The Art of Looking at Diamonds

The Art of Looking at Diamonds

As an art critic, I spend most of my time looking at art, not diamonds. Except for the very few art stars who can afford to make their work from diamonds – think of Damien Hirst’s extraordinary diamond encrusted skull, For the Love of God, or Andy Warhol’s diamond-dust portraits – artists don’t tend to use precious gems in their work. So most of the time, what interests me is how artists transform common materials into uncommon things, things that produce extraordinary experiences in the viewer.

But I’m getting married soon, and so suddenly I’m looking at diamonds a lot more closely, and De Beers has asked me to write about the experience. So as I chat with one of De Beers’ diamond experts, I’m amazed about how much there is to know about the properties of these diamonds. Of course, that’s what happens when you talk to an expert. But he talks about diamonds with the kind of enthusiasm and precision that goes beyond simply knowing about carat weights, refractive indexes, mineralogy and the history of diamond cutting. Because, in the end, the business of looking at diamonds isn’t the same as the business of knowing why they look the way they do. And while he knows more than I will ever know about diamonds, his enthusiasm is really for the experience of looking, for the strange sensation that you get when you know that something happens to be beautiful.

You could say that knowing something isn’t the same thing as feeling a certain way about it. Which makes me wonder – does knowing about the science of diamonds diminish the pleasure of looking at them, or does it enhance it? It’s a question that, for artists and art critics, is as old as aesthetics, which itself started out as a theory to explain beauty. The question is: if we feel that something is beautiful, why do we go to such bother to explain to ourselves why? Why don’t we leave that experience just as it is, without trying to take it apart?

The diamond expert tells me about the ‘De Beers Iris’, the machine De Beers has developed to analyse the optical properties of a diamond. He shows me a computer simulation of how light passes through a diamond depending on its precise shape, and explains how this has allowed a better understanding of what expert diamond cutters had known intuitively for centuries, but could not easily explain – that the precise cut of a stone contributes to what De Beers now likes to call the ‘Fire, Life and Brilliance’ of a diamond.

I can see what he means by these. For ‘Fire’, it’s the refraction of white light into the myriad of rainbow colours that one finds in a diamond; ‘Life’ is a harder thing to describe, but refers to the many shifts between different rays of light as the diamond moves – in everyday language, its sparkle; while ‘Brilliance’ tells us about the underlying brightness of the diamond, how much light is projected back to the eye, from any given angle. “Cutting diamond is both an art and a science.” JJ Charlesworth, art critic Without that knowledge, we’d still be able to say which diamond was more beautiful than another, though why it was more beautiful would remain a mystery. But perhaps one thing would be certain: we wouldn’t know how to go about cutting a better, more beautiful diamond. For me, that’s the real reason for knowing ‘why’; because diamonds, when dug from the ground, are little more than translucent (if very valuable) pebbles. It’s what human beings do to them that’s extraordinary, harnessing the diamond’s remarkable natural properties through skill, experience and technology, to make something that is a fusion of physical nature and human ingenuity. Cutting a diamond, then, is both an art and a science, where the development of our knowledge of its properties serves to transform how we manipulate it, making the experience of it even more astounding.

And yet, maybe we don’t yet know everything there is to know. Or perhaps we always need to find better, more subtle explanations for what it is our senses are telling us. Because hearing about the Iris scanner provokes for me a new idea, something to do with how we perceive the visual world around us, and what this might have to do with looking at diamonds specifically.

Artists have for many centuries understood that human perception isn’t a simple experience, and modern scientists who research how we perceive the world can now express in scientific terms what artists discovered intuitively, through having to translate the experience of the world of three dimensions into the two-dimensional world of the painting or the drawing. Because when we see, what we are given is two slightly different views of the world – the one given to our right eye, and the one given to our left eye. But when we perceive, we don’t tend to notice the discrepancies between the two images. Instead, our brain synthesises the two, and in the process, it gives us an image of the world around us, which appears to us in three dimensions.

This may sound like too much science, but this idea might tell us a little bit more about the mysterious, elusive shimmer that diamonds seem to possess. We might also borrow a concept from music here, that of harmony. Because when two notes are played together to sound a chord, it is hard to tell one note apart from the other. Instead we experience the two together, and that experience is something more than the two notes that comprise it. So in a similar fashion, visual perception is also a fusion of two distinct images that produces in us something new – the experience of depth and space.

The elusive quality I’m trying to describe in a diamond, then, might be to do with how our perception combines subtly different images of the same diamond when we look at it. Diamonds refract light more than almost any other substance on Earth, and perhaps this has a unique effect on how we see a diamond. Because as a diamond bends light, the appearance of it, from the subtly different point of view of each of our two eyes, may be very different.

So what this art critic is wondering is this: is the difference between each image of the same diamond such that what we ‘see’ is really the simultaneous experience of two different images, creating in our minds that strange and intangible sense of ‘shimmer’ that a diamond produces? Is this why the image of a diamond in reproduction is never quite the same as the experience of it in reality, no matter how good the photograph? Is the sight of it in fact the ‘harmony’ of two different images, experienced simultaneously? And is that harmony really the beauty that we intuitively know when we see it? And if every person’s sight and perception is slightly different, does that explain what De Beers says about a diamond, ‘that you don’t choose it, but it chooses you’?