Diamond history and a new ring

Here, my ducklings, here is something shiny to look at today.

1/2 ct champagne diamond.

There are historical reasons why diamonds are used in engagement rings, so let’s talk about that.

Diamonds were used by the Romans thousands of years ago to symbolize agreements of state which could not be broken; to express that a contract was as unbreakable as the hardest substance known to man: the diamond.  Later, the diamond came to be used in rings exchanged at the state weddings of royals, again to symbolize the permanency of these important unions.  From there, diamonds worked their way into engagement rings, into heraldry, into state seals.

natural octahedral form

But these weren’t the diamonds we know today.  The faceting of diamonds is quite recent, within the last several hundred years, and the diamonds used historically were diamonds in their raw octahedron form, and later those cleaned up a bit into an eight-sided “point cut”.  So coveted was the octahedral diamond that it inspired many copy-cats, and metalsmiths  set their rings with quartz and glass shaped to mimic the diamond’s natural shape.  Cut, color, clarity?  Nope.  The diamond’s sparkle had nothing to do with its value.

L to R: 3rd-early 4th c AD Syria, 3rd cAD, crystal cut to mimic point cut diamond, 16th c point cut diamond

Moreover, it was the setting that was often the star of these historical rings. The natural octahedral diamond is difficult to set, and goldsmiths twisted and coaxed pure  gold around the diamond’s unwieldy shape to create architectural structures beautiful in themselves.  The setting was not just a framework to hold the diamond, but essential to the beauty of the piece; it was art.

L to R: 16th C table cut diamond, c. 1610 rosecut diamond, 17th c rosecut
L to R: 16th C table cut diamond, c. 1610 rose cut diamond, 17th rose cut diamond

The 16oo’s brought advances in stone cutting, and the diamond’s octahedral shape was faceted away into the forerunners of modern diamond cuts.  First came the table cut, with one of the octahedron’s points lopped off and polished to reflect light, then came rose cuts and basic brilliant cuts.  As faceting allowed more light to enter the stone, bezels were minimized to optimize that light,  and settings were scaled back to become little more than  the means of showing off the new faceted stones.  Their assets played up by the new faceting techniques and more open settings, white diamonds began their march towards popularity.

Viola!  The modern engagement ring was born.

There are so many things to value about a diamond.  Its cool, natural, eight-sided shape.  The beautiful, earthy range of colors diamonds offer.  The play of light in a clear diamond,  the luster of a Coca Cola-colored diamond.  Their rich history.  To whittle away at this wealth of value until we have hyper-focused on the cut, color and clarity of the whitest of white diamonds seems to be losing sight of the reasons we valued diamonds in the first place.

So what is important in a diamond?  Whatever you decide is important.  For me?  The faceted champagne is the epitome of what a diamond should be.  Warm, shimmering, rich.  I love them, and a shipment of champagnes arriving is always a special moment.  I open the package before the Fed Ex man is even off my doorstep, holding up the little bags up to the sun where they sparkle…. like diamonds.

Much of my information comes from Diana Scarisbrick’s wonderful book:  Rings: Jewelery of Power, Love and Loyalty. A fascinating look at the use and styles of rings throughout history.


5 thoughts on “Diamond history and a new ring

  1. Spiffy. It strikes me that the octagon can’t be a coincidence– so many places where 8 is a special number— feng shui and yoga both come to mind immediately.

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