Mastercutter Gabi Tolkowsky holding the Centenary Diamond. He passed away on May 31, 2023, at age 84.
With his iconic mustache, rounded glasses and illustrious family name, Gabi Tolkowsky was not only one the most recognizable faces in the diamond industry, but also one the few individuals able to fill a room, and then keep those gathered enthralled with his natural charisma and streams of consciousness, more typical of a philosopher than a diamond polisher.
But a diamond polisher he was, and arguably the greatest of his time, with an innate understanding a rough diamond and the sublime beauty that could be extracted from it. It was a capability that he may have argued was imbued within his DNA, passed down from generation to generation within a family that left indelible mark on the industry.
Gabi was born in pre-state Israel on January 1, 1939, and died there on May 31, 2023. Fluent in Hebrew, he was nonetheless quintessentially Belgian, although his father had been among the founders of what would become the Israeli diamond center, after his family left Europe ahead of the rising Nazi tide in Germany and before war that was to engulf his land of his fathers and devastate the Jewish community of which he was part.
They would return to Antwerp after the war, and Gabi would make his career there and find his greatness.
in 2003 he was knighted by the Belgian government with the title of Chevalier de L’Ordre du Roi Leopold II, for his services to the country’s diamond industry.
The Golden Jubilee, a 545.65-carat gem polished by Gabi Tolkowsky that is still today largest cut and faceted diamond ever produced.
A SIXTH GENERATION DIAMOND CUTTER
Gabriel S. Tolkowsky was a sixth generation member of family that had found its way into the gem business in the first part of the 19th Century. His forebear Abraham Tolkowsky, a gemstone dealer, moved to Antwerp in the 1840s he had moved to Antwerp. There his son Maurice established a good reputation in the business, and he was joined by his brothers Isadore and Sam.
Maurice was credited with inventing the first diamond bruting machine, and Sam was elected the first chairman of the Antwerp Diamond Exchange.
Arguably the most well-known Tolkowsky prior to Gabi was his great uncle Marcel. A mathematician as well as a diamond polisher, he was the father of the modern round brilliant diamond, defining the angles and proportions that have characterized the most popular cut to this very day.
Gabi was trained personally by his father Jean, and according to him was tasked with polishing a 100-carat emerald-cut diamond already at the age of 16. This expertise of working with very large diamonds is what would cement his reputation as a master-cutter, and would bring him face to face with several of the largest stones unearthed over the past several decades, and from which he created some the most celebrated jewels the world has ever seen.
But he also was a pioneer cutter, commissioned by De Beers with creating a series of economically viable cuts for the often shallow and oddly shaped rough stones that came onto the market with a introduction of massive production from the now defunct Argyle Mine in Western Australia. These were the Flower Cuts. He also created the Gabrielle cut, which became known as the first triple brilliant, and in the 1990s he introduced the Sea Shells Cuts collection.
THE CENTENARY AND THE GOLDEN JUBILEE
In the 1980s, Gabi and his son Jean Paul, himself a master-cutter in the family tradition, were secretly invited by De Beers to cut an unnamed 755.5-carat brown stone that had been discovered at the Premier Mine in South Africa.
An underground vibration-free workshop was constructed especially for the job, and it was polished into a 545.65-carat gem that remains the largest cut and faceted diamond ever produced, taking the record away from the Cullinan I, which is part of the British Crown Jewels and had held the title since 1908.
Completed in 1990, with 148 facets, the polished stone reflected a yellow-brown colour that was intensified by its brilliant cushion cut. It also became associated with royalty, when it bought as a gift for the King of Thailand in celebration of his 50 years on the throne. Fittingly, it was named the Golden Jubilee.
The 273.85 carats Centenary Diamond, which was reportedly insured by De Beers for more than $100 million.
In 1986 De Beers discovered a a 599-carat rough stone in South Africa, and turned once again to Gabi to lead the team that would cut and polish it. It would become the world’s largest D flawless stone, and named the Centenary Diamond in honor of the 100th year of operation of the famed diamond company.
Although special equipment needed to be created to handle a stone so large, the Centenary essentially was cut by hand to reduce the risk of it being split or shattered by excess heat.
“I will never forget how I worked on the Centenary for 154 working days – an entire working year – carving and carving away with my bare hands. I removed more than 50 carats before we started polishing,” Gabi recalled.
The Centenary Diamond was revealed to the world in May 1991. With a modified heart shape – a product of Gabi’s unique imagination – it weighed 273.85 carats. The stone was reportedly insured for more than $100 million.
Speaking later to a British trade journal, Gabi credited the work of the people he had assembled to complete the project. “Without having a team of 15 expert scientists, technicians, security guards and master diamond cutters that communicated daily with me during three long years, I would have never been able to achieve the uniqueness of such a creation,” he said. “Together we realized that every single diamond is effectively an individual that will attract every human’s senses; each one of them is a unique beauty.”