To hear moderns talk of diamonds, you might think their only job is to strike you dumb with their light. Well, the briolette diamond is a reminder that once not so very long ago the world expected diamonds to catch eyes, not blind them. Three hundred or so years back, the beauty of this gem was more delicate, one you might describe as lunar rather than solar. Sure, stones had that legendary glow. But their radiance stayed contained within the diamond like the light of a full moon rather than bursting its seams like light from a noonday sun.
Suddenly, in an age which rates highest the brilliance of zero-cut and hearts-and-arrows rounds, designers and jewelers alike are also rediscovering the more muted 17th century aesthetic for this gem. That's when cutters started to produce cylindrical tear-drop shapes entirely covered with triangular (and occasionally rectangular, even rhomboid) facets that made them seem like tiny crystal chandeliers. These diamonds are called briolettes and their charm made a virtue of necessity.
Don't judge this aesthetic by modern standards. It isn't fair to do so since the modern round-brilliant and its forerunners such as the cushion-cut "old miner" didn't yet exist. Design features such as tables and crowns were still in the future. The idea of proportions was yet to be invented. Instead, cutters were taught to stick closely to the original contours of the rough, refining the shape and placing facets everywhere to free as much of the light locked inside stones as possible. But the light wasn't meant to obscure the facet designs. Cutters sought a balance between light and line.
Depending on the shape of the rough, briolettes ranged in final form from bulbous to elongated. Existing technology permitted little more than crude shaping. Aesthetics of the day demanded little more than the glitter these artisans achieved. "Everything about these stones was individualistic and improvised. Anything went with regard to shape. And there was no fixed number or size of facets. The cutter was allowed free reign," says antique cuts specialist Pankaj Surana of Diagems in New York as he examines a parcel of briolettes made in India a few centuries ago.
No doubt, the seemingly haphazard workmanship of these briolettes which fills Surana (and this writer, too) with wonder would horrify cutters today—even those working in Diagem's Bombay factory where briolettes are a specialty. Of course, these are a highly modernized version of this cut. "Today the cutter of briolettes would probably fear for his job if he cut stones so free-form in their shaping and faceting," Surana concedes.
Nevertheless, the modern briolette allows cutters lots of liberties and preserves the play-it-by-ear spirit of antiquity. As a result, these elegant throwbacks are enjoying the strongest of several revivals in the past two centuries. This time, demand is keeping hundreds of cutters busy in India.
Preserving the past, honoring the present
By the late 17th century, the briolette was a passing fancy as cutters embraced the precursors of the modern round-brilliant and bought this style to recut it. Within 50 years, the briolette was an endangered species. Sadly, appeals to halt the carnage of conversion from old to new cuts from the period's top jewelers like London's David Jeffries went ignored until Victorian and later Art Deco designers fell under the spell of the briolette.