Gem News International Gems & Gemology, Spring 2021, Vol. 57, No. 1

Hole Drilled by Hand in Briolette

Diamond paper containing the briolette.
Figure 1. The diamond paper that held the 6.19 ct briolette diamond. Photo by Nathan Renfro.
Recently, a 6.19 ct briolette diamond was submitted to GIA’s Antwerp laboratory for examination. It had been in the family of Belgian diamond cleaver and Auschwitz survivor Philip Isidoor Frank, who died in 1982. Mr. Frank is known for his work on many important diamonds, such as the 69.42 ct D-color Internally Flawless pear-shaped Taylor-Burton diamond. The diamond paper containing the briolette had a note, presumably written by Mr. Frank: “drilled by hand about 400 years ago” (figure 1). Sadly, this cannot be substantiated, and Mr. Frank left no other record. It raises the question as to whether this age is theoretically possible.

Diamond faceted in the briolette style.
Figure 2. The facet arrangement of the 6.19 ct briolette. The horizontal drill hole is at the top. Photo by Jian Xin (Jae) Liao.
The diamond (figure 2) loosely fits the briolette definition since the hole is at the very tip rather than through the central portion. In reference to Mr. Frank’s note on the diamond paper, this description seems appropriate, even though the stone lacks the appealing teardrop shape we think of with modern briolettes. The style of faceting for this diamond is reminiscent of early cutting from India (1550–1900), but it could have been cut at any time (figure 3). By the 1700s, Europeans were already moving toward variations of brilliant styles with good symmetry, thin girdles, and specific ratios of crown and pavilion. They did not typically care for the quality of Indian diamond cutting, and many stones were recut.

Depictions of early Indian cutting styles.
Figure 3. Early Indian cutting styles (ca. 1550–1900) feature a very thick girdle area with multiple facets, similar to the briolette’s plane that wraps around the stone. From Ogden (2018), p. 320.
The briolette cutting style has a remarkably long history. Seventeenth-century French gem merchant Jean Baptiste Tavernier (1676, p. 336) sold four briolettes to the French king Louis XIV. The invoice described two stones as “round pendant with little facets” and “cut with facets on all sides” (Bapst, 1889, p. 404), respectively, and included illustrations. Two others, not illustrated, were “cut as round pendants with facets on all sides.” Tavernier’s drawings depict a briolette style, although that term was not used much before the nineteenth century.

However, Tavernier’s gems are not the earliest recorded briolettes. One had arrived in the royal court in England almost 20 years before his first voyage to India. On February 17, 1612, payment was arranged to the Flemish goldsmith Stephen le Gouche for a piece of jewelry with “one fair large pendant diamond, cut with fancies [facets] on all sides, and pierced at the top” that had been delivered to Queen Anne of Denmark (Green, 1858, p. 121), who was married to James VI and I (r. 1603–1625). The court accounts further describe the piercing at the top as lateral.

Noël-Antoine Pluche’s extensive multivolume work on natural history, Le Spectacle de la Nature, features an illustrated briolette described as a pear-shaped diamond cut in the “taille à l’Indienne” or Indian style (1748, pp. 349–352). The comments by Pluche, along with the Indian examples traded by Tavernier, point to the briolette form as being associated with India. Several later books specifically state this association and even mention lateral piercing. A French encyclopedia from 1859 (Guillaumin, pp. 980–981) explains that “In India, where the briolettes formerly came from, it was customary to pierce them with a very small hole in the upper part. Today a few lapidaries in Amsterdam cut briolettes very well, but they haven’t yet managed to pierce them.”

By 1600, Italian, German, Flemish, and Belgian cutters worked in India (Everaert, 2000, 2005), bringing along their techniques and cutting styles to higher-quality rough. These faceted stones would then be sent to Europe (Ogden, 2018, pp. 297–305). For example, the briolette shown in Tavernier’s book may have been cut by a European living in India rather than by a local Indian diamond cutter (there is no mention of a hole in the briolettes sold by Tavernier). Indian diamond cutters continued to follow their own styles, often cutting the lesser-quality rough destined for the Indian market. Short of documentation showing early briolettes with this specific facet arrangement by Indian cutters, dating the 6.19 ct briolette from Mr. Frank is impossible.

Hand-drilled hole at the tip of the diamond.
Figure 4. The drill hole at the tip of the stone. Note the unique surface, a remnant of the process of drawing a wire coated with diamond dust and oil back and forth. Photomicrograph by Nathan Renfro; field of view 4.02 mm.
The drill hole at the tip of this briolette (figure 4) is consistent with sawing techniques used to make holes in diamonds from the seventeenth century through the 1970s. By the mid-1500s, iron wires coated with diamond dust and oil were used to saw through a diamond. By the early 1600s, lapidaries rotated a diamond-tipped iron point or iron drill with diamond powder to create a hole from each side. Once these two holes met and the opening was large enough, the wire was inserted and drawn back and forth, the apparent method used for this diamond.

In 1811, Napoleon Bonaparte presented a 263 ct diamond briolette necklace to his empress consort, Marie Louise. It featured 19 oval- and pear-shaped briolette-cut diamonds (probably of Indian origin but faceted by European cutters in India) with drill holes. The facet arrangements of the stones in the necklace are more symmetrical and quite different from the 6.19 ct briolette.

It is unclear when laser drilling for larger holes began, but General Electric researchers used a laser to drill 0.02-inch-diameter holes into an industrial diamond in the early 1960s (Overton, 2008, p. 46). As early as 1970, GIA’s Robert Crowningshield reported that lasers were being used as part of a process to bleach or dissolve dark inclusions, and soon this treatment was widely available to members of the trade (Overton, 2008, p. 46). This means that sometime after the 1970s, lasers would have been employed for the process of drilling holes for beads and such. Older briolettes that came into GIA’s laboratory would still have holes drilled by hand, but by the 1980s, this hand drilling process was mostly abandoned. Has GIA seen a handmade drill hole in diamonds in the past, and if so, how many? Uncovering records of hand-drilled diamonds submitted to the laboratory is quite difficult since records prior to the 1990s are not computerized for searching and briolettes are rarely seen. Notations about the surface of the drill hole are also uncommon in reports. Our research into past submissions did not yield any useful results.

From the above, it is impossible to date this diamond, although it was probably cut before 1920 in India, possibly much earlier, but not by highly skilled cutters.

The briolette is heavily abraded. One possible reason is that it was kept in a diamond parcel rubbing against other diamonds for a long time, though this seems unlikely. Why would any diamond merchant allow a diamond in their stock to become so excessively abraded? It was more likely worn in an item of jewelry, repeatedly wearing against other diamonds and being casually stored by the owner, suggesting an extended period of use.

Of final note, there are several naturals on the surface of the briolette, including a trigon (figure 5).

The original crystal surface seen as a trigon.
Figure 5. The trigon is a remnant of the original crystal’s surface. Photomicrograph by Christopher Vendrell; field of view ~1.99 mm.

Marc Verboven is technical director at GIA in Antwerp, Belgium. Al Gilbertson is a research associate at GIA in Carlsbad, California. Jack Ogden is an independent jewelry historian in London.

Bapst G. (1889) Histoire des Joyaux de la Couronne de France d’Après des Documents Inédits. Hachette, Paris.

Everaert J. (2000) Soldiers, diamonds and Jesuits: Flemings and Dutchmen in Portuguese India, 1505–90. In A. Disney and E. Booth, Vasco Da Gama and the Linking of Europe and Asia, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, pp. 84–104.

Everaert J. (2005) Shifting the ‘diamond connection’: Antwerp and the gem trade with Portuguese India (1590–1635). In F. da Silva Gracias et al., Eds., Indo-Portuguese History: Global Trends. Proceedings of XI International Seminar on Indo-Portuguese History, Silver Jubilee Session, Dona Paula, Goa, 21st-25th Septembre, 2003, pp. 315–335.

Green M.A.E., Ed. (1858) Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series, of the Reign of James I: 1611-1618, Preserved in the State Paper Department of Her Majesty’s Public Record Office. London.

Guillaumin M. (1859) Dictionnaire universel théorique et pratique du commerce et de la navigation. Guillaumin, Paris.

Ogden J. (2018) Diamonds: An Early History of the King of Gems. Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut, 403 pp.

Overton T. (2008) A history of diamond treatments. G&G, Vol. 44, No. 1, pp. 32–55.

Pluche N.A. (1748) Le spectacle de la nature, ou Entretiens sur les particularités de l'histoire naturelle ... Vol. 3, Part 2. Estienne, Paris.

Tavernier J.B. (1676) Les Six Voyages de Jean Baptiste Tavernier (…) en Turquie, en Perse, et aux Indes (…). Gervais Clouzier et Claude Barbin, Paris.