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The Ultimate Gift

Appraiser and retailer Stephen Silver, owner of the famed Cullinan Blue diamond necklace, has donated the precious jewel to the Smithsonian Institution

By Nancy Pier Sindt
Unlike other famous diamonds that carry curses or bad luck, the Cullinan Blue has always been surrounded by an aura of love and good fortune. It is a legacy that was continued when retailer Stephen Silver recently presented the historic diamond necklace as a gift to the Smithsonian Institution.

The story began four generations ago, in 1905, when Thomas Cullinan discovered the world’s largest piece of diamond rough — the 3,106-carat Cullinan White — and presented it to England’s King Edward VII. The rough was cut into a number of large diamonds that to this day remain in Britain’s crown jewels. Cullinan was knighted in appreciation of this gift and to celebrate, he gave his wife an Edwardian-styled necklace with a centerpiece of a magnificent blue diamond.

The necklace is a flexible construction of white diamonds with an openwork, bow-shaped center design of white and blue diamonds and an oval, 2.60-carat fancy blue drop. Constructed of silver and gold, the center of the necklace can be detached and worn as a brooch. The necklace remained in Cullinan’s family for four generations, passing from one eldest daughter to the next. In the early 1980s, Anne Robinson, the great-granddaughter of Sir Thomas, brought the necklace to the United States.

When Robinson, who now lives in the Pacific Northwest, decided to sell some of her family’s jewelry collection, she showed the pieces to Silver, a well-known West Coast estate jewelry specialist. He liked the quality of the collection and estimated its value to be around $20,000 to $30,000. It was only then that she showed him the necklace.

Silver says he was unable to put on his usual estate buyer’s neutral expression when he saw the piece. He was astonished by its beauty and condition — it showed no wear and had a lovely patina. When he learned its history, he was determined to buy it, but not for resale. The necklace has a history in geology, jewelry and royalty, Silver says. “I bought it to own it, not to sell it.”

Revolutionizing Appraisals

Silver has always followed his own path, with his business evolving naturally over time. A Gemological Institute of America (GIA) graduate, he opened the S.H. Silver Company in Menlo Park, California, in 1980 with about $3,000 in his pocket and a deep love of gems and gemology. From the beginning, he specialized in appraisals but, unlike most appraisers at the time who required several days to complete their work, Silver offered a service of while-you-wait/while-you-watch appraisals. Within a few years, he dominated the appraisal business in his area and expanded into buying estate pieces from his clients.

Over the past decade, the business evolved further, and Silver concentrated on buying larger, unique pieces that he sold through auction to high-end retailers or private clients. His relationships with a network of top dealers took his sales to an international level and his clients can be found on every continent. In addition to the estate business, S.H. Silver also designs and manufactures original pieces created around unique gemstones, sometimes actually recutting the stones.

The Unexpected

What Silver never expected was to open a retail operation. “I swore I’d never go into the retail business, but a good friend ‘twisted my arm’ to do it,” he says. His retail space, however, is unlike any other. Stephen Silver Fine Jewelry is located in what was originally designated as a coat closet in the very upscale Rosewood Sand Hill Hotel on the Stanford University campus, just a few miles from Menlo Park. The intimate boutique, whose inventory ranges from small gift items to million-dollar-plus jewelry, is visited by locals who lunch at the hotel and visitors who are there to do business with one of the huge venture capital firms in the area.

Silver says he personally trains his sales staff so they have a complete knowledge of the product, from metalwork to cutting and design, and he encourages them to have the customers play with the jewelry and enjoy themselves. The boutique sells all categories of jewelry, including diamond engagement rings, estate jewelry and modern pieces made with unique gemstones.

After Silver acquired the Cullinan Blue diamond necklace, he continued to research its history. He hired a jewelry historian to look into its background, interviewed two generations of owners and gradually came around to the idea of loaning it to the Smithsonian’s National Gem Collection. Although the Smithsonian has a policy of accepting only gifts, not loans, Jeffrey Post, curator of the collection, agreed that the beauty and history of this piece made it worthy of an exception. The necklace was put on display in 1993 and remained there for one year; it was returned to Silver when the gemology department was redesigned. At the time, Post joked with Silver that he hoped someday Silver would be successful enough to donate the necklace to the museum. That wish came true in September 2010.

In addition to donating this unique necklace — valued in excess of $6 million — Silver has conducted a series of events to support the Smithsonian. He says his goal is to bring in more people to view the museum’s collection and to encourage some of his well-heeled clients to support the museum. “I want to support the continuing development of our national gem collection,” he says.

The activities and publicity surrounding the museum’s new acquisition were numerous. After a private dinner and large public reception in Menlo Park, where the necklace was on display, Silver and a number of friends and clients flew to Washington, D.C., for the official presentation. During their stay, they visited other notable museums and got a private tour of the Smithsonian’s gemology department before the official unveiling of the necklace, which is currently on exhibit in a shadowbox next to the Hope Diamond.

“I feel fortunate to be in a position to do this kind of thing,” Silver says. In the jewelry industry, “what we do is a practice rather than a business — a practice of art.”

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - November 2010. To subscribe click here.

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