Born in Montreal, Canada on November 30, 1840 to creating a Canadian jewelry empire. Read all about Henry Birks amazing story.
Although diamonds have a natural beauty, Marcel is the man who figured out how to get the most light to shine out of a diamond, calculating how to maximize light return.
In the history of diamond polishing, the name Asscher is well remembered and respected. A diamond dynasty based out of Amsterdam that gave us the Asscher cut, the royal Asscher cut, as well as the Royal Asscher Company, which is active to this day.
The name Asscher is well remembered and respected. A diamond dynasty based out of Amsterdam that gave us the Asscher cut, the royal Asscher cut, as well as the Royal Asscher Company, which is active to this day. The first name, Joseph, is also closely associated with Asscher. There we several of them. The first was Joseph Isaac Asscher, who founded the company in 1854.
Their first offices at 127 Tolstraat in Amsterdam are still the company's global headquarters. He formed I.J. Asscher Company after his son, Isaac Joseph Asscher who followed in his father's footsteps. Isaac Joseph had two sons, Abraham and Joseph. It is this Joseph, the third in this distinguished line of diamond people, that we are focused on today.
The two brothers, Joseph and Abraham became some of the most proficient, trusted and famous diamonds cutters in history: the Asscher brothers, as they would become known. Joseph has two main claims to fame in diamond history. In 1902, Joseph Asscher designed and patented the Asscher cut. The original Asscher cut is a square diamond with a three-step crown, a seven-step pavilion and cut corners. The step cut diamond is similar to an emerald cut, with one big difference. The Asscher cut has more of an octagonal shape. One of the beauties of this diamond shape is that it creates a fantastic reflection inside the diamond. A well-cut Asscher has been described as an 'endless hallway of reflective mirrors.'
Asscher-shaped diamonds are almost always set in a minimalist four-prong setting that gives the stone a square appearance and highlights its deep pavilion. It was possibly the first diamond cut ever to receive a patent, which the company maintained for its 50-year duration. Today, the previously patented Asscher cut is more commonly known as a square emerald.
The design continued evolving over the years to improve its brilliance, among other aspects. In the 1920s, the family introduced the second generation of the diamond shape: a modified emerald cut with large corners, a built-up crown and a small table. The Royal Asscher cut has 74 facets: 32 on the top, 40 on the bottom, a culet and the table. Unlike Round diamonds, which have a faceted girdle, Asschers have a smooth girdle called a "band". As a step cut shape (like the Emerald shape), it is difficult to hide imperfections in Asscher-shaped diamonds. Therefore, these diamonds usually feature high Clarity – VS or better.
In 1999, decedents Edward and Joop Asscher began researching ways to enhance Joseph's original Asscher Cut. Two years later, and nearly 100 years after Joseph patented the original Asscher cut, they unveiled the newly patented Royal Asscher cut. The Royal Asscher cut is a step-cut featuring 74 facets, compared to the 58-facet Asscher cut.
Owing to its patent, only the Royal Asscher Company can produce the stone, and each diamond comes with a certificate of authenticity and a laser inscription bearing the Royal Asscher logo and identification number. There are reportedly fewer than 75 people in the world who are qualified to cut a Royal Asscher, and each undergoes an intense three-month training program, before they are allowed to begin polishing diamonds into this shape.
Joseph Asscher had a hand in another historic diamond chapter, the cutting and polishing of the Cullinan Diamond, perhaps the most famous of all gem-quality diamonds is the Cullinan. The Cullinan diamond was found by a miner named Thomas Evan Powell, who brought it to the surface and gave it to Frederick Wells, surface manager of the Premier Diamond Mining Company in Cullinan, South Africa, on 26 January 1905. It weighed 3,106.75 carats, or approximately 621 grams. The stone was immediately named after Sir Thomas Cullinan, the owner of the diamond mine, who had discovered the mine after many years of unsuccessful searching.
Despite its enormous size, analysis showed that the Cullinan diamond might actually have been broken by natural forces and was likely even larger at some point in its history. Frederick Wells was awarded £3,500 for the discovery and the Transvaal Colony government purchased the stone for £150,000. The Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa suggested that the stone be presented to King Edward VII of England as a gesture of loyalty and good faith, and plans were made to transport the diamond to the King.
Due to the immense value of the diamond, security was a real problem. As a diversionary tactic, a heavily guarded steamship was given a fake package for the captain to store in a safe onboard. The real stone was shipped to England via registered mail in a plain, unmarked box. Upon its arrival, the famous Asscher family of Amsterdam would be chosen to cleave and polish the stone.
When found in 1905, the Asscher brothers, Joseph and Abraham, were the natural choice to polish it. King Edward VII invited the Asscher brothers to London to discuss how to cut it. After studying the diamond, it was decided that the stone would be cleaved into three pieces. It came with one caveat – Joseph was given specific instructions that the rough stone should yield the world's largest faceted diamond.
Given such a unique opportunity, and well aware of the attention given to the exceptional rough diamond, Joseph decided to gain some marketing publicity out of it. Word spread in Amsterdam that the Cullinan diamond is in town. Going against all security concerns that exist today, Joseph not only made it known that he is about to polish the diamond, he even invited the public to watch how he starts working on it. And so in 1908, when Joseph Asscher attempted to cleave the stone, he did so in front of a public audience. His first attempt broke his blade, while the stone remained intact.
The combination of pressure over the direct involvement of King Edward VII in directing how to polish the diamond, the heavy responsibility of trying to polish the largest polished diamond, and the presence of the crowd had its effect on him, although it did not show immediately. Joseph promptly dismissed the crowd and began working on a new design for larger tools that would do the job. One week later, armed with new tools and in the presence of only a witnessing notary, Joseph Asscher successfully cleaved the stone as planned. It was then that the pressure became visible. Joseph Asscher apparently fainted immediately afterward.
Joseph succeeded in attaining the goal King Edward VII set for him. The Cullinan produced more than 100 individual polished stones, some of which remain amongst the largest cut diamonds in existence. The Cullinan I, or the Great Star of Africa, is the largest clear white diamond in the world. The pear-shaped diamond weighs 530.4 carats and is set in the British Crown's Sovereign's Scepter with Cross. The stone can actually be removed from the scepter and worn as a pendant or hung from the Cullinan II as a brooch. The Cullinan II, or the Second Star of Africa, is a 317.4 carat cushion cut stone that is mounted in the front cross of the Imperial State Crown.
The Cullinan III and Cullinan IV would each be given the not-so-auspicious names of the "Lesser Stars of Africa". The 94.4 carat pear-shaped Cullinan III and the 63.6 carat square cushion-cut Cullinan IV, were both originally set in the crown of Queen Mary, but have since been removed and used as standalone gems, each as a brooch. In 1958, Queen Elizabeth II brought the Cullinan IV with her on a visit to the Netherlands. It was there that she took off the brooch and offered it for inspection to Joseph Asscher, who had originally cut the stone more than 50 years earlier. Joseph Asscher was reportedly quite moved by the gesture. The Cullinan stones now collectively form part of the Crown Jewels of England, and are rarely taken outside of their displays in the Jewel House, a vault at the Tower of London.
Joseph and his brother changed the company's name to The Asscher Diamond Company, and continued to do well until the late 1930s. However, all that changed when the Nazis invaded The Netherlands in 1940. Shortly after the invading force took over Amsterdam, German soldiers entered the Asscher factory and confiscated the company's entire inventory of diamonds. The family was sent to concentration camps along with all the employees. Joseph and a few members of his family survived the war, however nothing was ever the same for him, the company or even Amsterdam's diamond center.
Once the largest diamond center in the world, the Amsterdam diamond cutting industry was almost completely wiped out. Ten members of the Asscher family survived the Holocaust, along with just 15 of the nearly 500 diamond cutters. In addition, during the war, the company's patent on the Asscher cut expired with no one able to renew it. This allowed other companies to copy it, and the Asscher-shape began to be produced as the square emerald. This confusion continues today and many square emeralds are not cut to the same strict proportions designed by Joseph Asscher.
After surviving the war, Joseph Asscher was given an opportunity to start a new company in New York, but instead chose to return to the Netherlands and rebuild their family business. Their efforts paid off, and in 1980, the company was given a royal title by Her Majesty Queen Juliana of the Netherlands in recognition of their long history and valuable contributions to the diamond industry and to the Netherlands. They are the only diamond company in the world to have been given such an honor.
The Diamond necklace that contributed to the downfall of Mary Antoinette, the French monarchy and the popular uprising that became the French Revolution. This is the story of love, greed, power, deception, forgery, and politics, as well as a tale of blind desire for position and riches that led to ruin and destruction on a massive scale.
A duo that went down in history due to a single diamond jewelry item were the two Parisian jewelers, Charles Boehmer and Paul Bassenge. The two created a diamond necklace that contributed to the downfall of Mary Antoinette, the French monarchy and the popular uprising that became the French Revolution. This is the story of love, greed, power, deception, forgery, and politics, as well as a tale of blind desire for position and riches that led to ruin and destruction on a massive scale.
Boehmer and Bassenge were two celebrated Parisian jewelers who were commissioned in 1772 by King Louis XV of France to create a necklace for Madame du Barry, a former prostitute who became the king's chief mistress. The deceit started here. Although du Barry had a royal title, she was not a royal by birth. To earn it, she married her pimp's brother, and together they created a false birth certificate that included a fictitious noble heritage and made her three years younger. Now, with a royal title, she could become an official mistress of the king, following a series of affairs and clientele that included ministers and nobles, among them Marshal of France Richelieu.
The commissioned necklace was to be a special gift, and king was willing to spend an extraordinary amount on it, instructing the jewelers to create a necklace "surpass all others." They agreed on a cost of 2,000,000 livres, which translates to about $14 million in current value. Outlandish expenditures by the King on his mistresses were not unusual. He spent much on the previous chief mistress Madame de Pompadour, after whom the marquise diamond shape is named – fashioned after her lips.
Boehmer and Bassenge immediately went to work. The planning stage took a while, but eventually they arrived at an elaborate and unusual design that included a series of festoons, pendants and tassels, all set with diamonds, a great number of them fairly large. They then started to buy diamonds across Europe, a complicated process, because they were apparently not paid a large down payment. This forced them to buy the diamonds in stages, each time waiting before they saved enough to make the next purchase. In the end, the necklace included 647 diamonds with a total weight of 2,800 carats. According to reports at the time, they were of the highest color and clarity, probably as close as possible to D color, flawless clarity. There are no credible records of the cost of the diamonds, but some reports claim that the jewelers spent most of the 2 million livres budget on purchasing the diamonds.
Some two years after they were commissioned to make the necklace, King Louis XV died of smallpox on May 10, 1774. This left Boehmer and Bassenge with a fantastic yet unpaid for necklace. If they did not find a buyer, they would be faced with financial ruin.
After several years of attempting to sell the necklace, the two turned to the newly crowned King Louis XVI, offering him the necklace as gift for his wife, Marie Antoinette. In 1778, Louis XVI offered it to his wife as a gift, but she refused to accept it. According to one account, the Queen refused it because of the high cost, which she felt would be better spent on a war ship. Many believe that she refused to accept the necklace, because she did not want a second-hand jewelry item that had been designed for a courtesan. Some go as far as to state that Marie Antoinette deeply disliked Madame du Barry, and that is why it was turned down.
In October 1781, Marie Antoinette gave birth to Louis Joseph de France, her and the king's second child, and their first son. As the eldest son of the king, he was the heir apparent. Boehmer and Bassenge thought that this could be a cause of celebration calling for a unique jewelry item and approached the Queen again, reducing the price to 1.6 million livers. However, she still was not interested. She even suggested to the two jewelers that at such an exorbitant price, the sensible course of action would be to dismantle the piece and sell the diamonds so they could at least recoup their costs. Boehmer and Bassenge may have been too emotionally tied to the hard work and great results of their creation to bring themselves to take it apart.
At this point, Marie Antoinette was already being viewed very unfavorably by the public, considered extravagant, foolish, and consumed by a lust for male and female lovers, presiding over a Dionysian court of feasts, with total disregard for the growing plight of the common people. To make matters worse, rumors circulated that the children she bore were not the king's, but those of her lovers. Ironically, it could very well have been that same public perception that led to her refusal to have such outlandish and expensive necklace.
Over the years, the two jewelers took the necklace outside of France to show it to several possible buyers, with no success. This left them desperate. That is why when they were approached by the Countess of La Motte, who offered to sell the diamond necklace to a cardinal. They agreed. Although a decedent of King Henry II of France, apparently of one of his illegitimate children, Jeanne de la Motte turned out not to be a Countess, but a con woman.
Born Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy, she married an officer of the gendarmes by the name Nicholas de la Motte, and in 1785, 13 years after the necklace was commissioned by Louis XV, Jeanne de la Motte befriended Cardinal de Rohan. There are mixed reports about their relationship. Some claim she was the Cardinal's mistress. Others say they simply knew each other. The Cardinal, the former ambassador to the Austrian court in Vienna, fell out of favor of the French court after he spoke critically of Marie Antoinette to Austrian Empress Maria Theresa, the mother of Marie Antoinette. Further, he may have also expressed a disrespectful tone about the empress, something that reached Queen Marie Antoinette.
Rude, undiplomatic, out of favor of the court, and apparently not very bright, the cardinal sought his way back to the court. That gave Jeanne de la Motte the idea to try and con them all. She suggested to the Cardinal that he buy the necklace for the Queen to gain back her favor. She then suggested to Boehmer and Bassenge to serve as a sort of broker between them and the court so they could finally sell the necklace. Her real goal, however, was to steal the necklace.
Through a series of letters, supposedly from the Queen, de la Motte convinced the cardinal that Marie Antoinette was open to a suggestion for a peace offering. Next, de la Motte arranged for a meeting between the cardinal and the Queen in the garden of the Palace of Versailles. The Cardinal met with a woman he believed to be the Queen, but in fact, the woman was a prostitute named Nicole Leguay d'Oliva, who was hired by de la Motte. The cardinal was convinced that the Queen was ready to forgive him and set aside her grievances.
Next, de la Motte introduced Cardinal Rohan to Boehmer and Bassenge after she told the Cardinal that Marie Antoinette wanted the necklace, but did not want it to be known publically, supposedly asking him to act as a go-between and hide the identity of the true buyer. Cardinal Rohan agreed to buy the necklace for 2 million livres, to be paid in four installments over a period of two years. On February 1, 1785, he took the necklace and brought it to de la Motte's house. There, he met a man who was introduced to the cardinal as a servant of the Queen, who was there to take the necklace to her. The cardinal handed him the necklace with great excitement, and off the man went. The man was in fact de la Motte's husband, who immediately left Paris to London with the very precious necklace. Once in London, the necklace was dismantled, the diamonds and gold sold. This magnificent and lavish creation fit for the most outlandish court in Europe, was never seen again.
There are a few accounts of how the scheme was discovered. One says Boehmer and Bassenge asked a chambermaid if the Queen had already worn the necklace, only to discover that she had never received it. According to another account, a payment was due to Boehmer and Bassenge in July 1785, and when it was not made, they asked the Queen about it. Through them, Marie Antoinette discovered the cardinal's involvement and decided to summon him to the palace.
On August 15, believing that he was called to the Palace of Versailles to deliver a sermon, Cardinal Rohan was taken to the King and Queen to explain himself. The cardinal described the events. The king was furious at Rohan for letting himself be fooled, and ordered him arrested and taken to the Bastille. Jeanne de la Motte was captured and arrested several days later, and the two were brought to trial, together with Nicole Leguay d'Oliva.
Although the cardinal, Boehmer and Bassenge, and in a way the Queen were the victims of this scam, as far as the public was concerned, it was the Queen, her character, and her way of life that were on trial. The trial, with the Parlement de Paris as judges, further aggravated the already brewing public dissent against the royal family. On May 31, 1786, Jeanne de la Motte was convicted as a thief, sentenced to be whipped, branded with a V (for voleuse, "thief") on each shoulder, and sent to life imprisonment in the prostitutes' prison. Her husband was tried in absentia and condemned to be a galley slave. However Cardinal Rohan was acquitted.
The cardinal's acquittal sparked further furry in the royal palace, where he was viewed as a fool and an accomplice. Among the people, the cardinal's acquittal was a reflection of the Queen's true character. After all, the trial accepted the cardinal's belief that Marie Antoinette would be the sort of woman to meet him alone, in the dark, unescorted at night. Much can be said about her, but in this case, Marie Antoinette was not only not behind the scheme, as far as the necklace was concerned, she was financially cautious, preferring an investment in the country's navy over herself.
In the poisoned political climate of Paris in 1786, many believed the trial was a cover-up engineered to protect the Queen's reputation. The Queen's reputation was ruined forever. The Queen was the scandal. She was guilty of conspiracy, even if the facts pointed to others. Over the next few years, popular unrest only grew, leading to the French Revolution. Six years after the trial, on October 16, 1793, Marie Antoinette was executed. There is no known record of what became of Boehmer and Bassenge after the trial.
Image: "The Queen's necklace", reconstruction, Château de Breteuil, France
In the past, during the early days of the modern diamond industry, financing was mainly about developing the core of the industry – diamond exploration, mine development, and consolidation. Another major difference is that key financing came from financiers. One such financier who played a pivotal role in setting the diamond industry on the tracks it still running on was Jules Porgès.