Every year, Argyle Diamonds, proprietor of the world’s largest diamond mine, holds an invitation-only sale of the best pink stones to emerge from that year’s production. The silent auction, known as the Argyle Tender, takes place in Geneva, usually in October. But before bidding begins, the entire lot takes a jet-setting tour of the world’s high-powered gem-brokering locales-Sydney, Tokyo, Hong Kong, New York and London-where specially sellected dealers are enticed into offering more than $100,000 per carat for what are believed to be the trade’s priciest stones.
“It works on a sealed-bid tender,” ex plains Alan Bronstein, a New York fancy-colored diamond dealer who has amassed the 260-stone-strong Aurora collection, an assortment of diamonds representing 12 different color varieties. “You write in a bid, and then you mail it to Geneva, and the highest bid wins. So the only person who knows what the stone’s worth is he person who paid for it. You don’t know if you’re paying double or triple or half what others might have bid.” Cheeky move, Argyle, but a perfect way to illustrate how in the rarefied world of fancycolored diamonds, absolutely anything goes. Argyle simply has to showcase its 40some-odd stones at the tender, then sit back and wait for colored diamond connoisseurs to wage an all-out war as they attempt to boost the stones’ value into a cost-benefit no-man’s land, familiar to only the Winstons, the Mouawads and the sultans of this world.
“They’re trying to create a fever so that people put up spontaneous, emotional bids,” says Bronstein, who has attended the majority of Argyle’s 16 tenders.
One reason why they can, and people do, is that the highly saturated pinks that come from Argyle’ s Western Australian kimberlite pipes redefine the meaning of rare, even in gemological circles. An estimated one-tenth of 1% (0.1%) of the company’s diamond production, which totaled 26.5 million carats of rough in 2000, falls into the prized pink category. Year after year, that output continues to slip. So as sophisticated consumers and well-heeled collectors tire of the more abundant fancy yellows, they may soon have to jack their bids up to $200,000 per carat to keep themselves in the pink.
Flights of Fancy
Welcome to the weird, wild universe of fancy-colored diamonds, where anonymous private collectors pay $926,315 per carat for 0.95 purplish reds (as happened at a Christie’s sale in 1987) and an inauspicious 45.52carat blue stone called the Hope draws more visitors to the Smithsonian than any other object in the world.
Anything goes indeed.
The furor over colored diamonds-a steadily increasing feature of the high-end jewelry landscape-begins and ends with their inscrutability. First and foremost, how are they formed?
Gemologists think stray atoms can stain a diamond’s colorless structure, giving it a distinct pigment that varies depending on the element trapped in the primeval carbon mix. Nitrogen turns diamonds yellow. Boron brings on blue. Other colors are of dubious origin. Some speculate that red/pink and green diamonds derive their hues from structural defects or the irradiating effects of the earth’s uranium ore, respectively. Yet no one knows for sure.
Nor can anyone conclusively define a fancy’s true color. Why not? Because color is in the eye of the beholder, never mind what it says on the cert.
“The nature of fancy-colored diamonds is very subjective,” says Bronstein, whose Aurora collection is the basis for Collecting and classifying Coloured Diamonds, a 742-page opus by gemologist Stephen Hofer detailing the splendor and the science of colored diamonds. “The cert is vital for giving the authenticity of the stone, but it’s not vital for deciding its beauty, rarity, value or what the exact visual color is.”
Even the best labs in the world disagree on their color call-outs. In just one example, a stone from a recent Argyle Tender earned a “fancy red I1” grading from the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), the industry’s standard for nomenclature, while the Diamond High Council (HRD), the official body of the Belgian diamond trade, gave it a “fancy intense purplish red S12” grading. The Argyle catalog listed both cert numbers, leaving prospective buyers to make up their own minds.
The same thing happens at jewelry stores, auction houses and collector’s tete-a-tetes all over the world when salespeople and clients perform their own subjective color analyses. Someone seeking a fancy vivid yellow diamond is shown two stones, same carat weight, same cut. But because one person’s lemon yellow is another person’s orange yellow, confusion ensues.
“Even if a customer asks for a pink, I’ll bring out a purplish pink,” says Lily Vongwattanakit, a gem buyer for Van Cleef & Arpels, one of the few retail outlets for diamonds in this price stratosphere. “People have different interpretations of color.”
All the ambiguity lends itself well to these enigmatic stones, whose cachet is unparalleled in the high-stakes world of gemstone collecting. Not surprising, a survey of famous diamonds reveals that many, if not most, are colored: the Dresden Green, the canary-yellow Tiffany, the bluish-green Great Mogul and the faint pink Great Table, to name a few.
Perhaps this illustrious peer group-and their remarkable provenance-is why fancies are consistent bestsellers at auction, setting price records in the same way a rare Picasso might at the modem art sale in the adjoining salon. According to the December millennium edition of Auction Market Resource for Gems and Jewelry, from October 1994 to October 2000, 24 out of the top 25 price-percarat sales were fancycolored diamonds.
“The trend in popular jewelry was fueled by success of unusual and very highly priced fancy-colored diamonds at auction,” emails Gail Brett Levine, G.G., publisher of Auction Market Resource. “Such pieces receive millions of dollars in free publicity in national and local news.”
Colored diamonds are so adept at hyping themselves that De Beers doesn’t even bother with promotions. The Diamond Information Center and the Diamond Promotion Service, both based in New York, are overflowing with literature, marketing materials and promo cards extolling the virtues of white or colorless diamonds, but nowhere does a single fancy get billing.
In Short Supply
In truth, the supply situation is such that fancies don’t need it. Apart from fashionable and plentiful colors such as brown (champagne, cognac, chocolate), black and, to a much lesser extent, yellow, fancycolored diamonds are the gem world’s equivalent of organs awaiting transplant. Waiting lists run out the door.
“When customers look for a blue or pink diamond, they are usually very specific on the size and shape they are looking for, so sometimes it is not as easy to show them many of the same thing,” says Anjanette Spreen, marketing director of Vivid Collection, a manufacturer of high-end colored diamond jewelry that markets its pieces to consumers and the trade. “But we do offer our customers options.”
Unlike white diamonds, which can be assembled for a lineup in a matter of hours, maybe days, finding similarly colored diamonds to give clients a comparison can take months, if it’s even possible.
“I’m a consultant When I have a private client or a retail customer, I go out and source the market the best I can,” says Bronstein from his office, a sunny nook in one of Fifth Avenue’s most heavily secured buildings. ‘Then I will present to my customers all the stones that I can. This is fancy, this is intense, this is vivid. I can do that with yellow but not with pink or blue because there just aren’t enough specimens to make such a wide comparison.”
Unofficial estimates put the number of fancies at just 2% of the total diamond population. But when cut, that number shrinks even further because to optimize the color of a fancy, a cutter has to discard a lot more rough than for a specimen of colorless diamond of the same size.
Essentially, the way a fancy is cut is tantamount to good color, which differs markedly between a face-up and a body perspective. Bronstein brings this point home when he flashes two yellow diamond rings in a white tray, face-up. One is cushion-cut, the other radiant.
“Which one faces up a stronger yellow?” he asks. I point to the radiant cut.
He then flips both rings in the tray, so the body color becomes evident. The cushion cut is a much more saturated color than the radiant. I can hardly believe it’s the same ring I was looking at a moment earlier.
“The physical production of face-up color in a polished diamond involves the distance light rays travel inside the stone and the direction in which they exit the crown relative to the observer,” writes Stephen Hofer in Forever Brilliant, another book on the Aurora collection produced in collaboration with Bronstein. “In general, these light rays travel relatively long or short distances (i.e., more or less absorption of light) and then exit the crown in a direction away from the observer’s line of sight. This basic behavior of light determines the colors we see in the face-up and how those colors are distributed.”
But even this fine physical explanation filters down to the same practical scenario: At the end of the day, perception of color is still subjective.
“The hardest thing about selling a colored diamond is, although people are educated, they have a hard time understanding the difference between an intense yellow diamond vs. a vivid yellow diamond,” says Spreen of Vivid Collection. “These two are so rare to find, and the price per carat changes a great deal when you go up the scale!”
It goes without saying that most of the uber-fancy shades–the reds, the pinks, the oranges, the blues–are astronomically priced. Argyle sells its bounty of 50 to 60 carats of pink for an estimated $5-$7 million. Van Cleef and Vivid pink and blue stones fall in the quarter-to-half-a-million-dollar range, while most yellows are considerably more affordable, with many going from $5,000 to $25,000.
But where does that leave the average jeweler or designer? On the darker end of the spectrum, with the brown and black diamonds, the only fancies in the fashion world’s sphere.
“We’ve done very well with brown brioletters,” says Craiger Drake, whose father, designer Craig Drake, uses fancy-colored diamonds in necklaces and high-end single-stone rings. “There are other precious stones with the same hues but they don’t have the brilliancy of a diamond. They don’t have the same allure or mystique.”
More and more, many designers are turning to diamonds for their color needs, partly because of name recognition and partly because of sparkle. Even opaque black diamonds, which caught on a couple of years ago, are still going strong, reflecting a mainstream desire for fancies that should keep the carbonados, as opaque diamonds are known, at the fashion-fore.
“The black-and-white craze will continue,” predicts Michelle Oman of the Jewelry Information Center in New York, forecasting a continuation of spring’s black-and-white binge well into 2002. “There’s a certain clean elegance in the black-and-white contrast that people are attracted to. And maybe they’re more attracted to that in a messy economy.”
Even watch companies–already gaga for diamond-studded timepieces–are experimenting with fancies. Concord’s La Scala Steel watches with black and white diamonds will soon come out in a chocolate diamond version.
Meanwhile, back in Bronstein’s office, he takes out another small, white tray with the funkiest colored diamonds I’ve ever seen. Milky champagne, steel gray, a juicy orange and the stunner of the bunch, a teal-green emerald-cut stone that Bronstein calls “the diamond that has no peer.”
“Colored diamonds have no absolute value, unlike their colorless sisters–they’re not worth X or Y,” he says. “Ultimately, it’s the look of the stone, the rarity of the color, the beauty.” And let’s not forget, the depth of the pocketbook.