Rapaport Magazine

A Diamond Dynasty

One of the most recognizable names associated with vintage diamonds, the Royal Asscher Diamond Company today is run by the fifth and sixth generations with respect for the past and an eye to the future.

By Phyllis Schiller
RAPAPORT... Our company has been in business since 1854. I’m the sixth generation,” sums up Lita Asscher, president, Royal Asscher of America, who works along with her father and brother in the long-standing family business. While the company’s name has changed several times along its timeline, its place in the diamond world’s history has remained at the forefront.

What’s in a Name?
In 1854, diamond cutter Joseph Isaac Asscher began the I.J. Asscher Diamond Company in Amsterdam, naming it after his son, Isaac Joseph Asscher, who followed in his father’s footsteps in the diamond industry. But it is Isaac’s two sons, Joseph and Abraham, who helped the renamed Asscher Diamond Company leave its mark on twentieth-century diamond history.

The creation of the Asscher cut by Joseph in 1902 ushered in the heyday of the company. The patented square-cut design, which allowed for an increased amount of reflected light and brilliance, cemented the company’s role as diamond-cutting experts, their reputation further enhanced by the cutting of two historic stones.  

In 1903, Abraham was tasked with cutting the 997-carat Excelsior Diamond, billed at the time as the “largest diamond ever found.” Inclusions in the diamond necessitated it being cut into ten pieces, a tricky feat calling for expert handling. But its fame was eclipsed, four years later, by the discovery of the 3,105-carat Cullinan diamond, also known as the Star of Africa. Asked by England’s King Edward VII to cut the diamond for Great Britain’s Crown Jewels, Joseph sailed to London to collect the stone. “While people thought the stone was being brought to Amsterdam in a Scotland Yard submarine,” says Lita, “Joseph actually put the diamond in one pocket and a gun in the other and took the regular passenger boat.”

Given the size of the stone, the first time Joseph hit it,” relates Lita, “the blade broke, not the diamond. So in order to cut the Cullinan, he had to stop and make much larger tools. The second time, the diamond split into three pieces exactly as calculated, from which nine stones eventually were cut. We still have those original tools in our office in Amsterdam.”

A Cut Above

Over time, the company experimented with variations of the Asscher cut, Lita points out, but it was the one from the 1920s “that was most popular and is still the one most people make. The old Asscher cut had a high crown, because that’s where the light comes out of when you cut a square stone.”

The company produced the cut until the Nazis seized its diamonds in the Second World War, closing Asscher’s Amsterdam headquarters and sending the family and workers to concentration camps. “After the Second World War, of the 700 people who worked for us, only 15 came back,” says Lita. “Everything we had in our company was gone.” During that time, the patent for the cut expired.

“Today, the Asscher cut has become a generic term,” Lita notes. “A lot of people call their stones Asscher cuts but they’re just square emerald cuts. What you often see these days have very flat tops so the table is really large and the crown is really low.” This is done, she says, “to lose less of the rough diamond. But what you miss is the light the higher crown created.” It is in the “real vintage, Art Deco, beautiful pieces,” Lita explains, that you can see the true Asscher cut diamond with its high crown, high table.

Building the Future
After the Second World War, the surviving Asscher family members rebuilt the company, reclaiming the original 1854 building in Amsterdam. At the time, Lita explains, the round brilliant was the most requested stone but in the late 1990s, her father, Edward, noted that the popularity of the Asscher was resurfacing, and he and his brother Joop decided it was time to revisit the company’s famed cut. But, says Lita, they wanted  “to create something that combines our century-old craftsmanship with modern technology. So they took the old patent drawings and put them in a computer program that calculated the optimal dispersion of light and brilliancy when you added facets to the original cut.”

The result, introduced in 2001, was the Royal Asscher Cut diamond, with 16 facets more than the original, for a total of 74. “If you look at the Asscher cut from the 1920s, it has that feel to it that it’s a brilliant, but it also has that rainbow effect of a square cut,” says Lita, and in creating the Royal Asscher, they kept that feeling. It’s that combination of “stars and rainbows,” Lita says, “that make the difference. In my family, we always say, ‘a good cut diamond is something you fall in love with.’ And that’s what we cut to.”

The “Royal” in the diamond’s name represents yet another change in the company name. “In 1980, Queen Juliana of Holland gave us that title because we had been in the industry for such a long time and had played such a significant role,” says Lita.

The nature of that role, Lita points out, has included an involvement in social and ethical issues. “Prior to the Second World War, we had built houses near our headquarters, which we rented to our employees. When the war ended, they were sold to those workers who returned for a nominal amount — two and a half guilders, not even a dollar in U.S. currency — which gave the people who had been so instrumental in our success the best possible opportunity to rebuild their lives postwar. My family also started a foundation that helps people in the diamond industry in general.”

A Family Legacy
The current generations of Asschers are continuing that commitment to helping people. “In 2008, I, along with my father and brother, started the Star of Africa project,” says Lita. “It has two goals: to help children in Africa stop working in the mines and provide them with healthcare, education and food, and to award microeconomic grants to families to help them develop alternate sources of support and enable them to become self-sufficient.”

There is one office in the Amsterdam headquarters that has been restored to the way it was when it was built and it has the portraits of the company’s founding Asschers, says Lita. “When I sit there with my father and my brother, it’s like we’re having a conversation with everybody at the same time. We are a family company and we want to stay a family company in the next 50 years. A lot of the jewelers in the United States are still not aware enough that the Asscher family is actually still alive. The Asscher family is still cutting the Royal Asscher Cut and we will do that for a long time.”

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - October 2009. To subscribe click here.

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