Oct

11

 In my family's tradition, we give star sapphire–full six-point, not a cat's eye– engagement rings, not diamond ones. At first my then-fiance was ticked off that it wasn't a diamond–and if it had been, it would have been hard as a rock, just not my style. Then we went for a ride in the Lincoln Tunnel, and as we went through, the spacing of the overhead lighting was such that the star would show and then disappear, over and over again. She was sold on the wonders of the star sapphire. No more faceted sapphire for her (which is a shame, since I've since learned how to facet).

When I had wanted to buy the sapphire in the first place, I went down to the gem district (living in NYC at the time) on 47th Street (which gave us such wonders as 47th Street Photo). I hadn't expected to find a place that felt so dead. I was surprised at first, and then went about trying to find a nice, reasonably-priced star sapphire, with the ring to be made in a month or two. After looking for several house over a month, I didn't find much. There weren't many colored gemstone dealers, and there were very few star sapphires (and what there were had quality issues and were over-priced). So we went off to Hong Kong, found the gem and had the ring made to order. My now-wife couldn't understand what was so special about a star sapphire, and besides, it wasn't a diamond. On the other hand, the platinum I had spec'd for the ring she liked a lot. This was back in 1989, pre-Tiananmen Hong Kong. The only other time I've found star sapphires that were as well priced, with translucent stars was in Bangkok, where some of the Israeli ex-pats were in the thick of the gem trade. They tried to bait and switch, but were foolish enough to brag to one another about it in Hebrew. They were shocked when I told them to shut up and bring in some better quality stones–in Hebrew. Some of the gems picked up that day made for some great gifts, but there's still quite a bit in the safe deposit box–lots of tourmaline and lapis lazuli (the prices were just too good to refuse. It wasn't quite as good as negotiating in Hong Kong for luggage (Louis Vuitton, no less; the Rollex watches, though, and the Calvin Klein jeans were beyond negotiation). In any case, colored gemstones were what I was familiar with. Diamonds I still don't know particularly well. There's the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) which will provide a certificate for a given diamond attesting to its properties, like its color. There's the Rappaport List, which lists the current prices for diamonds of various sizes and classifications. But there's nothing like that for colored gems. To make the situation even murkier, there are treatments for the gems to change their appearance–heat treatment, irradiation, etc.

With that background, I began Precious Objects by Alicia Oltuski, a German-born US-raised Jew whose family, not unusually, has been in the diamond trade for generations. Although the book is 330 pages, the pages are small, so it is not of the War and Peace variety of reading. A good book for the holidays or a few days on a secluded beach with nary a cell phone tower in sight. Don't expect to learn much about diamonds from this book. If you want to do that, take the GIA introductory course on diamonds. The on-line one is pretty good (though the intro to colored gems was more fun, but that's just me), and I'm told the F2F version even better. (The advantage to the online one is a little more control of one's time in going through the material.) She does cover some of the basics, like the 4Cs of diamonds, the role of the GIA, the history of the Rappaport List, the blood diamond issue and how the industry addressed it, things like that. But she doesn't do it with a lot of detail–hence, its lightness as reading material. What she does do, though, is describe the world of 47th Street, and she does so with much aplomb. Given that she's a writer with no interest in going into the family business (which will end with her father's death), it's not surprising that the strength of the book is its focus on the people in the diamond trade, particularly those brokers one step removed from the retail jewelers–people like her family. One gets a very clear sense of the issues they negotiate every day–the fickle whims of the public, the security issues associated with diamonds, some wonderful descriptions of some of the trade shows (particularly the Tucson show, which is to the gem trade what CES is to consumer electronics). Her portrait of Morton Rappaport, for its length, is one of the best I've seen. Having said that, finishing this book leaves with a semi-sated feeling, wanting something more.

The bottom line is that if you want to learn about diamonds, think GIA; for a history of diamonds, let me know–there are lots of good books, and this one barely goes beyond noting that Barney Barnato ever existed; but if you're into people, this brief read may be for you.


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