Dirty Diamonds

Yes, I know all about the 4Cs of diamonds—Color, Clarity, Cut, Carat weight—the things you’re supposed to care about when you’re shopping for a stone. The best diamonds are whiter than white and clearer than clear, with a cut that brings out their inner fire, yada yada yada. But I’m here to sing the praises of off-color diamonds, the kind that used to be disdained or rejected. They, too, can sparkle like mad things. Even the murky ones.

It was, as we all know, the DeBeers diamond cartel that set up the first large-scale mining operations in South Africa in the late 1880s. Previously, diamonds were harder to come by, and rubies and sapphires were the go-to gems. DeBeers sold women on the idea that an engagement ring should be a diamond solitaire, setting off generations of bridal one-upmanship. They also sold us on the idea that diamonds are rare, which they aren’t. Large white flawless stones are rare, but not diamonds in general. (DeBeers controlled the world diamond market until 2000 and is still a major player.)

But it was the GIA—the Gemological Institute of America, a nonprofit research organization—that came up with the 4Cs in the mid-20th Century. This was the first globally accepted standard for assessing diamond quality, and it’s incredibly useful. But some of my favorite diamonds don’t exactly measure up to the GIA’s ideal of perfection.

Two fabulous off-color stones, Old European Cut (on the left) and Old Mine Cut (on the right)

The diamonds above are both family stones. The stone on the left was in my father’s father’s ring, and it’s far from white. Under some lights, it’s closer to brown. And it has a visible inclusion, a natural internal fracture called a feather. The stone on the right was in my mother’s mother’s ring. It has no visible flaws, but next to a white diamond, it’s yellowish—not fancy yellow, just off-white. Both stones are incredibly lively, flinging off rainbows in all directions. That’s because they’re well cut: the cut determines how the facets interact with light. But these cuts are old fashioned.

My grandmother’s stone, my grandfather’s, and my own engagement diamond, on the bottom, in a setting by Nan Irwin. It’s significantly whiter than the other two, and the cut, from the 1980s, is more modern.

My grandfather’s diamond is Old European Cut, maybe from the 30s. My grandmother’s is Old Mine Cut, probably earlier. Modern brilliant-cut (round) diamonds have more facets, and the proportions are different—always, always to maximize the light. But I can’t with a straight face say that modern cuts are ‘superior’. I love the old diamonds for what they are, and for what they represent. For my grandfather, who emigrated from what were doubtless horrible conditions in Poland, it was New World prosperity. My grandmother’s family got here a generation or two earlier, but the significance was the same.

Jewish women have family diamonds. Diamonds were portable wealth. If there was a pogrom—if the cossacks were coming to murder your family—you fled with your portable wealth, sewn into your clothing if necessary. (Russian royalty did the same: When Tsar Nicholas II and his family were shot in 1918, the bullets bounced off the women’s diamond-filled corsets, to the consternation of the assassins.)

Not so long ago, the resale value of an Old Mine Cut diamond was determined by what that diamond would weigh if it were recut into a modern Brilliant cut. This is changing. Look online and you’ll see some pretty spectacular prices for antique diamond jewelry. But that’s not the only thing that’s changed in the marketplace.

Reinstein-Ross necklace. Those murky brown and gray beads? Diamonds.

I spotted the necklace above in a case at Reinstein-Ross about five years ago. I couldn’t identify the stones, which glittered like strobe lights as I moved my glance over them. I asked the saleswoman what they were. “Diamonds!” she said, in the same way she might have said, “Hot fudge!” And yummy they were. But look at them: they’re brown and gray, full of inclusions. Common as, well, carbon. Not long before, they would have been considered industrial stones, not jewelry-worthy. But now, beads like these are pouring out of the Indian city of Surat, where most of the world’s diamonds are cut and polished. They are an introvert’s sort of bling, sparkly and understated at once. The photo doesn’t do them justice.

There’s also a market for brown diamond solitaires, often sold as “champagne” or “cognac” diamonds. The former are brown with yellow in them; the latter are darker brown with orange in them. There are “chocolate” diamonds too—diamonds come in many shades of brown. The GIA has specific classifications for these, and I wouldn’t buy a larger stone without a GIA certificate.

Diamond beads cut and polished in India

But when it comes to beads, all that matters is the sparkle—which is to say, the cut. My jeweler friend Nan found the beads above (and at the top of this post) on 47th Street, New York’s diamond district. I suppose you could call the orangy ones cognac diamonds and the  brownish-yellow ones champagne diamonds. But I just call them dirty diamonds—and as far as I’m concerned, they’re dirty in all the right ways.

7 thoughts on “Dirty Diamonds

  1. I love this piece. Your family stones are beautiful. There is no such wealth in my family and I committed myself to not buying any non-essential product linked to human suffering. Diamonds are among them but I appreciate your balanced explanations here.


    1. I didn’t get into blood diamonds in this post, but I’m sensitive to the issue. It’s one reason I prefer antique stones. Consumers want conflict-free diamonds, and many stones are certified as such…but I wonder about even these sometimes.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Agreed. I liken lab created stones and ‘conflict free’ stones to wearing fake fur. It’s still contributing to an esthetic rooted in exploitation. Vintage, heirloom, up cycled, repurposed that’s all a different story.


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