Fashion 101: Why Luxury is Expensive

The Tiffany & Co Yellow Diamond

You have spoken! I just closed my Reader’s Survey and one thing is clear, my readers want more Fashion 101’s! So I am going to deliver. I am aiming to publish one at least once a month, if not twice. Yes, I am sure you’d all like more, and I will do as many as possible, but it takes a lot of time to research and write these posts, and unfortunately Searching for Style is not my only job at the moment.

Today’s Fashion 101 is the second of my Why Luxury is Expensive series and we are going to look at the Tiffany & Co. yellow diamond (the first one was about the Les Carrés d’Hermès and I have another Hermès post coming up soon…watch this space.) So let’s learn about why the yellow diamond is so expensive, and a little about diamonds while we are at it.

Let’s start with some background on diamonds.

Many people think that most diamonds mines are located in South Africa, however there are mines in Russia, India, Australia, Canada, and many other countries as well. I have visited one of the famous diamond mines of the world, located in Kimberley, South Africa. It is called the “Big Hole,” probably not a great tagline for any town… As you can see from the image above, the water is clear blue and the hole looks quite deep. The terrifying thing is to look at the diagram of the depth of the mine (below), and what is not explained there is that it was once mined to 1097m deep! I’d hate to think how that was done, as they stopped excavating the mine in 1914! When I saw it we stood on a little balcony that extends over the opening of the hole, and even though I am not really that afraid of heights, there is something terrifying about a hole that deep.

The universal grading system for diamonds is the 4 C’s: carat, colour, clarity, and cut. Here are the definitions, according to the Gemological Institute of America:

Carat: Diamonds and other gemstones are weighed in metric carats: one carat is equal to 0.2 grams, about the same weight as a paperclip.

Colour: Diamond colour is all about what you can’t see. Diamonds are valued by how closely they approach colorlessness – the less colour, the higher their value. (The exception to this is fancy-colour diamonds, such as pinks and yellows, which lie outside this colour range.)

Clarity: Because diamonds formed deep within the earth, under extreme heat and pressure, they often contain unique birthmarks, either internal (inclusions) or external (blemishes).

Cut: Though extremely difficult to analyze or quantify, the cut of any diamond has three attributes: brilliance (the total light reflected from a diamond), fire (the dispersion of light into the colors of the spectrum), and scintillation (the flashes of light, or sparkle, when a diamond is moved).

Rough diamonds

A round cut diamond, the most common cut, has 58 facets, and some of them (the stones) can be as small as 2mm in diameter! Diamond cutting is a very delicate process and a rough diamond looks exactly that, rough. Most cutting facilities are in Antwerp and Tel Aviv, and Tiffany & Co. has their yellow diamonds cut in Antwerp. It takes 3 years of training before a cutter can cut a basic diamond shape for Tiffany & Co., and much longer for an unusual shape or colour.

50%-85% of a diamond is lost in the cutting process, and cutters need to choose carefully about how they are going to cut a rough stone. They may have a large stone that could make a 2 carat stone, however they may be able to get a better quality 1 carat stone if they cut it in a different way. Cutting a rough stone while avoiding as much loss as possible is referred to as weight retention, you obviously don’t want to see half the stone ground up into dust that ends up on the floor. Diamond dust is used to cut diamonds, and most basic shapes are done by eye.

A rough diamond and a round cut diamond.

Here’s a bit about the cutting process, from All About Gemstones.

Step 1: Marking
A rough stone is marked prior to cleaving or sawing to determine the direction of the grain or “cleavage”, eliminate waste, and bypass inclusions or imperfections. The natural shape of the rough stone will also be a major factor in deciding how to cut the stone.

Step 2: Cleaving
Cleaving refers to splitting a stone along its grain by striking it. Cleavage is the tendency of crystalline materials to split along definite planes. Cleaving is a critical step as a mistake by the “cleaver” could shatter the stone.

Step 3: Sawing
A stone-cutting saw is a thin disk made of phosphor bronze. As the saw blade rotates it continues to pickup or “recharge” itself with diamond dust which is the cutting agent. It can take several hours for the saw blade to cut through a 1k rough diamond.

Step 4: Bruting
The rough is placed in a chuck on a lathe. While the rough stone rotates on the diamond lathe, a second diamond mounted on a dop is pressed against it, rounding the rough diamond into a conical shape.

Step 5: Faceting
To facet a “Round Brilliant”, a “blocker” or “lapper” will cut the first 18 main facets, then a “brillianteer” will cut and polish the remaining 40 facets. The cutting (placing) and polishing of each facet is accomplished by attaching the stone to a dop stick and pressing it against a revolving cast iron disk, scaife, or lap on a Facetron that has been charged with diamond dust.

A "fancy" cut diamond, a heart shape.

Once the stones have their final polish, they proceed to the new step, which is to make them into a piece of jewelry.

Tiffany Bezet rings in 18 carat gold with yellow diamonds.

Now, onto the yellow diamond…

A yellow diamond, along with pink, green, and blue diamonds are considered to be “fancy” diamonds. At first I thought fancy was just an uppity way of describing stones in the Tiffany press release, but it is in fact an official jewelry term. You can have fancy colours, and you can also have fancy shapes, which refers to any diamonds not cut in a round shape.

Only about one in 10,000 diamonds are a fancy colour. Yellow is the most “common” of fancy coloured diamonds, however it is still very rare. Out of the yellow diamonds found, over 90% can end up being too pale or too dark to be considered yellow, they look beige or brown instead. The Tiffany yellow diamonds have a very intense yellow colour, which makes them even more rare.

Yellow diamonds, cut and rough.

Tiffany sources all of their yellow diamonds from a mine in Western Australia called Ellendale. They have a special agreement with the mine that gives them exclusive rights to all fancy yellow rough diamonds from the mine, for the full economic life of the mine. Here is a very interesting article from the Telegraph about the mine, by Marion Hume. I’ve included a few quotes in this post, but it is definitely worth a full read.

Tiffany & Co. Bezet cushion shaped pendant and ring.

Mines need to dig up approximately 10,000 tons of ore for 1 good 1 carat diamond. That may sounds very wasteful, but the ore is all put back, and mining is done ethically so that it doesn’t cause a huge disturbance to its surroundings. And before anyone starts thinking that it seems like a lot of trouble to go through so people can have fancy, shiny jewelry, you should also know that 85% of diamonds are mined for industrial use, normally in tools and machinery.

A green diamond

Once the diamonds are mined, they need to be cut. Cutting a fancy coloured dimaond is extremely difficult, as the cutter needs to be sure that the light coming through the stone will not lighten the colour. Rob Ferguson, the general manager of the Vancouver Tiffany store, told me that the largest pink diamond in the world hasn’t been cut, as the owners are terrified of losing the hue or intensity should it be cut the wrong way.

Pink diamonds: cut and rough.

Yellow diamonds can be up to 3 times more expensive than an uncoloured diamond, of course depending on carats and cut, but Tiffany & Co is offering the yellow diamonds at an entry price point of $2,500, which is quite inexpensive considering the rarity of the colour.

Now, a little bit on the ethics, as this is an important issue with regards to the diamond industry. Tiffany & Co’s diamonds all have a Kimberley certificate, which stops the flow of conflict diamonds and ensures that the diamond you are buying comes from a sanctioned mine. According to the Telegraph article, Tiffany was also one of the first jewellers who supported the No Dirty Gold campaign. The article goes on to explain that “Global Witness, an international lobbying force that exposes human rights and environmental abuses, has singled out Tiffany with rare praise for offering ‘one possible model of what major diamond jeweller retailers and manufacturers should do’”. And…the paper used for the signature blue boxes come from Forest Stewardship Council certified paper.

Tiffany & Co. white and yellow diamond bracelets.

While I was in the Vancouver Tiffany & Co store, I got to try on an extraordinary diamond whose price tag was $1.9 million dollars. Well, I can tell you right now that my finger felt quite special, but I am probably not in the market to buy something like that, or the beautiful yellow diamonds any time soon. However, I found it very interesting to learn about how the diamond industry works, so at least I can understand why the rather scary price tags are as high as they are. Luxury is definitely expensive!

All of the non-jewelry images (aside from the Kimberley mine images, which come from here and here) are from the Gemological Institute of America, which is an amazing site to learn a bit more about how diamonds and gems work. They also offer courses on gemology, jewelry, diamonds, gems and pearls.

  • stylestruck

    I really appreciate informative posts as this one.

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  • Julia

    This is really interesting! I always wondered how diamonds were cut.