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Diamond Portraits: The Asschers

The Asscher family is one of a handful of diamond dynasties that have made an indelible mark on the diamond industry. The company bearing their name has been working in diamonds for over 150 years and is still run by the descendants of its founder. The Asschers have been responsible for cutting some of the most famous diamonds in history and, more recently, have been at the leading edge of design and development in diamond manufacturing and design. 

Joseph Isaac Asscher founded the company in 1854. Their first offices at Tolstraat 127 in Amsterdam are still the company's global headquarters. Joseph named it the I.J. Asscher Company after his son, Isaac Joseph Asscher who followed in his father's footsteps. Isaac would go on to have two sons, Joseph and Abraham, who became some of the most proficient, trusted and famous diamonds cutters in history. The Asscher brothers, as they would become known, changed the name of the company to the Asscher Diamond Company.

In 1902, Joseph Asscher would design and patent the Asscher cut. The step cut diamond is similar to an emerald cut, with the obvious difference being that it is more of an octagonal shape. A well-cut Asscher has been described as an 'endless hallway of reflective mirrors.' Asschers 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.

In 1903, Abraham Asscher would be charged with cleaving and cutting the Excelsior Diamond, which at 997 carats, was the largest diamond ever discovered at the time. The Excelsior had been discovered in South Africa 10 years earlier, but had been stored in a safe at De Beers in London as it was considered too big and too expensive to find a suitable buyer. Its owners grew tired of storing and insuring the valuable stone, and Asscher was given specific instructions to cut the large diamond into smaller pieces that would make it easier for them to sell. De Beers' management said that dividing the stone into many small pieces was "the greatest tragedy of modern times in the history of famous diamonds." The Excelsior would be cut into 11 large stones and an additional 11 smaller stones. The largest polished diamond, Excelsior I, was polished into a 69-carat pear shape that was sold in 1996 for $2.6 million.

When the Cullinan Diamond was found in 1905, the Asscher brothers were the natural choice to polish it, only this time they were given specific instructions that the rough stone should yield the world's largest faceted diamond. King Edward VII invited the Asscher brothers to London, and it was decided that the stone would be cleaved into three pieces. As legend has it, 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. He promptly dismissed the crowd and began working on a new design for larger tools to do the job. One week later, armed with new tools and in the presence of only a witnessing notary, he successfully broke the stone as planned. He apparently fainted immediately afterward.

World War II would not be kind to the Asscher family. When the Nazis invaded The Netherlands in 1940, they entered the Asscher factory and confiscated the company's entire inventory. The Jewish family was sent to concentration camps along with all the employees. During this time, 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 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 the war, the Amsterdam diamond cutting industry, which was at the time one of the largest in the world, was almost completely wiped out. Ten members of the Asscher family survived the Holocaust, along with just 15 of the nearly 500 diamond cutters. Two of the survivors, Louis and Joseph Asscher, were given an opportunity to start a new company in New York, but instead choose 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. At the time, the Queen gave Louis Asscher a choice upon his retirement: a knighthood or the lasting legacy for his company. Louis chose the latter, and the business became known as the Royal Asscher Diamond Company, the name that it continues to bear today.

In 1999, Louis Asscher's sons, Edward and Joop, 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.

Today, the company is owned by the sixth generation of the Asscher family. In 2008, Royal Asscher created the Star of Africa line, which guarantees a minimum donation of $50,000 to the Diamond Empowerment Fund, a non-profit international organization founded by Russell Simmons. Donations will sponsor students from Sierra Leone who attend the African Leadership Academy, instituted on the belief that ethical leadership is the key to transforming Africa. Revenue from the sale of items in the Star of Africa line provides funding to establish education, healthcare and self-sufficiency programs in Africa's diamond-producing areas.

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