Auction  September 30, 2019  Ettagale Blauer

Chronicling the History of Diamonds in one Impressive Collection

Courtesy Les Enluminures

The Spitzer Renaissance Point Cut Diamond

The exhibition and sale, Diamonds: The Collection of Benjamin Zucker, opening on October 24 and running through November 9, at Les Enluminures in New York City, represents the culmination of a lifetime of dedicated and informed collecting by diamond merchant, Benjamin Zucker.

Comprising  thirty-five jewels, mainly rings, the collection tells two remarkable stories–three actually: first, the origin of diamonds in India; next, a time-line of diamond cutting techniques over the past six centuries, and interwoven in it, the adventures of Benjamin Zucker in his quest to amass these remarkable bits of historic, material culture. All three stories are told in the exhibition and in the accompanying book, Diamonds, The Collection of Benjamin Zucker, by jewelry historian Diana Scarisbrick.   

Zucker was bitten hard by the collecting bug when he saw the renaissance collection of Melvin Gutman sold at a Sotheby’s auction in the 1970s. He brought an unusual background to his newfound quest: a three-generation family history in the rough and polished diamond trade, as well as a scholar’s background through his studies at Yale.

Courtesy Les Enluminures

Sultan Muhammad of Ghors Diamond Ring

From the beginning, Zucker was focused on a collection he calls a Musee Imaginaire, and he set out to make it a reality with his first purchases.  He has been buying, amassing and exhibiting his collections since the 1970s. The current exhibition and sale is the culmination of everything he has learned, and gathered throughout his life as a dedicated collector.

He set out to create a collection that would demonstrate and document the changes in diamonds from their discovery in India.  Although diamonds from the “Valley of Gems,” a vast region stretching across India, were written about for nearly two millennia, the real story of their role as the first source of gem diamonds began about 600 years ago. The diamonds from this region are generally referred to as Golconda and are considered to be exceptionally pure, with a luminous transparency often referred to as soft and limpid.

Courtesy Les Enluminures

The Spitzer Renaissance Point Cut Diamond

The history of diamond cutting is captured in the rings Zucker collected beginning with the octahedral shape. The octahedral is not actually a diamond cut; it is nature’s gift to the history of the precious stone: the form some diamonds take when they are formed deep in the earth. The perfectly formed octahedral diamond set into Sultan Muhammad of Ghor’s diamond ring dates from the 13th century. Although the ring was made in Afghanistan or Pakistan, the diamond is undoubtedly of Golconda origin.  

While these early diamonds don’t exhibit the flash of light or brilliance of contemporary diamonds, they offer the essential quality of a diamond and captivate us with their incredible hardness, the quality that allows them to survive through the centuries.

The first significant effort to change the appearance of the diamond through cutting is seen in the Spitzer Renaissance Point Cut diamond, set in a ring in Italy in the 16th century. The pointcut diamond essentially maintains the octahedral shape but the planes are worked sufficiently to create the distinctive points. The use of diamond dust, assiduously abraded against the diamond with oil, smooths out surface imperfections.

Courtesy Les Enluminures

The Guilhou Renaissance Table Cut Diamond

The Guilhou Renaissance Table Cut Diamond, dating also from the16th century, exemplifies the next step in diamond polishing. This cut further modifies the octahedron by removing the top of the pyramid, creating a large flat facet at the top of the stone, hence the name, ‘table.’ By allowing more light to be reflected and refracted, there is a notable increase in brilliance.

The next step in cutting, the rose cut, is exemplified by the Dutch Rose Jewel, perhaps from the Netherlands, dating to the early 18th century. Facets are arranged on the top portion of the diamond to emulate the petals of a flower. This jewel offers eight large rose-cut diamonds, each with slight body color, perhaps the earliest example of the use of colored diamonds. Rose cut diamonds vary as to the number of facets but this style of cutting is a clear predecessor to the brilliant cut diamond.

Courtesy Les Enluminures

The Dutch Rose Jewel

The most modern cut in the Zucker collection, the brilliant cut diamond, is featured in the St. Alban’s Bodkin. This 17th century piece, originally a hairpin, presages the modern brilliant cut, designed by Marcel Tolkowsky in 1919 although it retains the soft look of old-cut diamonds.

Courtesy Les Enluminures

The St. Alban's Bodkin

Zucker’s collection captures a moment in time, and rescues diamonds that might have been re-cut in an effort to make them more brilliant.  His dedicated effort to find, and purchase, the finest examples of antique diamonds in period settings, has led to this unique collection. Zucker hopes the collection will be purchased as a unit, by a buyer who will exhibit it in the future. For now, he has satisfied his desire to create a collection that captures the history of the diamond and he is now dedicated to sharing it with a public that appreciates his interest in antiquity.

About the Author

Ettagale Blauer

Ettagale Blauer is an author and authority on all aspects of jewelry design, wristwatches, as well as diamonds and gold, and is the author of Contemporary American Jewelry Design, the seminal book on the subject. She has also written extensively about Africa, including a series of books for Grolier Publishing. Most recently, she published Woodstock 1969, The Lasting Impact of the Counter Culture, with photography by Jason Lauré, available now from the author.

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