Color in Fine Jewelry – Whence It Came – Part 1
For most of the past century, fine jewelry in the US gravitated toward a colorless look. Not that colored stones, enamel or yellow gold were entirely eliminated, but colorless diamonds and white metals such as platinum and white gold ruled the roost. Whenever domestic designs featured color, it was largely from “the big three”--sapphire, ruby or emerald. While that tendency is less pronounced in other parts of the world, we are seeing more color in domestic fine jewelry today than we have in generations.
This is Part 1 of a 2 part series.
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Times Are Changing
For most of the past century, fine jewelry in the US gravitated toward a colorless look.
Not that colored stones, enamel or yellow gold were entirely eliminated, but colorless diamonds and white metals such as platinum and white gold ruled the roost. Whenever domestic designs featured color, it was largely from “the big three”--sapphire, ruby or emerald.
While that tendency is less pronounced in other parts of the world, we are seeing more color in domestic fine jewelry today than we have in generations. That development is the result of technological advancements, discoveries of gem sources, economic conditions and easier access to information.
Alexandra of Denmark, Louise and Victoria
Capital-intensive business such as jewelry needs a favorable economic and cultural environment to establish itself. During the 19th Century, the US reached a critical threshold when industrialization created sufficient wealth, and the melting pot provided a rich and diverse culture. It was fertile ground for immigrant jewelers who were then mostly from Europe and brought with them skills compiled from more than five millennia.
A first harbinger of change was advancement in technology.
When platinum became commercially available in the early 1800s, jewelers were focused mainly on gold, and platinum would have to wait another century for its grand entrance to the jewelry world. The fundamental game changer was the discovery of diamonds in South Africa.
Within less than a decade, the output of the hitherto primary sources, India and Brazil, paled by comparison. What started out as small-scale artisanal mining soon turned into industrial large-scale mining, and the market became awash with stones.
The buyout of the myriad of small claim miners resulted in the consolidation of remaining larger operations, and they organized themselves in 1888 by founding DeBeers Consolidated Mines.
Besides streamlining the production process from mine to cutter, DeBeers understood that a mine to market pipeline was critical for their success.
When it comes to color, South African stones with visible body color are mostly earthy shades of yellow through brown. Unfortunately, that color range was considered ordinary and therefore less desirable, making colorless goods more salable. Diamonds that “looked white” and, especially those that appeared to have an ethereal faint blue cast, drove the market.
Diamond Glassie In Kimberlite From Mir
This fantastic specimen is a picture book example of how rough diamond is lodged in kimberlite.
Photo by Joe Budd Photagraphy
Like other manufacturing industries, the jewelry industry was not going to remain untouched from the proliferation of the steam engine.
In 1862, the diamond-cutting world was introduced to steam-powered lapidary discs, or scaifes, that provided for faster and more accurate polishing. A decade on, a hitherto obscure Bostonian engraver, goldsmith and silversmith by the name of Henry Morse (1826-1888) patented a bruting lathe on which to turn diamonds rounder and in a fraction of the time.
By breaking down individual tasks in his cutting shop, he effectively introduced the assembly line to diamond cutting.
But Morse's methods were not only about speed.
His diamonds were cut to proportions that were nearly identical with those the Belgian mathematician Marcel Tolkowsky would come to define as the American Ideal Cut in 1919.
These improvements in diamond cutting occurred almost in perfect sync with the discovery of the South African mines. Since they imparted such a vast improvement to the appearance, brilliance and scintillation of the stones, South African diamonds were considered superior.
The fascination of colorless South African diamonds did not escape the gaze of the growing class of industrial oligarchs in the US.
Men working 2000 ft. underground in Kimberley Diamond Mine, South Africa
Between 1890 and 1905
Library Of Congress Prints and Photographs
You might think the natural match in terms of color would be silver, but silver lends itself better to implements than body-worn jewelry and costly stones.
During the Edwardian Period, platinum caught the gaze of British jewelers. The stuff sticks to diamonds as if possessing an uncanny intelligence of sort and has a holding power superior even to that of gold jewelry alloys. It was a marriage made in heaven that didn't make for a trend, it made for an era.
Diamonds and platinum defined jewelry of the Edwardian Period. Scintillating, brilliant, colorless, it was also technologically challenging to execute.
Only the most competent goldsmiths and diamond setters were capable of building the complex constructions of stone and metal with the necessary precision. The materials and the processing invoked costs that separated royalty and wealthy nobility from ordinary commoners. The rising stars of the industrial class, however, represented the out-of-the-ordinary commoners who were only too pleased to join the select club.
Marcus Edwardian Brooch
In their day, Marcus & Co. was a competitor of Tiffany’s in New York. This brooch from around 1910 demonstrates how the Edwardian style had already established itself in the US.
Photo courtesy Primavera Gallery, New York, NY
Colorless diamonds and platinum proved winners that never disappoint.
Jewelers began streamlining the production process in an effort to create more affordable pieces in an effort to widen their customer base. But during the Great Depression, DeBeers, who by then had evolved into a cartel controlling nearly the entire diamond market, stockpiled inventory in expectation of a better day.
Meanwhile, the price of platinum rose to five times that of gold, making it impractical to further pursue the goal of increasing its market share. With the fascination of colorless diamond jewelry here to stay, the search for a suitable metal substitute was on.
"Bleached" Gold Alloys
Within the decade, metallurgists introduced “bleached” gold alloys.
Taking advantage of gold’s chemical stability, they added mostly nickel in order to emulate the color of platinum. Contrary to silver, this kind of nickel-based white gold alloys are as hard as certain steels and do not tarnish. Until recently, allergic reactions associated with nickel were overlooked, as the awareness in that respect approach nil.
Bowman’s Root Pin
Diamonds, platinum and natural pearls became the standard ingredients that would outlast the Edwardian era until the Depression, as in this brooch by Bowman, circa 1920.
Photo courtesy Primavera Gallery, New York, NY
Besides gems and metal, the influence of organic gems should not be overlooked.
Efforts to cultivate pearls had been underway in various parts of the world for centuries, but it was not until the late 19th Century when Kokichi Mikimoto developed a method to do so commercially. His method involved Akoya pearls, which come in a variety of color.
Although some color is bleached at harvest with disinfectants for hygenic reasons, those that come out white to cream color earn the highest grade and are prized accordingly. The original white cultured pearl became the perfect match with colorless diamonds and white precious metal.
In the meantime, the diamond cartel began catching its breath and deciding on a multi-pronged marketing strategy that was exemplary.
Starting in the late 1930s, diamond engagement rings were decreed a “tradition” in the US. A decade on, a Mad Woman in a New York ad agency coined the slogan; “a diamond is forever,” implying that no union could possibly be complete without a diamond engagement ring.
The reach of that campaign put Hollywood and its stars to work, and they did what they do best by turning fiction into fact in the mind of the nation. For traditional gold and colored stones, there was no campaign or marketing effort that could compete even remotely, and color in commercial fine jewelry was relegated to a sideshow.
Part 2 of Color in Fine Jewelry – Whence It Came And Where It Went can be found here.