from this table cut.
In 1477 Mary of Burgundy became the first to receive a diamond engagement ring which was gifted to her by Archduke Maximilian of Austria. The ring was set with a point cut diamond and pieces of diamonds in the shape of an “M”. It is likely that this event began the tradition of the diamond engagement ring.
Because diamonds are so hard, only diamond dust could be used to polish them. The Romans in particular liked to wear point cut diamonds in rings and other jewellery, and they introduced the technique to the Europeans.
The heart cut diamond is one of the earliest diamond cuts to arise from Europe, shortly after the table cut. This romantic shape appealed to the rich and wealthy, including Mary, Queen of Scotts, who gave a heart shaped diamond ring to Queen Elizabeth I in 1562.
The pear cut was invented in 1458 by Flemish diamond polisher, Lodewyk van Bercken. He also invented the scaif, which transformed the diamond trade. The scaif polishing wheel enabled him to cut facets into diamonds with precision and opened the door to more complex diamond cuts.
Tudor & Stuart Periods (1485 – 1714)
The rose cut was said to resemble a closed rose bud. Introduced to Europe around 1530, it became a favourite diamond cut throughout the 1800s. The most significant trait of a rose cut is that it is flat at the bottom and dome-shaped at the top. The subtle beauty of this cut is that the 24 facets impart a soft diffused light compared to the bright light of the modern brilliant cut.
The briolette cut was derived from the rose cut, and is a three-dimensional tear drop shape with 48 to 88 facets.
In 1811, Napoleon presented his second wife, Empress Marie Louise, with a beautiful diamond necklace containing ten, 4-carat briolette drops. This caused briolette cut diamonds to become highly fashionable and sought after with European royalty throughout the rest of the 19th century.
Single Cut (Eight Cut)
The single (or eight) cut is thought to have originated in India at the same time as the Table Cut, but wasn’t introduced in Europe until the mid-1600s. It consists of a flat table surrounded by eight or nine facets on the crown. Essentially, it’s the same as a square table cut with the edges rounded and faceted.
The Mazarin Cut was invented by the French Cardinal Mazarin in the mid 1600s and was the first true brilliant cut or double-cut brilliant with 17 crown facets. With the increase in facets on its cushion shape, diamonds were now starting to sparkle in the light.
The Peruzzi Cut came about in the 1700s. It was an improved Mazarin Cut with 33 crown facets and was called the triple-cut brilliant. Like the Mazarin Cut, the Peruzzi Cut was cushion-shaped, rather than round. The Peruzzi cut was the inspiration for the old mine cut.
Georgian Period (1714 – 1837)
In the mid 18th century King Louis XV of France commissioned his court jeweller to create a diamond cut to reflect the shape of the mouth of his mistress Marquise de Pompadour. This cut was called the marquise cut, and was also known as the navette cut.
Victorian Era (1837 – 1901)
Diamond cutting was revolutionised in the late 1800s with the invention of the bruting machine, steam-driven bruting machine, and motorised saw, which enabled cutters to shape rounder and more brilliant diamonds.
The diamond rush began in the mid to late 19th century with the discovery of diamonds in South Africa and diamond cutting emerged as a modern industry.
Old Mine Cushion Cut
The old mine cut, also known as the cushion cut, evolved from the Peruzzi cut. This shape is referred to as the great-grandfathers of modern brilliant cuts. It had a slightly curved edge which formed a soft square with a small table, high crown, and larger culet, giving it an architectural look.
In 1847, a massive cache of diamonds, named the Chapada Diamantina (“Diamond Highlands”), was discovered in Brazil. As a result, the old mine cut became the most popular cut for the large quantity of diamonds that came into the market.
Old European Cut (Victorian Cut)
Like the old mine cut, the old European (or Victorian) cut had 58 facets on the crown, with a more rounded profile. It is also considered to be one of the predecessors of the modern brilliant cut. Old European cut diamonds have facets that are thick triangular blocks as opposed to modern round brilliant cuts which have thinner facets.
Old European cut diamonds became popular after the invention of a steam powered diamond lathe in the mid-1870s and the cut remained in vogue until the 1930s.
The transition (or American) cut was invented in the 1870s by a master diamond cutter in America, Henry Morse. He was the first to strive for diamond beauty over size in cutting, which was the opposite of traditional practices which wasted as little rough diamond in the cutting process as possible. He was willing to sacrifice a large percentage of the rough diamond in order to reveal the diamond’s most flattering form.
Edwardian Era – Early Art Deco Period (1901 – 1925)
Diamond engagement rings gained in popularity during the Art Deco era with the round old European cut diamond being the favourite.
The Asscher cut is one of the first patented diamond cuts in the world and was invented by Dutch master diamond cutter, Joseph Asscher of the Royal Asscher Diamond Company in 1902. Classic asscher cut diamonds are cut into squares and resemble emerald cuts, which are rectangular. Asscher cut diamonds are different to a square emerald cut in that they have larger step facets, a higher crown, smaller table and have more brilliance. The corners are cropped to give the shape an octagonal appearance.
Although the baguette cut was invented sometime prior to the mid-1500s, it only gained popularity in 1912 when Cartier reintroduced the cut to the modern world. Its elongated, table cut, rectangular shape became highly fashionable in the geometric craze of the Art Deco period.
The emerald diamond cut emerged as one of the first faceted diamond cuts, third in line after the point cut and the table cut. The cut has a dramatic hall of mirrors effect and was standardised in the 1940s.
Modern Fancy Cuts (1940 – present)
Over time, old European and transition cut diamonds gave way to the modern brilliant cut, which continues to dominate to this day. One of the most famous tag lines for diamonds, “A Diamond Is Forever”, was invented by De Beers in 1947.
Oval diamond cuts have been documented throughout history, with the most famous being the legendary Koh-i-Noor diamond – the eye of a sacred Indian Hindu goddess statue until it was stolen by the Turks in 1310. The modern oval cut was created in the early 1960s by Lazare Kaplan, and is a modern brilliant cut with 58 facets.
The radiant cut was created in 1977 by Hentry Grossbard, a diamond cutter in New York, who aspired to make a square cut with the brilliance of the modern round cuts that were so popular. The original radiant cut diamond had 70 facets on the crown but Grossbard eventually settled on 66.
The modern princess cut diamond is square, and is a competitor of the round brilliant diamond in today’s time. Contrary to popular belief it is not a variation of the radiant cut as it has a totally different facet pattern.
Learn more about the fascinating history of diamonds when you book a tour through the Cape Town Diamond Museum. Open daily from 9am to 9pm at the V&A Waterfront Clock Tower precinct, Cape Town.