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Style & Design

Real or replica?



John Nels Hatleberg creates precise reproductions of iconic diamonds for elite clients — and once made a line of chocolates shaped like the Hope.

By Phyllis Schiller


It is said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. For John Nels Hatleberg, it is a passion. A conceptual gem artist who also does private client jewelry, he is best known for his exacting replicas of famous diamonds.

When he was 10 years old, a public school geology class offered the future lapidary a chance to examine an agate, an amethyst crystal and a piece of pyrite.

“I couldn’t believe these things came out of the ground,” Hatleberg recalls. “And I still can’t.”

To encourage his fascination with these natural objects, his parents arranged for him to study cabochon cutting with a class of retirees.

“As the only child there, I was given a box to stand on, and I started cutting agate,” he says. “When it was over, my parents signed me up again. Two years later, when I was still in elementary school, my mother found another teacher who gave private faceting lessons from the basement workshop he shared with his wife, who gave jewelry classes. From the end of elementary school until I went to college, essentially every Saturday morning, I would cut gems with him.”

After college, Hatleberg studied at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan.

A connection to the Smithsonian came early on, thanks to his mother, who worked as the documentary photographer there for the mineral section. When her son was 16 years old, she learned that the education department was looking for someone to give a faceting demonstration during the summer at the National Museum of Natural History.

“I would do faceting demonstrations in the morning, and in the afternoon they let me work in the back room of the Smithsonian,” Hatleberg recounts. “It was incredible for me. I did that two summers in a row, in 1973 and 1974.”

A piece of the story

Although he would not work on his Hope Diamond replica until 2014, it was on December 5, 1988 — when the Hope was taken off display to be photographed — that Hatleberg received permission to take what he calls his manicure and pedicure of the diamond. This entailed “essentially making a silicone mold of the crown and the pavilion. The purpose was so I could make a mold in order to make Hope Diamond chocolates.”

He also designed a box for the candy, going through 16 versions until he felt it was up to the level of the diamond. The final version of the box is now part of the Cooper Hewett museum’s collection in New York.

“I came up with the idea of the Hope Diamond chocolates because the women I saw standing in front of the Hope Diamond display would touch their necks as if they were wearing the stone. I wanted to literally give them their own piece of the Hope Diamond.” Hatleberg says he loved the idea of giving everyone access to one of the most powerful objects on earth. (Although he no longer makes the chocolates regularly, he occasionally does custom runs.)

It was the idea of being able to hold something as beautiful as these diamonds that compelled him to make the replicas. “I think in the back of my mind, I was trying to figure out a way that I could hold and touch them.”

This has remained an incentive for — and an added bonus of — working on his diamond creations, starting with the very first in 1988. At the time, diamantaire Marvin Samuels had the Incomparable diamond on display at the Smithsonian. “I worked on the finished 407-carat flawless stone, making him a mold of the crystal and then a series of resin caps of the crystal,” relates Hatleberg.

However, he credits diamond jeweler William Goldberg with truly starting him on the road to replicas in 1989. “I had heard of the Guinea Star and told him that I wanted to make a replica. It was early on, and I proposed making him resin models. Instead, he said, ‘While resin models are wonderful, they’re not hard or brilliant like diamonds. You’re a gem cutter; why don’t you use these resin models to cut me a real replica?’”

A long list of customers

The first person to want a replica of the Hope Diamond was Napoleon III of France, according to Hatleberg. “In trying to regain the throne, he was seeking a symbol to represent the status the French Empire had lost when the crown jewels were sold off.”

That version of the Hope Diamond “probably didn’t look at all like the diamond,” he continues. “With the limited technology available, it was just colored glass without the optical effects, such as a diamond’s dispersions, brilliance, etc. So I would call that a copy.”

On the list of those that have commissioned Hatleberg’s modern replicas are diamantaires, museums and jewelers, as well as companies like De Beers. Their reasons for wanting one also fill a list. Mostly, he says, it’s to keep these extraordinary objects safe, including for insurance, display, promotion, education and research purposes.

“People sometimes send the replicas to interested buyers in advance of auctions around the world,” he explains. “I was told that one of my diamond replicas was sent in advance to a client, who bought the actual diamond based on viewing the replica.”

His works, he says, have an important value as stand-ins. “In many ways, the replica gives owners who intend to sell a diamond a way to provide a historic documentation of the original stone, since it is visually indistinguishable from the original.”

The crafting process

It took advances in mold-making and scanning to make such perfect architectural models of a diamond possible. Hatleberg describes the process as making “a manicure and pedicure with a negative mold. That in turn is used to make a positive mica resin cast the exact size and shape of the original. With that, I can reverse-engineer the angles and indices with which the diamond was cut.”

The replicas themselves consist of a synthetic gem material made to specification.

Hatleberg only undertakes a commission if the owner gives him access to the original diamond, as that’s the only way he “can guarantee that the cutting will be accurate.”

In some ways, the most complex step in the process is matching the color accurately, especially when it comes to fancy diamonds. “When I did the Wittelsbach-Graff for Laurence Graff, we went through color tests for about eight months using a precious-metal nanodot physical vapor process or ‘sputtering process,’” he relates.

His projects are labor-intensive. “It takes me months and months to cut these replicas because of how closely I replicate them,” he explains. “It’s all hand-cutting. I don’t use diamond cutting equipment; I use a faceting machine. If the Hope Diamond has 54 girdle facets on it, there are 54 girdle facets on the replica. It took [gem cutter Gabriel] Tolkowsky 14 months to carve the 273-carat, D-flawless Centenary diamond for De Beers. There are two sets of ‘pinwheels’ on the crown that radiate out from the center. It took me 14 months to cut and polish the replica. On the other hand, I have done a fairly small, standard cushion stone in about three weeks.”

Wonders of the world

By his count, Hatleberg has worked with several dozen named diamonds, including the Hope, Centenary, Dresden Green, Eureka, Incomparable, Guinea Star, Excelsior I, Millennium Star, Koh-i-Noor, Jonker, Wittelsbach-Graff, French Blue and Tavernier.

For many years, he would “chase certain gems.” When he discovered that there was a plaster cast of the original Koh-i-Noor diamond in the Natural History Museum in London, he became determined to get permission to work on it. It took 13 years for him to get the okay from the museum to craft the replica. He completed it in 2005. The project was challenging, he says, because “of the four facets of the stone that meet in the center and the ratio of the length to the width. I essentially locked myself away and cut the whole thing in six months.”

For the Centenary diamond, he recalls, “I made my services available to [De Beers’] Anthony Oppenheimer, who ultimately said he wanted me to work with Gabi Tolkowsky to create a replica of their diamond.”

When asked which of the diamonds was his favorite, he acknowledges that he has had “such a wonderful relationship with the Hope Diamond” that if any stone were worthy of this distinction, the Hope would be it. He also points to the Pink Dream, alternately known as the Pink Star: “When I held that, I thought I could see all the way to Pluto. It wasn’t because of its faceting per se, but the color of the stone.”

In all, he says, creating replicas has given him the rare opportunity to work with diamonds that are truly wonders of the world — “not just valuable; some of them are legendary. I think they enter a part of our psyche, as do other great works of art, and become, in their own way, an anchor of humanity.”

Image: Tino Hammid

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - June 2020. To subscribe click here.

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