From the Vault
A Millennium of Diamonds
Exhibit shows the interplay of supply, technology, design and economics
through the centuries
Examining a piece of jewelry gives us insight into the culture and period
during which it was manufactured. The way gems are cut and the types of
settings used indicate the levels of technology, sources of material and
design aesthetic of the society that made them.
If one piece of jewelry gives you a picture, imagine the story a group
of jewelry can tell. We're in luck: such a collection has been assembled
in the "Nature of Diamonds" exhibition on view at the San Diego
Natural History Museum through Sept. 7. The exhibit, originally mounted
by the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, explores every
aspect of diamonds from science to commerce.
At the heart of the exhibit is a history section where 26 showcases of jewelry
reveal important developments in the diamond trade. The continuous nature
of history is evident because as new diamond sources are discovered, the
technology for diamond-cutting advances and new designs and settings for
jewelry appear. This interplay of supply, technology, design and economics
is clearly visible in the jewelry on display.
The evolution of diamond cutting unfolds through the centuries; diamonds
"morph" from the table cuts of the Renaissance to rose cuts, brilliants,
step cuts, trilliants, princesses and other more recent cuts. As diamond
cuts change, so do the settings for them. The enameled gold of the Renaissance
gives way to silver settings backed with gold through the 19th century.
These are supplanted by platinum settings of incredible refinement and delicacy
in the early 20th century, leading to today's fashion for combinations of
platinum and gold.
Certain jewelry motifs weave through time, and the exhibit demonstrates
how they evolve as well. A good example is the ribbon bow motif that materializes
in the 18th century, reappears more realistically in the 19th century and
becomes stylized in the 20th century.
Types of settings also seem to be revitalized at different times. Illustrated
on this page is a tiara with the central diamond flower set en tremblant
(on a little spring) so it moves with the wearer. Exceptionally popular
in the mid-19th century, en tremblant settings have been given new life
in the 1990s.
20th Century Design
Crowning the history section is a central "vault" devoted to diamond
jewelry of the 20th century. One side displays jewelry from 1900 to 1960
by Cartier, Tiffany & Co. and Van Cleef & Arpels. The other side
is filled with contemporary jewelry in a range of styles, including 1998
Diamonds-International Award winners, diamond and platinum jewelry by affiliates
of the Platinum Guild International USA and a variety of jewels set with
natural fancy colored diamonds.
In this vault, the concept of history as a continuum becomes clear:
new styles derive from previous times, new deposits of diamonds are discovered
and techniques for setting evolve. Entranced and dazzled by the enormous
variety of jewelry we have seen, we also realize what a unique opportunity
this exhibit offers: a view of the last millennium recorded in diamonds.
The central flower in this floral tiara is set en tremblant
to give it lifelike movement when worn. The diamonds probably are from Brazil
because the tiara, made circa 1860, predates the discovery of diamonds in
South Africa. Also shown are matching pins. Jewelry courtesy of the National
Museum of Natural History of the Smithsonian Institution.
by Elise B. Misiorowski
Copyright © 1999 by Bond Communications.