Chairman and patriarch of GUY&MAX, Richard Shepherd, muses on diamond qualities and related stories after forty years in his fascinating trade. Interview by Anna Kerr
AK: Tell me about the most wonderful stone you’ve ever come across.
RS: I remember when I was in the diamond business for the very first time in Belgium, representing a company who were sight holders. That means they were amongst the chosen few who were invited to buy and actually cut diamonds from the De Beers sight. About two hundred licensed dealers in the world were allowed to buy the diamonds. I was in their offices in Antwerp as there was a shipment coming through from De Beers, which they had just bought. The oldest director of the company went to pick the stones up; so off he went through the city streets and came back with a plastic bucket attached to the back of his bicycle. When he arrived, we asked what the sight contained. He said, "I’ve got to show you this. It’s just absolutely wonderful." He put his hand in the bucket and pulled out a 200ct stone, which was in the crystal or rough form! It was quite something, not just because of the weight but because it was a very yellow colour, even in the rough. Several months later they had cut the crystal and made a 50ct polished stone from the main crystal. It was the most beautiful pure canary yellow stone I have ever seen in my life. An emerald cut, the most vivid colour of yellow! That’s just about my favourite thing that’s ever happened to me in this trade.
AK: You don’t see many canary yellow emerald cut diamonds do you?
RS: Not in that size! Now they cut any sizes into princess or radiant cuts because the faceting exaggerates the colour. By exaggerating the colour, the price can multiply by two or three times. When it is an emerald cut, it is basically a pure colour because there aren’t the additional number of facets to make the colour livelier.
AK: It just goes to show the importance of the cut of a stone...
RS: Absolutely. It is so important. It doesn't just show the shape of the stone but the life and sparkle of it too. The facet angles are very important to create the reflection, from light going into the stone and coming out again, the more light that can come out, the brighter the gem will look - the prettier it looks.
AK: But you also just mentioned that cut can be very important in exaggerating colour also?
RS: Well diamonds naturally occur in a spectrum of colours, the most commercial and popular being white and the rarest and most precious being red and green. So cut can be used cleverly with coloured stones to intensify a colour which will also obviously increase it’s market value. Strangely enough cut works differently on white stones, with a white diamond the more facets it has the more sparkle a stone will have, giving it the illusion of appearing brighter. Having said that, you can actually get a good D and a bad D. (D being the whitest and most desirable grade of white diamonds according the the GIA colour scale) I have seen D stones that are miles better than a standard D! There was a famous mine in India called the Golconda. The stones coming out of Golconda were whiter than the D colour, they are just magnificent. I’ve only ever owned one, we had a 5.80ct and sold it to a collector.
AK: I would love to see a Golconda stone myself.
RS: Well, it is just extraordinary. You’d never believe it until you put one stone against another. There is what you imagined to be a perfect D next to something utterly mind blowing. The other thing I know is that even my own eyesight, if I’m looking at a stone with both eyes open using a colour card (a white card utilised to grade diamond colours) and I then close one eye, open it, close the other eye, they’re are different colours. One eye looking at it says it’s a D and the other says it’s an E colour. It is very important money wise because there’s a 10%, maybe more, difference with the price. So I’ve got a buying eye and a selling eye!
AK: Very funny!
AK: Fluorescent stones are often thought of as lesser diamonds and ignored, because of this factor they are generally less expensive, what is your view?
RS: In my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with fluorescence and people downgrade it unnecessarily, particularly in the lower coloured stones. You will only see the fluorescence in a darker stone under a lamp or inside with artificial light, but when you take it to daylight the UV rays cancel out the fluorescence in the stone and make it look up to two grades better than it is, sometimes even more. I remember the first time I bought a stone in daylight which I shouldn’t have done without appropriate grading facilities. It was a 2.00ct stone with fluorescence, which I didn’t know about in those very early days. It was a 20% devaluation on the stone, actually even more, 25%, so I soon learnt my lesson!
AK: Finally, what is your favourite diamond story?
RS: There are so many in this trade but my favourite is a combination of two. The first is rather famous and the second lesser known. Belinda my wife and I were at a garden party after some countryside horse trials. One of the party asked me about my business and it led into the early 20th century tale about Mr Asscher who was the man who cut the largest diamond ever found, the 3,000ct Cullinan rough diamond. It was sent from South Africa to England, apparently by post! On arrival, having studied the stone for three months, Mr Asscher attempted to cleave (cut) the stone but the chisel and hammer went one way, the stone the other. It didn’t cleave but, most importantly, it didn't break either. He apparently fainted because of stress of breaking this priceless gem.
So, I was telling this story at the party when one of the group hailed me and said, "Richard, I don’t want to spoil your story but I can add to it. When I was Aide-de-camp to the Queen many years ago, I visited the factory of Asscher in Amsterdam with HM Queen Elizabeth. As you know, the Cullinan was initially cut in half; one is in the Crown Jewels at a mere 300ct, the biggest in the Sceptre and Cross at 500ct; so those are the two largest stones. Then there are a further seven big stones, the off-cuts, that are recorded but less often talked about. So I was standing behind Her Majesty when she met Mr Asscher himself. He was relating the whole story to her about the trouble and honour of cleaving the stone. Tears were in his eyes as he was telling his story. He said to her that he never knew what happened to the other diamonds because, of course, 3,000 carats, there are the other 'bits'. The Queen then pronounced, "Ah, Mr Asscher. I’m glad you’ve mentioned that because I’ve got them here with me”. She opened her handbag and pulled out the stones and said, “Here they are. We call them Granny’s chips!”
Richard Shepherd can be found most Tuesdays and Thursdays at the GUY&MAX salon in Shepherd market, Mayfair for advice on diamonds.