Rapaport Magazine

The Charmed Ones

Can vintage diamonds be graded by new cut standards, or do they require special criteria for evaluating cut?

By Ettagale Blauer
Old European cut diamond ring,
courtesy Lee Siegelson.

Suppose you drove your beautifully buffed, perfectly tuned antique roadster to a car auction only to be told it doesn’t meet today’s mileage requirements and needs seat belts? That’s how dealers in antique cut diamonds feel about receiving Gemological Institute of America (GIA) certificates that give their old European cut diamonds a “poor” cut grade. According to many dealers, it’s not a fair contest. These stones were cut before diamantaires — and consumers — were taught to look for “ideal” cut stones with triple EX ratings for excellent cut, polish and symmetry.
   That’s the dilemma the GIA is trying to resolve with the help of a committee of industry experts. It’s not going to be easy. In 2006, the GIA introduced a cut grade for modern 58-facet diamonds. It took decades for the lab to come up with standards for the regular round diamond. Applying those standards to old European cuts, rounds from another time, is proving both elusive and controversial.

Unique Qualities
   How do you measure charm and beauty? Those are the very qualities that sellers of antique cut diamonds, and their clientele, treasure. Currently, the GIA decides whether a stone should even receive an old European cut grade based on whether it meets three out of four specific criteria: the size of the table, the depth of the pavilion facets, the depth of the crown facets and the size of the culet. If it does meet three of those criteria, it is labeled “old European” and is not given a cut grade. The certificate simply awards grades for its color and clarity. And dealers are happy with those certificates. It’s up to them, after all, to demonstrate to the client the soft beauty and unique characteristics of the diamond. But, if a stone does not meet three of those four criteria, then it does receive a cut grade, and all too often, that grade is “poor” or “fair” because it is being graded on the same standards as a modern 58-facet, Tolkowsky-type stone.
   Lee Siegelson, a New York City jewelry dealer known for rare and beautiful gems, jewels and objects, says, “‘Fair’ means it’s not perfectly symmetrical. But does that make it better or more beautiful? It’s a dealer question; the lab is giving a grade according to its standards.” Other than color and clarity, he says, grading other characteristics of an antique stone “makes it something more of a commodity. These stones by their nature are not all the same. Sometimes the ‘poorer’ is better” at revealing the quiet beauty of the material. An ideal cut grade, the grade that applies to modern cuts of 58 facets that show hearts and arrows symmetry under magnification, says Siegelson, “is all numbers.” For Siegelson, as for other dealers in antique diamonds, “It’s in the eye of the beholder. This is what I like about this diamond. These are the reasons I think it is beautiful. Aesthetically, this is what I like about it.”

Developing A System
   Not only does grading these stones according to modern criteria displease the dealers, it’s not really one of GIA’s favorite things to do, either. John King, chief quality officer at the lab, says the problem is “driven by different definitions of what is an old-style cut.” Moreover, he confesses right up front, “There have been inconsistencies on our part.” With a global staff, it’s virtually impossible to be sure graders will deliver consistent opinions in evaluating older stones.
   But the problem, King says, “is also in determining how to describe diamonds that fall into a ‘transitional’ category that are modifications of old European cuts.” Right now, it is up to the lab to decide whether to call a stone a round brilliant, and grade it according to contemporary standards, or to call it an old European and simply state color and clarity.
   The lab is looking now at a possible third category, one that addresses diamonds that are not strictly old European but are not cut to modern round brilliant criteria. To do this, GIA has been meeting with members of the trade. The question: “Can we define characteristics of these transitional cuts that would allow us to describe them differently?” At the same time, King wants to avoid an unintended consequence: “We don’t want a poorly cut modern round brilliant to get by without a cut grade. We have been trying to find aspects of the proportions so we can truly address these charming old cuts.” Toward the end of March 2013, King says, he met with members of the trade group. “We are vetting potential proportion parameters with them, as well as naming conventions for this area of cut.”
   These are matters of considerable concern for dealers of antique cuts. Doug Liebman, who deals extensively in antique diamonds in Scottsdale, Arizona, says, “The GIA criteria — that if a stone has three of the four measurements, it’s old European — knocks out 90 percent of my diamonds” and they don’t receive a cut grade. Liebman cites a recent example of the lengths dealers will go to in order to protect both the integrity of the stone and the sale. “I had a ring by Tiffany, marked 1888 inside, with a chipped stone. I sold it ‘as is’ without touching up the diamond, so as not to affect the history and provenance.”
   Rick Shatz, a New York City–based dealer in antique diamonds, says, “Some people put a lot of weight on the cut grades. With a modern cut, it may be important,” but it doesn’t help when it comes to old European cuts. “These stones have more charisma and are unique. The look of the stone is more important,” he says, than the cut grade.
   San Francisco–based Suzanne Martinez, of Lang Antiques, an expert in the field who maintains the very informative website, Antique Jewelry University, says putting a “poor” cut grade on an old European cut is a major problem. “Most were cut to save weight,” she notes. When she presents a beautiful old diamond to a customer who wants a certificate, and that certificate says the cut is “poor,” she must spend considerable time explaining that away. Yet customers want certificates; they’ve been well trained by the trade to expect them.

New Criteria
   Antique cut diamond and antique jewelry dealer Richard Buonomo, based in New York City, has been helping GIA wrestle with these issues as a member of the trade committee. “As a gemological lab, it has to develop hard criteria for everything it does. It’s very difficult for those categories to reflect the look and feel of any old cut. I believe GIA could get a lot closer. The basic problem is it is stuck on a four-part criteria. When a stone does not meet the criteria, it becomes subject to modern standards.”
   Laying out the three grading options he sees for older stones, Buonomo summarizes them as: “Can they do nothing?” That’s not acceptable. “Can they re-tool the definition of old European to fit many more stones? Or do they come up with a third category that would fit between?” These “transitional” stones, as they are being called, he says, are “stones that represent some history. They were not aiming for ideal stone measurements. That is where the committee work is now. Do we redefine old European or create a third category” to accommodate them?
   Buonomo opts for the third category, “a much more flexible, broader definition of old European that will fit the needs of the trade.” It would encompass many more stones and give dealers the gilt-edge GIA certificates they need without the negative grades that put them on the defensive with their customers. He sums up the work needed to be done with the old medical directive: “First: Do no harm.” 

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - May 2013. To subscribe click here.

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