A Millennium of Diamonds

May 1999

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.

History Lesson
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.


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