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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2 Comments so far

  1. Andrew Goodwin on October 12, 2012 5:45 am

    There is one great star sapphire and it is on display at the NYC American Museum of Natural History. JP Morgan himself donated it.

    It is blue in color. Looking around for similar purchases, I have found gray star sapphires on the cheap in massive size.

    The trick in the purchase of these things is in the consideration of the asymmetry of information on resale value. You don’t have to wait and see to determine that no lemon law can be invoked for jewelry purchase mistakes.

    If the retail jeweler did not hold asymmetric information then he would not engage in the trade. Good luck negotiating with anyone with a Levantine business mentality over star sapphires or any other such items.

    The truism that one can buy jewels but never sell them holds true. You will lose to the market professional in that game every single time.

    This quote may prove apocryphal though I have repeated it to any prospective fiancee. My grandad told me he was friendly with Harry Winston, played cards with him and asked him one time if he ran a good business. Harry, as I was told, said “I run the only business where you can buy a diamond and then cross the street to Tiffany and get half of what you just paid.”

  2. michael bonderer on October 13, 2012 3:32 pm

    Speaking of Bling, this is the Blingy-est Check it out 55 Camcri e!!!!!!

    Shine On, You Crazy Diamond

    PlanetPosted by Amy Briggs of National Geographic Books in Tales of the Weird on October 11, 2012 (4)
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    An artist’s rendition of the diamond planet, 55 Cancri e (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)There’s a gigantic diamond in outer space, according to new research from a team led by Yale University scientists. About as twice as big as Earth and with eight times more mass, the rocky planet is a “Super Earth” and orbits a star 40 light years away in the constellation Cancer.

    First detected in 2004, the planet—dubbed “55 Cancri e”—moves fast and gets hot. It takes just 18 Earth-hours to orbit its star. It’s temperature is estimated to be around 3900 degrees Fahrenheit (2149 degrees Celsius). The planet has a very close relationship with its star—it orbits about 25 times closer to it than Mercury does to our sun). In May 2012, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope detected light emanating from the planet, which led some to believe 55 Canri e was a water world, but the latest findings indicate otherwise.

    Lead researcher Nikku Madhusudhan, a Yale postdoctoral fellow in physics and astronomy, described the surface of the giant “gem” as “likely covered in graphite and diamond rather than water and granite. This is our first glimpse of a rocky world with a fundamentally different chemistry from Earth.” The team’s findings, which have been accepted for publication in the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters, represents the first time that astronomers have identified a likely diamond planet around a sun-like star and specified its chemical make-up.

    Astronomers have been interested in the possibility of diamond planets for years. In 2005, scientists theorized that carbon-rich planets might exist (Related: “Diamond Planets” Hint at Dazzling Promise of Other Worlds). Then in 2010, a team led by Madhusudhan announced the discovery of the first carbon-rich world, a distant gas giant named Wasp 12-b. This tantalizing find led scientists to believe that carbon-rich rocky planets might be out there too.

    Last year, Madhusudhan’s team was first able to record 55 Cancri e transitioning its host star. This observation allowed to measure the planet’s radius for the first time. This important data when combined with an estimate of the planet’s mass allowed the team to infer its distinctive chemical composition. Instead of a resembling Earth’s chemical make-up, this rocky planet was something completely different—a planet composed primarily of carbon (as graphite and diamond), iron, silicon carbide, and possibly, some silicates. They speculate that about one third of the planet’s mass is pure diamond.

    The identification of a carbon-rich super-Earth means that distant rocky planets can no longer be assumed to have chemical constituents, interiors, atmospheres, or biologies similar to those of Earth, Madhusudhan said. It also has implications for a planet’s thermal evolution and plate tectonics.

    “Stars are simple—given a star’s mass and age, you know its basic structure and history,” said David Spergel, professor of astronomy and chair of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University, who is not a co-author of the study. “Planets are much more complex. This ‘diamond-rich super-Earth’ is likely just one example of the rich sets of discoveries that await us as we begin to explore planets around nearby stars.”


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