Tue, 30 Oct 2007

“American Cut – The First 100 Years,” by Al Gilbertson, G.G.

 

 

 

Many
of us know Al Gilbertson as an esteemed cutter, gemologist and
innovator. Add “mythbuster” to his titles. Mr. Gilbertson has
produced a gem of a book, sure to be a page-turner for enthusiasts of
“ideal” diamond cutting origins.

 

“American
Cut – The First 100 Years” documents important changes between 1850 and
1960. The book focuses on the evolution of cut in the United States
and gives historical legs to some of our truncated trade myths. There
is special focus on American production prior to Marcel Tolkowsky’s
1919 work “Diamond Design,” which is often credited for bringing
groundbreaking new “ideal” proportions to the trade. Readers may be
surprised to learn that Tolkowsky did not use the term ideal, nor was
he the first to discuss ray-tracing. In fact, when he wrote his book
in London, diamonds of the same essential angles had been coming out of
Boston and New York for decades. And while his well-known model gave
precise theoretical proportions he thought optimal, the tools of his
day were not actually capable of measuring in the half or three-quarter
degree increments he put forward. Tolkowsky acknowledged that
“millions of pounds of well-cut diamonds” in the same narrow (by the
standards of the day) range of proportions had already been cut in his
family’s factory.

 

So
why is Tolkowsky said to have been the first to ray-trace a diamond
(myth) provide this range of proportions (myth) and write a doctoral
thesis about them (myth)? As Mr. Gilbertson notes, “the origins
and the reasons for how the standard came about sometimes become hazy,
even lost, and lack of knowledge or understanding give credence to
myths.”
Gilbertson has spent the past 30 years researching written
and living sources – the book has an astounding bibliography of nearly
300 entries – to bring us a fascinating and thorough overview of the
evolution of American diamond cutting.

 

The
first chapter is a historical prelude with emphasis on cutting
details. Gilbertson documents measuring devices and proportions
recommendations that appeared as early as 1750, discussing important
figures like David Jeffries, who wrote a treatise, developed tools and
encouraged certain proportions, rather than acquiring the most weight
possible by following the rough’s outline. Jeffries was among the
first to say a diamond should be valued based on its spread rather than
how much it weighed. His views were not popular.

 

The
book’s most compelling saga involves Henry Morse, an artist and
diamantaire from Boston who battled for beauty over preservation of
carat weight in the 1860s. Morse could not stand the imprecision of
diamond cutting. He traveled overseas to see how things were done,
then set up his own cutting works. His insistence on new approaches
infuriated his first workers, who had Dutch backgrounds, and he battled
them until he was able to teach American workers – including the first
female diamond cutters – to replace the Dutch. Morse’s insistence on
symmetry and angles eventually resulted in the invention of the first
bruting machine and angle gauge (the book contains many drawings and
photos). He made a name for himself by speaking out against old
methods of cutting. As demand for his diamonds grew his cutting style
became known as “American Cut” and gained attention. Gilbertson
reports that Isaac Herman was one of the first to follow this style.
In 1871 Herman observed Morse’s cutting and put together his own team
in New York. Others followed suit, including Tiffany & Co, one of
Morse’s clients, who continued to buy from him even as they induced his
workers to come work for them. In 1891 the Scientific American did a
story on Tiffany & Co. and “Scientific Cutting” became the buzz.
As these terms “American Cut” and “Scientific Cut” gained momentum,
advertisements for square diamonds were replaced by round. The
Europeans resisted the new style of cutting because the corners and so
much of the top was lost in the process, but their cushion cuts were
becoming blas?. Some Antwerp firms began cutting based on Morse, who
was being highly praised by George Kunz, the well-traveled and
influential VP of Tiffany & Company.

 

In
1899 the rotary saw was developed, allowing two diamonds to be produced
from one piece of octahedron. This made the American cutting style
even more plausible. Between 1885 and 1902 the number of workers in US
cutting factories had grown over 300 percent (though still
insignificant compared to the number in Europe). In 1903 a New York
jeweler named Wallis Cattelle was one of the first to back up the
optical benefits of the American Cuts with ray-tracing, reinforcing the
scientific superiority and noting that European cutters were gradually
having to conform to it more and more. Merchandisers leaned on the
national pride for “American Supremacy,” promoting “American Cut” and
“Scientific Cut.” Huge ads featuring eagles, the statue of liberty,
baseball diamonds, etc., fanned patriotic flames. The words
“brilliancy” and “fire,” some of which included rudimentary ray-tracing
diagrams, were related to the cutting of the stone (these ads are
reproduced in Gilbertson’s book, which also includes a pull-out display
poster produced by J.R. Wood & Sons in 1915).

 

As
we know, history has a way of repeating itself. Just as our trade
blurs the lines of “ideal” now, yesterday’s sellers grabbed onto
popular buzzwords and abused them. The inability to clearly measure
proportions clouded the issue and led to rampant mis-advertising. This
reached its height in 1915-1918. The term “American Cut” was diluted
by shops setting up in America but not actually cutting to the range
Morse and his followers established. Other ad campaigns trumped
“scientific” with “best proportions,” “perfect cut,” “top blue white,”
and “very fine quality” diamonds offered “below wholesale” (sound
familiar?); nowhere near the quality of true American Cut specimens.

 

The
JCK rose to battle this misrepresentation. They organized a movement
to remove ads with the word “perfect” and ran a campaign of articles to
educate jewelers. They called on Dr. Herbert Whitlock to assist.
Whitlock was curator of Minerals and Gems at the New York State Museum
(eventually the Smithsonian collection) and provided ray-tracing
examples of different cuts. He was the first gemological authority to
name the new style “American Cut” in writing. Frank Wade, who was to
become a member of GIA’s Student Advisory Board and one of the academic
leaders Robert Shipley hired to advance the gemology movement, was also
a leader in the crusade. From 1915-1930 Wade pioneered a series of
scientific articles that distinguished him in the trade. Marcel
Tolkowky’s 1919 book was timed perfectly for his purposes. Wade
equated the “American Cut” with Tolkowsky’s calculations and was one of
the first influential people to call his measurements “ideal.” By the
1930s the efforts of Wade and Shipley gave Tolkowsky’s book great
prominence in the minds of many – and it did have an influence on
American cutting: Where Morse’s diamonds had tables near 40% Wade
thought Tolkowsky was right and advocated the “ideal” 53 and 54% tables
he espoused. Tolkowsky was also the first to write that lower halves
needed to have a specific relationship to the rest of the diamond.

 

As
Robert Shipley developed GIA’s coursework in the 1930s he included a
survey of cutting styles. By this time the Germans were involved in
cutting and, like others in Europe, they did not like the loss of
weight on the crown. Shipley’s work, centered on Tolkowksy, was in
large part defending against the German concepts. In 1938 the FTC
banned use of the word “perfect.” “Scientific cut” fell away because
it represented proportions with smaller tables, no longer in use. The
terms “ideal” and “American Cut” continued As GIA’s influence grew in
the 1930s and 40s an ever-increasing number of jewelers began to
recognize the importance of cut quality. Richard Liddicoat worked on
cut at the same time he was developing the color and claritygrading
system. He introduced a proportions-scope and a grading system using
terms like “American Cut” which had deductions for proportions outside
a certain range. In fact, the present day Rapaport list is based on
the style of the chart Liddicoat developed for color, clarity and cut.
In 1953 the GIA diamond grading courses were introduced. With a GIA
education a jeweler could make intelligent decisions about buying so
these courses caught on like wildfire. Graduates were provided tools
to measure cut but often needed help with color and clarity; which were
more subjective. This is where the first GIA grading reports came
from. Diamonds sent in were graded for color and clarity but not cut,
since the students had those tools already.

 

In the epilogue Mr. Gilbertson writes, “Today
when diamonds can be accurately measured to a much higher degree of
precision, we find that there is a relatively wide range of appealing
proportions…Diamond grading reports that analyze cut merely help the
consumer understand the overall grades and appearances that are
preferred. We should look at the diamond itself to see if its
appearance is what we personally deem the most pleasing to our eyes,
making it our own ideal.”

 

Mr.
Gilbertson’s book spans a dynamic period of time in diamond cutting.
He has done a superlative job of bringing history to life in an
informative and entertaining fashion. His research materials,
including 2500 of Henry Morse’s business letters, make for a colorful
account and often permit the reader to experience the feelings and
passion of his subjects through firsthand quotes. Hundreds of
drawings, diagrams and photos make the book user-friendly for all
readers. “American Cut – The First 100 Years” will soon be appearing
in university libraries across the country, and on countless desktops
of diamond professionals and enthusiasts.

 

Sincere
thanks to the Gemological Institute of America, the foremost leader in
gemological education, and especially to Al for his passion and
commitment.

 

– John Pollard

 

View an eight-minute synopsis of the book by Inside GIA TV, on YouTube

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2kc79FY0Obg

 

Available at amazon click here

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“American Cut – The First 100 Years,” by Al Gilbertson, G.G.