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Diamond Portraits: Joseph Asscher

Diamond Portraits: Joseph Asscher

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 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.

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