Rough diamonds and Art Nouveau jewelry beat out bling

New York Times, November 27, 2006

NEW YORK — When Bergdorf Goodman's holiday gift catalog returned from the printer last month, it was already out of date. The 89-carat diamond cocktail ring on page 32 had gone to a buyer in Beverly Hills, California, for $100,000. Costly by any reckoning, the diamond was memorable both for its size and for its utter rawness: it had been neither cut nor polished.

"It was a slate-gray, black and silvery stone," said Anjanette Clisura, president of the New York-based company Diamond in the Rough. "We didn't touch it, except to wash the dirt off."

Clisura's company sells a line of uncut diamonds colored naturally in tones of cognac, blue, pink, yellow, white and green, wrapped in delicate threads of diamond pavé and set in 18-carat white gold.

Since introducing the collection to customers in Las Vegas in June, during the jewelry industry's biggest buying week, the response from retailers in New York, Shanghai and Sardinia has been overwhelming, Clisura said.

Observers might be puzzled by the runaway success of a high-priced line of glorified rocks. Among luxury consumers, however, there is no denying the growing appeal of jewels that shun sparkle in favor of an earthier, more organic sensibility.

"It's not about superficiality anymore," said Lorna Watson, creative director of Stellar London, a jewelry branding consultancy.

"At the moment, there's a move towards softer, more reassuring, tactile products and jewelry based on heritage, meticulous craftsmanship; something with symbolism behind it. Let's face it: We all love diamonds. That's not going to change. But the emphasis on how they're worn will."

Rough diamonds were first prized by the maharajahs of India, who obtained them from the legendary fields of Golconda and treasured them for their primordial mystique.

The earliest cutters scraped edges off here and there, experimentally, to allow light into the stones. it was not until Europe developed a taste for diamonds in the 17th century, however, that they came to be judged by their sparkle.

By the 20th century, the advent of high-tech polishing equipment had created a cult around brilliance, culminating in the sharp rise to prominence of a certain hip hop slang term, coined by New Orleans rapper B.G. in 1999, to describe the sound of bouncing light: bling.

Now, say trend-watchers, the glow is gone. "Bling has officially expired," declared Britt Bivens, director of 4.5 Productions in New York, a trend consulting agency.

Even if 1980s glitz is making a comeback in certain fashion circles, she said, "it's the white bling we're done with."

A barometer of style, the red carpet at the Academy Awards, began to showcase fewer dramatic white diamond necklaces in 2003, the year of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which coincided with the Oscars.

"I haven't seen a return to huge diamond pieces," said the jewelry designer Suzy Fabrikant, co-owner of M. Fabrikant & Sons, a manufacturer of diamond and gemstone jewelry with operations in 11 countries.

"Women's tastes are maturing, too. They want a ring that expresses more of them than just 'I'm rich.'"

A new generation of jewelers is prepared to honor those wishes.

Some, like Christine Brandt, a Japanese-Norwegian-American wood sculptor and designer, take the organic mandate literally.

Brandt's mesmerizing rings, cuff bracelets and pendants are shaped from exotic woods like cocobolo, amboyna burl or wenge, and topped with frothy, candy-like mineral specimens that still cling to their crystal foundations.

A kindred spirit lurks in the beguiling creations of Lotus Arts de Vivre. It is a family-run jewelry company in Bangkok that places 65-million-year-old ammonite fossils and resplendent peacock feathers in earrings that sell for thousands of dollars in five-star hotels around the world.

H. Stern, the Brazilian brand famous for its rainbow selection of colored stones, has paid homage to nature in an indirect but no less reverential way with the introduction of its proprietary diamond cut, the Stern Star.

"The stone is neither round nor triangular but a blend of forms found in naturally shaped pebbles," according to a brochure.