Cutting Edge – Tolkowsky’s brilliant career

Gabi Tolkowsky, the world's most famous diamond cutter, reveals the secrets behind his success.

Why did you decide to become a diamond cutter?
I didn’t decide to become a diamond cutter. It was my destiny. I am the sixth generation of a diamond family. My great great grandfather, who was a descendant of a jewellery and silver carving cutlery family from Poland (under Russian rule) established a family diamond manufacturing workshop in Antwerp (Belgium) in 1880. Since then almost all my family has been involved in the diamond cutting business. For example in 1919 my great uncle, Marcel Tolkowsky, published a book outlining the exact parameters for the modern round brilliant cut. When I was 16 my father, Jean Tolkoswky, asked me to join him in his business as he had health problems and felt that he was not strong enough to continue alone. I immediately stopped going to school and began learning my trade as I was the son of my father and did not see a reason not to follow in his footsteps.

What did your training involve?
In many ways my diamond cutting training did not begin the day I started working in my father’s workshop as diamond cutting was already a major part of my life – ever since I was a small child I had followed my father around his workshop and watched what he was doing during the day and then listened to his conversations with his workers in the evenings. However my official training began with me sitting opposite my father at a polishing table while he explained the secrets of his trade before giving me my first diamond to polish.

How did you get involved with De Beers?
After working for my father for two-and-a-half years and then other masters mainly friends of my father) my cutting skills began to be appreciated in the diamond industry. One day in 1975 De Beers called to ask me to join their company as managing director of a division which specialised in rough and polished diamonds. My role was to assess thousands and thousands of rough diamonds in all shapes, colours and sizes for their potential as polished stones. In this role I quickly learnt a lot about what is and isn’t feasible with a diamond.

What have been the major highlights of your 53 year career?
The discovery of new cuts has always been very exciting for me. Diamond cutting is always a challenge because there is always a new appearance that you can create. Sometimes you think that you have done everything you can do with diamonds and then suddenly you discover you know nothing and must start again with something completely new. The challenge with each stone is to make it the largest and most beautiful it can be, but the way of doing this is different for every stone as each is an individual with its own unique challenges.

How did you come to create the ‘flower’ cut?

The flower cut was my answer to the challenge I had with some unusual off-coloured Argyle diamonds (mainly browns, greys and greenish, grey browns) that were proving very difficult for the trade to cut and sell in conventional diamond shapes. By creating new parameters I was able to find these diamonds’ natural beauty with the Dahlia, Fire-Rose, Marigold, Sunflower and Zinnia cuts – and the colours that people previously disliked suddenly became beautiful.


What was involved in the actual process of cutting such a large diamond?
It was a major job so I put together a team which included me and three other diamond cutters as well as three engineers, two technicians and three scientists to work on the stone.
For a whole year we didn’t even touch the stone – we were too busy making plans and creating the best cutting tools while a specially-designed underground workshop, completely free of vibrations, was being built in Johannesburg, South Africa.
I made 13 resin models of shapes that could be achieved as the finished polished diamond outcome and was pleased that De Beers’s board approved my preferred modified heart-shape final design.
When I finally began cutting the stone I had to be extremely careful as the stone was so rare and beautiful (it was insured for around US$100 million). To prepare the rough diamond for the safest cutting and polishing operations some rough pieces had to be removed. I therefore decided not to take any risks such as laser sawing or cleaving and instead removed such pieces by kerfing it by hand, a painstaking activity that took 154 working days.  The whole process took three years but in the end it was worth it when we delivered a beautiful stone not far from 300 carats.

What was involved in cutting the 545.65 carat Golden Jubilee fancy yellow brown diamond, the largest polished diamond in the world?
When we began planning the cutting of the Centenary I knew that any tools we created would need to be tested first so I asked for a second large diamond as a testing stone and De Beers surprised me with a 750 carat rough diamond known as the ‘unnamed brown’.
When I received the stone I could see that the brown stone was not a pure diamond as it had an inclusion but I could also see that although the stone appeared brown it contained a  beautiful yellow gold colour inside. I immediately decided that this stone was not going to remain ‘the ugly duckling’ – it was going to be become a ‘beautiful swan’. I therefore created a new cut to maximize the stone’s size and the intensity of its colour. It ended up being the 545.65 carat fancy yellow brown diamond that was presented to the King of Thailand at the celebration of his 50th Jubilee.

What impact did cutting these two stones have on your career?
Cutting the two stones made me famous and gave me the opportunity to move forward in my career. I learned so much about the ‘journey of light’ inside the diamonds while cutting the Centenary and Golden Jubilee because the size of the facets allowed me to see the ‘journey of light’ much more clearly than I had ever been able to on smaller diamonds. With this new knowledge I was happy to come back to my workshop in Antwerp and polish half caraters again…
A few years later I created the Gabrielle diamond which has 105 facets (47 more than the traditional brilliant cut). I was of course very pleased with this ‘triple brilliant cut’ I had created but then it opened up even more challenges for me as I thought “well if I can do it with a round stone then why not with a square, oval, rectangular, heart, pear or marquise?” So I created those as well.

Apart from the Centenary and the Golden Jubilee what other significant diamonds have you created?
I cut the Star of the Shephard in 1998 and the Pink Sunrise and the Zoe diamond cut in 2000. I have also created many many other cuts which are designed specifically for private customers from all around the world. 

How did you come to create the Sea Shell collection (recently launched into Nationwide stores around Australia)?
In 2005 I began thinking about the challenge of creating scintillating diamonds from stones that are flat or asymmetrical (pure or with inclusions). I kept asking myself whether the best practice was to cut them smaller into conventional shapes so that they could be thicker where they were flat and flatter where they were thick but then decided I didn’t have the right to do that. I mean why should I reduce the size of the natural gift from nature when I can instead enhance the unique beauty in these special shapes. The process of discovery wasn’t easy but the new cut, which is very similar in appearance to a natural seashell, captures the individual beauty of each stone.

What is the secret to cutting a perfect diamond?   
The key is to remember that each diamond is completely unique. It is an individual with its own particular beauty therefore the task of a cutter is to create the utmost beauty out of the stone as it is irreplaceable. In essence this means the cutter must choose a shape and design for the diamond that will keeps its size as big as possible and maximize the journey of light within the diamond so that the light comes forward towards your eyes like a beam of fire, with joyful scintillation and the limpidity and clarity of the ‘water of the diamond’.

Have you made any mistakes while diamond cutting?
I don’t believe I have made any mistakes. I have never allowed myself to polish anything unless I was not 100 percent secure that my decision was the right one. I take full responsibility for my work and that is perhaps the most important lesson I learnt from my father. You do not remove a piece of diamond if you are not absolutely certain that this is what you have to do – once removed it cannot be replaced.

What are the key skills needed to be a good diamond cutter?
I don’t believe that any particular skill is necessary to become a good diamond cutter. When I had to oversee a diamond polishing factory in Tanzania we had to employ 400 people who had never been to school beyond 12 years of age and they all polished beautifully. From this experience I have come to believe that anyone, tall, short, heavy or slim, from any sphere of society can be taught to cut a diamond. You don’t need ‘special hands or eyes’. Every human being who can think, who can appreciate beauty and who is physically capable to work with his hands is capable of becoming a diamond cutter – one may take six months while another may take a year but the transformation is possible for almost everyone. 
Have you ever cut any other gemstones apart from diamonds?
No. I won’t allow myself to cut any other gemstone as it’s not my area of expertise. I respect those who cut them as I understand that other stones are softer than diamonds so I imagine that it would probably be more difficult to polish a ruby or other gemstone than a diamond as the polishing process would be so much faster.

Have you ever cut a synthetic diamond?
I haven’t cut a synthetic diamond and I don’t intend to as I am quite happy cutting natural diamonds. I don’t believe synthetics will have much of an impact on natural diamond sales because I believe that people are going to start desiring natural diamonds more and more. In two to three years there will be a huge surge of new customers in numbers we have never seen before and they will want to possess natural diamonds of quality and value.

What advice would you give a young diamond cutter?
Appreciate beauty, study art and history, and learn what ‘aesthetics’ means. If a person doesn’t understand the specifics of finishing a job correctly to create a perfect diamond he shouldn’t be a diamond cutter but if he understands the importance of beauty and says ‘I am going to make this diamond as beautiful as it can be’” he should be.

What are the latest trends in diamond designs?
There are currently around 380 different styles and shapes of polished diamonds around the world which are making people very happy and I am sure there will be many more new ones in the coming years. I don’t know what the new designs will be but I am certain that new technology will soon make diamond cuts that we currently can’t even imagine a new reality.

What is your favourite diamond?
The stone I remember most of all is the 0.4 carat heart shape that I polished for my fiancée (now wife) Lydia in 1960. She doesn’t wear it now because it was stolen from our home in 1968 when she went to the grocery shop. This is the stone that marks my brain. I have designed and polished other diamonds for her since but I can’t ever replace the original. I believe that one day I will come across the stone again and I know I will recognize it when I see it because nobody knows it better than me.

What are your plans for the future?
I have a diamond manufacturing company in Belgium and will continue my work there as well as my role as worldwide consultant for DeBeers. I will also continue to create new stones as even after all these years I still feel I have so much
to learn…