Richard Shepherd has worked in the diamond trade for over forty years. He established a pioneering company specialising in certified fine white diamonds on top of soldiering and property careers. He has a taste for wine, golf, classic motor cars and motorcycles. Now retired from the wholesale trade, he is Chairman at GUY&MAX. He also just so happens to be father to the brothers.
This is the first extract from an interview which offers an honest insight into this fascinating and often secretive trade.
How did you get into the diamond industry?
When I left the army, in the mid 60's, I started a small property company in West Belfast. When The Troubles really kicked off in the early seventies, I was forced to abandon ship. It was not an ideal place to bring up a family! I then formed an investment company which specialised in diamonds, having been asked to represent a fifth generation Antwerp diamond merchant who needed a branch of his business to operate in Britain. The subject fascinated me and I soon formed a trading company in addition, selling to jewellers and manufacturing workshops throughout the U.K. In the evenings I studied Gemmology which gave us a wider spectrum for the new business and then subsequent jeweller ventures.
So you can tell the difference between a real diamond and a fake?
To the man in the street, it’s almost impossible. Well, I can tell because all I have to do is use a magnifying glass and look at the facet edges; because diamond is so hard, the facet edges are so sharp. If it is a softer material the facet edges tend to be rounded, chipped or scratched.
What about Cubic Zirconia, the man-made version of diamond which is supposed to be very hard to tell the difference?
If you have the stone loose it’s easy to weigh it; because it’s specific gravity is different from diamond - 40% more or something like that. So you put a 6.5mm (in diameter) perfectly made (round) stone onto a scale (which is the the spread of a perfectly cut round diamond) it will come up as 1.40ct rather than 1ct. Again the facet edges won’t be as sharp. Another thing is the girdle of a stone, which has got a sort of silky texture on a diamond, unless it’s polished, is pitted, whereas with cubic it’s fractured; but then you can get fracturing with a diamond as well, just to confuse things!
How do I know if I am buying an ethically mined diamond?
To be truthful, it’s impossible, to know. Honestly impossible. You can get all the certificates in the world to say it is ethical etcetera. We would only buy from people that we regard as ethical however, having said that, at the end of the day you just don’t know who they bought from. They will tell us that it’s fine - but you can’t tell from the actual makeup of a stone itself, even under a microscope you can’t tell where it’s come from. It is just a piece of carbon. You would never know if it’s come from the killing fields or wherever, I’m afraid, it’s as simple as that. The best thing to do is buy from a proven, trusted source.
Have attitudes changed to this important issue?
Dramatically. When I started in the trade, we would deal openly in cafes and queue for the telephone box, before mobile phones! It never even entered our minds that a small minority could be trading in conflict stones. Cut forward forty years and The Kimberley Process ensures a far more regulated and safer buyer's market at every level, from mine to polishing factory to market to retail. Ironically, Alex Yearsley, who worked for the NGO which unearthed (pun intended) the link of some mines with atrocities, is one of Guy's best friends so my boys have a very keen interest in making sure that their own stones are bought through the best channels.
Is it better to go to Hatton Garden to buy a diamond?
Well, I used to have an office in Hatton Garden so I have historic bias but, the trouble is, there are very few jewellers that know a lot about diamonds, at the end of the day they are going to try and sell a stone. The problem is that you can buy stones that are cheap because they have a small fault in them. I’m talking about, say the make or the position of a flaw in a stone which is also extremely important. If it’s on the outside of the stone for instance then it can sometimes be covered by a claw, even if it’s quite a big mark.
So you’re saying, if I were to go direct to the trade in the hope of buying an engagement ring at a lesser cost, I could well go to a jeweller and be presented with some rings and yet they might be included stones, and there might be marks under the claws or hidden by the setting?
Sure. Yes and some wouldn’t necessarily prioritise explaining the stone. There are certain companies or laboratories that grade stones. GIA is the strictest of the lot but the less strict your opinion becomes, the better the stone sounds, so in other words if GIA grade it an SI1, and the next laboratory who aren’t as strict grade it as Vs2, or even Vs1.... Well, two grades makes an enormous difference to the value, in this particular case, as much as thirty percent. Consequently, the overall buying price for the jeweller is lower but he could still sell it as a more expensive stone, or a better stone than it actually is.
So in essence choose a jeweller and laboratory that you trust to work with?
Yeah, it’s very easy to walk around to get prices from within the trade but at the end of the day you really don’t know whether they are just looking to offload bad stones in the hope that they’ll make, obviously, a bigger profit. I used to supply shops, including some in Hatton Garden, for many years. There are plenty of wonderful characters, traders and shopkeepers there but some are really only interested in buying at the best price and making the most profit. They are very rarely interested in getting a nice stone for a client as a priority. This is why it is so important to buy from a trusted source.
(We will share more of Richard's tales, regarding both diamond qualities and industry yarns, another time. He is often in the shop on Tuesdays and Thursdays, helping his sons, for those that prefer to chat in person.)