In tough economic times, the status accoutrement in fashion—whether it’s an of-the-moment pair of pumps or a structured tote done up in electric blue python—takes on an odd kind of symbolism. On the one hand, strutting about with a designer label on your feet or arm implies a certain immunity to the tumbling stocks and skyrocketing gas and food prices that have sent most of us scurrying for last season’s stilettos. On the other, who wants to be the woman who, in the midst of a market meltdown, seriously splurges on a purse or shoes?
With gold hovering around $850 an ounce, jittery investors—and jonesing fashionistas—need look no further than the local jewelry counter for what is increasingly considered to be one of the few safe bets. Fashion houses and jewelry companies alike have taken note of the rising worth of precious stones and metals in recent years, putting considerable time and resources toward devising unique bling. And nowhere is this more evident than in the latest accessory to assume gotta-have-it status: the It diamond.
“We wanted to produce diamonds that resemble the Louis Vuitton brand,” says Albert Bensoussan, watch and fine jewelry director at Louis Vuitton Malletier, which has just launched two of its own patented diamond cuts. “You have it today with ready-to-wear, with handbags, with watches, with eyeglasses. You can recognize a brand, and that association is very appealing to us. You’re going to recognize the name and value behind the shape of these diamonds.”
Bensoussan is referring to the standard diamond shapes on the market—square, emerald, cushion and round—as a point of contrast to the two new shapes that Louis Vuitton has created and patented. Mirroring the monogram flowers that appear on Vuitton bags and trunks, the two different cuts are a rounded flower diamond (with curved petals) and a pointed flower diamond (with sharp petals). A brilliant-cut diamond—which essentially means a stone chiseled to create multiple facets, which in turn augment its white-light reflection, or brilliance—typically has 58 facets. The Vuitton diamonds have between 61 and 77 facets and have been set into a bracelet, a pair of earrings, two brooches, a ring and a necklace—the latter consisting of 1,001 tiny brilliant-cut diamonds totaling 15 carats, coexisting with 65 round flower diamonds (49 carats) and 79 pointed ones (44 carats), for a combined bling bang of 108 carats that retails for about $4 million. Vuitton has dubbed the collection Les Ardentes, which translates roughly as “the blazing.”
More than four years in development, the LV ice was cut at Lili Diamonds in Tel Aviv, Israel, considered one of the foremost cutting centers in the world. (The other two hubs for chopping major rocks are Antwerp and New York; myriad factories in India and Asia, where labor is less expensive, are now used to slice smaller stones.) Bensoussan estimates that he visited about 60 workshops before settling on Lili, where he found three seasoned artisans who could take his complicated designs and fashion precise stones with as little waste as possible. “There is one very experienced cutter there,” Bensoussan says. “One day I will ask him to cut the Vuitton diamond blindfolded, because I think he could do it.” Minimizing the amount of unusable stone left over after slicing and dicing was key, as some intricately incised diamonds, while marketable for their uniqueness, yield considerable excess of rough stone and thus have the potential to be less cost-efficient.
“If a special cut creates a market for the stones, and they move and don’t sit in the safe, then to lose a little extra weight in the fashioning process is worth it,” says John King, technical director of the Gemological Institute of America. King hasn’t seen the LV diamonds, but he says any petal-like shape is likely to draw a second glance: “It parallels what you see happening with most other industries. The goal is to make something as visually appealing as it is unique.”
Bensoussan says all efforts were made to ensure that as little diamond dust as possible ended up on the workshop floor. “At Lili, they actually mark on the stone with a black pen where they will cut it,” he says. “With our diamonds, we lose anywhere between 25 and 50 percent of the weight of the rough stone. It is, unfortunately, a huge part of the diamond that is cut away. But the result is something very, very special.”
And something, of course, upon close inspection, definitely recognizable, which Bensoussan is counting on to lure clients away from venerable jewelry houses, whose spectacular pieces may have all the cachet of Vuitton’s but lack the obvious logo, and thus brand, recognition. “With almost all of the diamond cuts on the market today, there is no relation between the design of the diamond and the core identity of the brand,” says Bensoussan. “We did not want our diamond to be seen as just another high-value one—that’s why we had to have our own shapes.”
Which is not to say that Vuitton has pioneered the diamond-patent business, though the cut-as-logo is certainly an innovation that could have other luxury fashion houses sending their jewelry experts to Belgium and Israel in coming seasons. “It really does add value,” says Sally Morrison, director of the Diamond Information Center. “For the same reason someone’s going to buy a Louis Vuitton handbag, there are consumers who are definitely going to want the LV diamond. It offers a certain kind of promise—it’s a kind of badge that says, ‘I’m a first mover, aesthetically.’”
The gold standard for these cuts is Tiffany & Co.’s Lucida, created in 1999. A modified square, the diamond has 50 facets and a clean, elegant look.
Marketed as an engagement cut and wedding band, the Lucida has been hugely successful, thanks to the combination of its originality and provenance. “It’s hard to go anywhere in the world where they don’t know what that blue box means,” Morrison notes.
Plenty of others have jumped on the branded-cut bandwagon, from the mass-market end (see the Leo, a 66-faceted symmetrical round cut sold through Kay Jewelers) and the ultra-exclusive (H. Stern’s asymmetrical Stern Star) to the centenary sort, as with the Montblanc diamond, launched in honor of the Swiss company’s 100-year anniversary in 2006 and worked into the label’s pens and some jewelry pieces, including a necklace featuring a 12-carat Montblanc diamond. “The cut of the diamond,” which resembles a six-pronged star, “is the reproduction of the six valleys of the Montblanc mountain,” says Valentina Masu, the company’s jewelry designer. As for the impetus for innovating a diamond cut, as opposed to, say, a new pen model, to celebrate the anniversary, Masu is surprisingly sound bite–free: “Well, it’s just really good marketing positioning.”
“You look at magazines, and it seems like there’s a new [branded cut] every week,” says Eve Goldberg, a co-owner of William Goldberg, the New York jewelry firm bearing her late father’s name. “There’s so much competition because money is worth less and less, so people want to buy things that hold their value. Diamonds do, but now everybody wants to differentiate themselves even more, so the cuts are getting fancier.”
Goldberg herself is the purveyor of one of the most sought after of those cuts, the Ashoka, an elongated rectangular diamond originally designed by
Harry Winston that her father and brother attempted to purchase at auction in the mid-Nineties. (The stone had belonged to screen siren María Felíx, and had no patent.) The pair lost the bidding but couldn’t get the inimitable shape out of their heads. “My father had to be convinced by my brother that we should [patent it] because he wasn’t sure we’d find the right rough stones to make it,” admits Goldberg, who says the company has now figured out “where to look.” (Like many high-end jewelry companies, William Goldberg plumbs mines in Africa, though Russia and Canada are also a source for stones.) “It turned out to be one of our smartest moves. Anybody can cut a nice round [diamond],” says Goldberg, whose Ashoka pieces start at around $40,000 for a small ring and soar into the millions for a choker. “But it takes a lot more skill, a really good eye, to do fancy cuts.”
And every so often, a bit of serendipity too. Take, for instance, Christopher Slowinski’s Crisscut design. One day in 1998 the Christopher Designs owner found himself staring down at a massive mistake he had made on an emerald-shaped diamond: While shaping the bottom of the stone to fit into a mounting, Slowinski accidentally sliced right into the rock, creating extra edges. Suddenly a 77-facet diamond lay on his table. “I took it to the patent office,” says Slowinski, who has marketed the Crisscut design in several different shapes. “It was a good mistake.”