Since their discovery centuries ago from deep within the Earth, diamonds have held a special fascination for many. A unique combination of chemical composition, crystal structure and formation process makes diamonds extraordinary, while their brightness, sparkle, fire and sense of purity is unmatched by any other gem.
The earliest admirers of diamonds were in ancient India, where, history tells us, diamonds were first used around the 4th century B.C. These diamonds, however, were not the faceted stones we treasure today since this was long before the invention of modern diamond-cutting tools and techniques. Instead, these were gem-quality diamonds in their natural crystal form.
In their natural crystal form, diamonds are most commonly shaped as eight-sided octahedrons. Octahedrons look like the traditional diamond shape in three-dimensional form, or like two pyramids joined at their bases. Another common diamond-crystal shape is the twelve-sided dodecahedron, which is said to represent the universe.
Natural octahedral diamond crystal from South Africa. Photo by Robert Weldon/GIA.
Natural diamond crystals in well-formed octahedral and dodecahedral shapes—referred to as “natural points”—were highly revered in ancient India because of these powerful forms and the belief that diamonds possess great mystical powers. The ancient Romans valued the natural points as well, particularly as focal points for rings, set with a point upward, as did other civilizations that followed.
Natural points have often been called “point-cut diamonds." However, this is a misnomer since no actual cutting is involved to create these shapes, other than to remove any residue from where the diamonds were mined. These diamond crystals simply occur in nature as perfect (or near perfect) octahedrons or dodecahedrons.
In contrast, there are numerous natural diamond crystals that are not perfectly shaped. Many are misshapen, with asymmetrical sides and flawed surfaces. History tells us that lapidary artists, once they discovered that diamonds could alter other diamonds to intensify their beauty, tried to modify these natural diamond crystals to be more in line with the ideal point-cut diamonds.
Irregularly shaped octahedral diamond crystals, for instance, were re-formed with what became known as the “pyramidal point cut.” Lapidary artists would try to introduce symmetry to these stones by grinding off material and smoothing exteriors. At the same time, they would keep the widest area (or girdle) of the stone intact since this circumferential region determines how large a diamond looks.
Because a diamond’s hardness along its natural octahedral faces is very high, however, the grinding had to be done on angles that made the stone’s natural points shallower. This resulted in a diamond with a lower apex that looks disproportionately broad or wide, more closely resembling a pyramid in a squat position.
Irregularly shaped dodecahedral diamond crystals, meanwhile, were treated the same way: Abnormalities were adjusted and the faces polished. The preferred look became four of the stone’s twelve sides facing up, as if rising upwards to form a peak, which became known as the “Burgundian point cut.”
The goal in all of this, of course, was to make point-cut diamonds that looked as natural and as untouched by man as possible. The belief was that anything less would dilute a diamond’s mystical powers. As this became less of an objective over time, however, it helped clear the way for diamond cuts such as the table cut to unfold, which was the predecessor to many of the diamond cuts we enjoy today.
Still, the antique point-cut diamonds, pyramidal point-cut diamonds and Burgundian point-cut diamonds—with their more primitive shapes, smooth, frosted or somewhat irregular surfaces, and slight twinkle—possess a raw, otherworldly beauty, as well as an aura of mystery and provenance that appeals to many modern-day jewelry collectors.
Photo above right: Natural octahedral diamond crystal (top) weighing 15.98 carats. Photo by Robert Weldon/GIA.