The diamond Jubilee of De Beers Consolidated Mines passed off quietly in 1948, the massive post-WWII growth and expansion of the diamond industry had barely begun, while several important sources of diamonds, including the Premier Mine, were still closed, while others remained to be discovered. Forty years later the annual output of diamonds exceeded 100 million carats and sales of rough diamonds reached around $5 billion.
On March 11th, 1988, the centenary celebrations of De Beers took place in Kimberly and a banquet was held to close the Kimberly Mine (aka the “Big Hole”). An audience of four hundred people, including representatives of several national governments of diamond-producing countries and dignitaries from various sections of the industry, listened to the welcoming speech of the chairman, Julian Oglivie Thompson, totally unprepared for his final sentence: “We have recovered at the Premier Mine a diamond of 599 carats which is perfect in color – indeed it is one of the largest top-color diamonds ever found. Naturally it will be called the Centenary Diamond.”
The Centenary, appearing to be lit by multi-colored lights.
The Centenary was found on July 17th, 1986 by the electric X-ray recovery system at the Premier Mine. Only a handful of people knew about it and all were sworn to silence. In its rough form it resembled an irregular matchbox with angular planes, a prominent elongated “horn” jutting out at one corner and a deep concave on the largest flat surface. The shape of the stone expressed problems in cutting with no apparent solution.
The man chosen to evaluate the Centenary was Gabi Tolkowsky, famed in the diamond industry as one of the most accomplished cutters in the world. His family had long been in the diamond trade and it was his great-uncle, Marcel Tolkowsky, diamond expert and mathmetician, who published a book in 1919 titled “Diamond Design”, which for the first time set out exact ways of cutting the modern round brilliant cut. Gabi Tolkowsky himself was the creator of five new diamond cuts, revealed in 1988, which concentrate on maximizing brilliance, color or yield – or a combination of all three from off-color rough diamonds previously thought difficult to cut profitably into conventional round or fancy shapes. Named for flowers, the cuts are largely based on unorthodox angle dimensions. The overall proportions as well as the use of more facets around the pavilion increase brilliance and improve visual impact when viewed face-up.
Gabi Tolkowsky examines the Centenary with a jeweler’s loupe.
A good photo to show you how massive this diamond is.
He was asked to cut the Centenary, and late in 1988 Tolkowsky, two master cutters – Geoff Woolett and Jim Nash – together with a handpicked group of engineers, electricians and security guards set to work in a specially designed underground room in the De Beers Diamond Research Laboratory in Johannesburg, South Africa. It was crucial that the room, like the special tools needed for faceting, should be stable and strong; nothing must rattle, everything must be tight, there should be no mechanical vibration or variation in temperature around the cutting table.
For one whole year while the right tools and technical conditions were created, the Centenary remained unaltered and untouched. Tolkowsky examined the stone until he knew every fissure and crevice of it. Using the most sophisticated electronic instruments he gazed deep into the crystal structure. “From the moment I knew I was going to cut it,” he said, “I became another man. A strange man. I was looking at the stone in the day, and the stone was looking at me at night.”
A picture of the Centenary in the hand of some unknown hand model. Another good photo to show scale.
When cutting was completed the Centenary weighed 273.85 carats, measured 39.90 × 50.50 × 24.55 mm, and had 247 facets – 164 on the stone and 83 around its girdle. Never before had such a high number of facets been polished onto a diamond. In addition, two flawless pear shapes weighing 1.47 and 1.14 carats were cut from the rough. Amoung top-color diamonds the Centenary is surpassed only by the Cullinan I (aka the Star of Africa) and the Cullinan II, which were cut from the Cullinan crystal before modern symmetrical cuts were fully developed in the 1920′s, making the Centenary the largest modern fancy cut diamond in the world and the only one to combine the oldest methods – such as kerfing – with the most sophisticated modern technology in cutting. The Cullinan diamonds are actually near-colorless, but qualify as white diamonds. The GIA color grading letters D, E and F qualify as colorless, and the Centenary is the best of the three – a ‘D’. This spectacular gem, which has become the ultimate example of those qualities was shown to the world for the first time in May, 1991. Mr. Nicholas Oppenheimer, then Deputy Chairman of De Beers rightly declared “Who can put a price on such a stone?” confirming that it was insured for around $100 million.
Whether the Centenary Diamond has since been sold is a mystery. The De Beers Group’s policy is not to dislose such information so that the anonymity of its clients is protected. Some day the Centenary will probably resurface, perhaps at auction, or in a museum display housing some country’s crown jewels. Gabi Tolkowsky has since cut another large gem of note, the Pink Sun Rise, a 29-carat pink diamond with a facet pattern similar to the Centenary’s. Also cut the largest faceted diamond in the world – the Golden Jubilee. Sources: Famous Diamonds by Ian Balfour, The Nature of Diamonds by George E. Harlow, and the De Beers website.
In the autumn of 2001, I found Gabi Tolkowsky’s mailing address on the internet, and decided to write to him. He lives in Antwerp, Belgium, which comes as no surprise as as this is the diamond cutting capitol of the world. Among the questions I asked him was whether he had heard about the Centenary Diamond selling or not. In his reply he told me he had heard the rumor, but no one had confirmed it to him.