Monday 20th November 2017

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Posts tagged ‘emeralds’

Pomp and plunder

September 23rd, 2017

Indians increasingly dominate diamonds, but their most fabled stone remains elusive

by Greg Klein

Maybe it’s fitting that Indians, said to be the first to truly appreciate the gems, have returned to such prominence in the global diamond trade. The country’s alluvial finds constituted the world’s main source until supplanted by Brazil in the early 18th century. Although Indians originally held rubies and emeralds in even higher esteem, their admiration for diamonds spread to neighbouring cultures and beyond. The story of the Koh-i-Noor shows how one stone came to be associated not only with beauty, majesty and mystery but, more recently, with controversy too.

Indians increasingly dominate diamonds, but their most fabled stone eludes them

By no means the largest diamond ever found, it’s nevertheless been credited with good luck and blamed for misfortune. Some viewers found it dazzling for its brilliance, others were disappointed by its dimness. But it passed through a number of empires, often amid horrific bloodshed, before ending up in Britain’s Crown Jewels. Authors William Dalrymple and Anita Anand recount the rock’s odyssey in their recently published Koh-i-Noor: The History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond.

While revelling in the myths, legends, propaganda and guesswork associated with the stone, the writers try to set the historical record straight with previously untranslated documents and new gemmological research that reconstructs the Koh-i-Noor as a rough stone.

Ancient accounts refer to a number of large Indian diamonds which could include the Koh-i-Noor. Some were bigger and believed to transmit supernatural power, but the Koh-i-Noor eventually prevailed as the most renowned. Even so, the first definite written reference doesn’t come until the mid-18th century, referring back to northern India’s 17th-century Mughal emperor Shah Jahan.

Such was his captivation for precious stones that they all but monopolized his attention at a banquet featuring a dozen dancing girls of “lascivious and suggestive dress, immodest behaviour and posturing.” In 1635 he made the Koh-i-Noor the centrepiece of his Peacock Throne. An especially lavish piece of furniture meant to evoke the Koranic Solomon’s throne, it cost twice as much to build as the Taj Mahal.

Indians increasingly dominate diamonds, but their most fabled stone eludes them

The Queen Mother’s crown features the Koh-i-Noor
within a Maltese cross between two fleurs-de-lys.

Eventually the Mughals dismantled their seat of ostentation and the Koh-i-Noor became in turn a symbol of power for Persians, the Durrani Empire of Afghanistan and the Sikh empire, as each looting victor became a looted victim. Finally an 1849 treaty ending the Second Anglo-Sikh War ordered a terrified 10-year-old Maharajah Duleep Singh to surrender the celebrated stone to Queen Victoria.

Surviving a perilous voyage, the rock went on display to widespread public anticipation at the 1851 Crystal Palace Great Exhibition. It bombed.

Prince Albert tried to enhance the stone’s effect with gas lamps and angled mirrors. That fizzled too, as the props “turned the display into a sauna, causing visitors to swoon after only a few minutes. The press began to blame the Koh-i-Noor for being difficult, as if it were some kind of contrary and disappointing child.”

Albert then summoned experts who agreed that the diamond “was flawed at its very heart. Yellow flecks ran through a plane at its centre, one of which was large and marred its ability to refract light.” The authorities disagreed, however, on whether the gem could be re-cut without wrecking it. Eventually two of the world’s top pros arrived from Amsterdam and set to work with a state-of-the-art steam-powered grinder in a specially designed shop.

Their bill, for a few months of work, amounted to over a million pounds in today’s terms. Despite assurances to the contrary, moreover, they savaged the stone’s size from 190.3 carats to 93 carats. But dazzle it did. With an unusual symmetry of 33 facets each above and below the gem’s “table,” the cutters redeemed both the stone’s beauty and its public image.

Indians increasingly dominate diamonds, but their most fabled stone eludes them

It helped Victoria dazzle too, in those years before she went into morbid mourning. Waltzing with Napoleon III before 1,200 guests at Versailles, she wore a white satin gown and a diadem adorned with almost 3,000 small diamonds. Among them, the great K “gleamed like a third eye.” Other royal figures ordered it mounted and re-mounted on various regalia until the Queen Mother had it placed in its current crown. She sported the headgear at her daughter’s coronation. But for some reason (maybe trepidation about its supposed curse, the authors suggest), Elizabeth II has never worn it.

Since then, calls for its return have come from competitors, among them India, Pakistan and even the Taliban.

“Others have suggested that it be cut up once again and a piece each given to all those countries that make a credible argument for its return—including modern-day Iran and Afghanistan. But it is most unlikely that such Solomonic wisdom would ever be entertained by the British, nor indeed would it satisfy any of the various parties involved.”

The most persistent calls come from Indians. Equally tenacious has been Britain in its refusals. On a 2010 visit to Punjab, the authors relate, then-PM David Cameron said, “If you say yes to one you suddenly find the British Museum would be empty.”

Yet the country where the great diamond first came to prominence returned to diamond prominence itself late last century. Ironically that happened not due to gems of magnificence but through smaller, lower-quality stones originating in other countries and disdained by the rest of the trade. Through such humble beginnings, the west coast city of Surat now handles more than 80%, or even 90%, of the world’s cutting and polishing work. Mumbai, 290 kilometres south, hosts the world’s biggest diamond bourse. In the world diamond-sorting capital of Antwerp, Indians conduct about three-quarters of the business.

As for rough supply, Rio Tinto NYSE:RIO walked out on the country’s best hope for a major diamond mine in February, when the company handed ownership of the Bunder deposit, once anticipated for 2019 production, to the state government of Madhya Pradesh.

Meanwhile the Dalrymple/Anand book has reportedly spawned renewed activity in the search for India’s alluvial diamonds, maybe even another Koh-i-Noor, with all its blessings and curses.

A stoned study of history

December 17th, 2015

A jeweller takes a fun look at how passions affect commodity values

by Greg Klein

Last year’s Swiss referendum about a partial return to the gold standard had two irreconcilable creeds challenging each other’s dogma. Gold believers expressed little or no faith in paper money while gold deniers showed absolutely no faith in yellow metal. One of the latter even compared gold to the “useless” stone currency of the Micronesian island of Yap.

Of course such an argument can be turned against any currency, not to mention any metal, mineral or other commodity not deemed essential to life as we know it. Moods, emotions and all sorts of subjective stuff prop up or tear down currencies, commodity prices and markets. That’s a subject explored by Aja Raden in Stoned: Jewelry, Obsession, and How Desire Shapes the World.

A jeweller takes a fun look at how passions affect commodity values

Scandalous stories about jewelry supposedly belonging to Marie
Antoinette helped spark the French Revolution, Aja Raden says.

It’s partly a book about rocks that she says helped change the course of history. But there’s little or nothing here about copper, iron, coal or uranium, let alone the lithium, cobalt and graphite poised to transform our own age. As for gold and silver, they get scant attention. The author, a jewelry designer, gives diamonds and emeralds prominence, as well as some surprising non-minerals that have also captivated masses of people.

With considerably more enthusiasm than accuracy, Raden takes readers along an entertaining romp through history with lots of digressions that explain her take on commodity values. For example, the natives who sold Manhattan for glass beads remained happy with the deal long afterwards, she says. They had little use for the island and the colourful Venetian-manufactured trinkets were a currency of their time, much like the tribe’s wampum. Few people nowadays would criticize the deal, Raden argues, had the natives been given a sackful of diamonds.

But what are diamonds worth? “Gemstones are, in fact, just colourful gravel. They’re just rocks that we’ve given special names. True jewels are things that are beautiful and scarce.”

Or perceived to be beautiful and scarce. Raden tells us that tulipomania, “the first recorded economic bubble in history,” destroyed Holland’s economy. “By late 1636, at the height of the frenzy, the middle and lower classes were selling their homes and farmland to buy a single bulb. Like contemporary house flippers, they believed the bulb’s value was real, and that it could only continue to go up.” But when the bulb bubble burst, half of Holland fell destitute, she writes.

A jeweller takes a fun look at how passions affect commodity values

Psychological factors can affect one’s perception of scarcity, but so can market manipulation. That, along with one of the great advertising campaigns of all time, explains how De Beers “pulled off one of the greatest con jobs in history.” After the one-company cartel cornered virtually all diamond production, it manipulated scarcity by selling as many or as few stones as it wanted. With that kind of control on prices, De Beers went on to manipulate demand.

The company’s ad agency actually invented a tradition, Raden maintains. Until about 1947, a diamond ring wasn’t necessary to the engagement ritual. After “a diamond is forever” hit consumers, women became convinced “that ‘a proposal is not a real proposal without a diamond.’ Then slogans like ‘What’s two months’ salary for something that’ll last forever?’ even dictated the terms of what the engagement rings should cost—on a sliding scale, of course.”

As a result, “a diamond ring is the only piece of jewelry that [everyone] expects to buy or receive.”

Ah, the passions invested in these rocks. Raden claims the course of history has changed a number of times due to specific precious objects and the emotions people worked into them. She tells us, for example, about “the necklace that started the French Revolution” and the role of Fabergé eggs in creating the Soviet Union.

But you’d have to take her re-interpretations of history on faith because the book’s riddled with factual errors. Dutch weren’t mining African diamonds in the 17th century. Great Britain didn’t exist in the 17th century. The Edict of Nantes didn’t cause the expulsion of French Protestants. Maria Teresa didn’t rule the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Edward the Confessor wasn’t a pope.

Oh, and a bit of geography—Egypt isn’t in the Western Hemisphere.

But amid all these blunders, she writes:

Economics requires the wilful suspension of disbelief; in other words, the act of choosing to ignore reality in a specific situation. For example, when watching a play, we all agree to believe, during the play, that the actors can’t see us and don’t know that we’re there. If we didn’t, the illusion would be broken, and the play couldn’t continue. From burst tulip-market bubbles, to burst housing-market bubbles, someone, and then everyone, aggressively reintroduces reality, first in the form of doubt, and then in the form of panic (otherwise known as ‘shaken consumer confidence’). And it can destroy an economy in days; that’s how you get bank runs and stock-market crashes.

Observations like that are Stone’s strength, but the book definitely needs a disclaimer about backward-looking statements. Historical narrative shouldn’t require readers to suspend disbelief, as HarperCollins editors must have been doing while working on this manuscript.

Bling goes ka-ching with $22-million diamond ring

April 22nd, 2015

by Greg Klein | April 22, 2015

“Unlike any diamond offered at auction before,” according to Sotheby’s, a 100-carat stone sold for $22.1 million in New York on April 21. One of only six “perfect” diamonds above 100 carats auctioned in the last 25 years, the Emerald-cut, D-colour and internally flawless rock, mounted on a platinum ring, outshone a sale of exceptional opulence that totalled over $65 million.

Bling goes ka-ching with $22-million diamond ring

The diamond “captivated people around the world”
but other jewelry also fetched remarkable prices.

“The stone captivated people around the world throughout our extensive travels this spring, but it was a particular privilege to offer it at our New York headquarters,” said Lisa Hubbard of Sotheby’s International Jewelry Division.

The diamond came from a southern Africa De Beers mine, according to media reports. The BBC said the stone took a year to cut, polish and perfect. Rapaport News reported that applause greeted the sale as an anonymous buyer phoned in the successful bid.

“The market for highly important diamonds was in evidence elsewhere in the sale as well,” Sotheby’s added. Another platinum and diamond ring went for $3.3 million, an 18-karat gold, fancy purplish diamond and sapphire ring got $2.4 million and a necklace of platinum, emerald, sapphire, lapis lazuli and diamond pendant “soared past its pre-sale high estimate to $2.6 million.”

Applause notwithstanding, Rapaport described the event as “a quiet sale with a very strong total,” adding that buyers paid “strong but sane sums for top-quality gems and jewelry.”

One day earlier Lucara Diamond TSX:LUC stated it found a 342-carat stone of “exceptional colour and clarity” from its Botswana operation.

Read about diamond supply and demand.

Read about diamond mining in Canada.