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POLISHED DIAMONDS

HAVING IN SIZE WHAT THEY LACK IN FIRE AND BRILLIANCE,
PORTRAIT CUTS ARE MAKING A COME BACK

 

The celebrity couple Joaquin Phoenix and Rooney Mara caught jewelry aficionados’ attention in 2019 when their engagement to get married was revealed. Mara, who is known to be both minimalist and avant-garde, was seen defying convention by wearing an unflashy hexagon-shaped portrait-cut diamond, set between slender baguettes on a platinum band.

It was an unusual choice for an engagement ring, for by design the portrait cut lacks sparkle, being dominated by an often long entirely flat surface. In many respects it is the antithesis of a standard diamond cut, which usually seeks to to maximize the reflective and refractive elements of the gemstone, providing both its fire and brilliance. This not the portrait cut’s intention.

Also known as a lasque cut, it can be traced back hundreds of years to India, where diamonds sometimes were polished in the form of a thin slabs or sheets, in a variety of shapes, including rectangles, squares, pear shapes and more.

With only simple facets polished in the dominant facet’s sides, both the upper and lower surface of the longer portrait facets is polished so that achieved the appearance of a plate of glass, and this often was used to cover miniature paintings, some of which were portraits of people.

It’s worth noting that Mara and Phoenix did not provide the public a with a close-up view of her engagement ring, so while a portrait cut is definitely involved, it’s not clear whether it is covers anything, other than her ring finger, of course.

The Russian Portrait Diamond, featuring the likeness of Tzar Alexander I.

PORTRAIT OF RUSSIAN EMPEROR

Arguably the most famous example of such a cut is the Russian Portrait Diamond, which is said to date back to 1820, and covers a miniature portrait of Tzar Alexander I, who reigned over the Russian empire between 1801 and 1825, during which he both fought with and against Napoleon Bonaparte, eventually playing a part in the French emperor’s defeat.

The piece of jewelry in question is believed to be the largest portrait diamond ever, weighing 27 carats, and covers a painting of Alexander I on ivory. It is the centerpiece of a Gothic style, Indian, gold and enamel bracelet.

After Alexander’s death, it became part of the Romanov crown jewels, which were kept in the Winter Palace in Saint Peterburg in a chamber especially constructed for this purpose by Peter the Great.

When World War I began in in 1914, and with Russia fearing invasion by German forces, the last Romanov to rule as Tzar, Nicholas II, ordered that the treasures in the vault be transferred to Moscow. There they were hidden in the underground vaults of the Kremlin Armory. With the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the crown jewels were forgotten until they were re-discovered in 1922 in the armory basement.

Although some the Romanov crown jewels disappeared, and others were sold, the Russian Portrait Diamond can still be seen on permanent display, in the Kremlin Armory Museum.

FLOATING AGAINST THE SKIN

Portrait cuts are now experiencing something of a rebirth, and are featured in a New York Times article this month, entitled “A Gem Cutting Style Gets a Reboot.”

The article quotes a Mumbai-based designer, Vishal Kothari, who has based an entire collection to the portrait cut, reinterpreting art and architectural motifs from India. “Because the stones are flat, I can use a thin wire, making them look like they are floating against the skin,” he told the newspaper. “You see very little metal in my designs.”

One of elements of the portrait cuts that designers are their size relative to their weight. Because they are so thin, a low-carat stone can cover a relatively large expanse.

While not technically a portrait cut, another Indian designer, Keyur Miyani from Surat, used a flat slab of glass to fashion a gift for the country’s recently reelected prime minister, Narendra Modi.

Cut in the shape of India, and a little more than 2 millimeters thick, Miyani’s diamond does feature an actual portrait. It’s not painted but apparently laser-inscribed face of the Indian prime minister.

 

The portrait of Prime Minister Narenda Modi, laser-etched onto the flat surface of a diamond, shaped like a map of India.