Dani Simon is a Los Angeles-based diamond cutter with over fifty years of experience. From his diamond cutting training in Israel to his career in New York and finally, to his semi-retirement in Los Angeles, Simon has amassed a wealth of knowledge and unparalleled insight into the industry.
How did you learn the art of diamond cutting?
I learned to cut diamonds in Israel, before I moved to the United States. I was very lucky to have an excellent teacher, who was one of the best diamond cutters that I ever met. He was very, very dedicated to the profession in the sense that he made a point of saving every point on the diamond. Every point on the carat, weight-wise, is highly important in terms of the cost of the final stone and making it as large as possible from the rough.
For the first year that he taught me, I cut smaller stones, and when I say smaller stones, that means stones that weigh all the way up to half a carat. Then I began to learn how to cut larger and larger stones, which, for me, is a completely different from cutting smaller stones.
Cutting smaller stones can be more monotonous work and doesn’t necessarily require specialty or style. In cutting smaller stones, one person typically cuts part of the stone and then moves the stone to another person to cut the other part. With larger stones, on the other hand, every stone, every diamond, has a different personality, and every diamond is different from another one.
After gaining some experience cutting larger stones, I moved to New York in 1971 and began cutting stones there, on 47th street. In those days, we were cutting for big companies in the diamond industry, some that have been in the business for a hundred years. We were cutting anywhere from 1 carat to 20-30 carat stones.
Slowly I gained more experience, and the company’s management began to trust me more, giving me larger stones. Trust was important because they wanted to make sure that nothing happened to the stone.
If you don’t work on it correctly, a stone can be damaged in two ways. One way is for the stone to lose too much weight and the other is if the stone shatters, which can sometimes completely destroy it.
Stones are different in color, shape, and the way they perform on the wheel when we cut them. Some of them are very, very difficult and some are easy because the molecular makeup of the stones makes them very difficult to cut.
I’ve gained a certain degree of knowledge after cutting diamonds for fifty years, but I’m still learning something new about diamonds with every stone I handle. It’s a very complicated practice, and it’s not as simple as it seems when you see the finished product. But I love what I’m doing, and it gives me a lot of satisfaction to see a finished product that performs the best that it can and demonstrates, as we call it, the fire of the diamond.
What does it means for a diamond to be a satisfying final product?
For me, it is the performance of the stone. The stone should look lovely, and I learn more and more that it doesn’t have to have the perfect shape, but that it can perform in all shapes, which you see in some of the older stones and jewelry.
I learn more and more that you don’t have to cut every stone to a regulated specification. You can have a stone that develops its own shape and has its own look. For example, we call a stone that is not perfectly round ‘potato-shaped.’ It looks beautiful in a piece of jewelry.
The most important thing is to bring the stone to life. When I say life, I mean the stone should perform as far as its brilliance and style.
What would you consider to be your specialty?
Cutting round stones is different from cutting all other shapes. The more I learn about cutting, the more I prefer cutting stones of all shapes, such as oval, heart-shaped, marquise, or emerald cuts (which are like square cuts, or Asher cuts). I prefer cutting all of these shapes to the round stone, which has to go to the GIA for measurements for testing to determine whether it’s a good, very good, or excellent cut.
I prefer to cut stones with more unusual shapes because those shapes are the old shape cuts, which we use for estate jewelry and older jewelry. It’s the way stones were cut maybe a hundred years ago, and those stones don’t have to be cut to, or adhere to, specific measurements. They can look very beautiful without having to put them on a setting machine to be cut to the measurements that the GIA specifies as the best way for diamonds to look.
I enjoy cutting stones in a variety of shapes because each stone has a different personality and performance, and this type of cutting is more challenging and interesting to me. Every stone performs differently in terms of its fire and its life when it’s finished.
What types of tools do you use on a regular basis?
The wheel that we use to cut the stone is a metal wheel, and we turn it in a circular motion, between 3-5,000 revolutions per minute. We use diamond dust, which is glued into the metal wheel, because only diamond can cut diamond. When I say cut, what I mean is that we are actually polishing it. We always use the word cut because I am a diamond cutter, not a diamond polisher.
You put the stone on the wheel, and you have to be very careful and make sure you are sitting on the wheel in a safe way, otherwise stones can crack, and some already existing feathers in the rough material can enlarge. Therefore you have to make sure the stone is secure and tight in the tool.
There are different tools for different parts of the stone. Fasting the girdle requires one tool, fasting the crown involves another tool, and fasting the bottom of the stone uses another. We use about ten different tools for the different parts of the stone that we’re cutting and for creating the shape of the stone.
What other industry players do you work with on a regular basis?
During the earlier parts of my career, I used to cut only from the rough, meaning I’d go to Belgium, parts of Africa, and South Africa, buy rough diamond, and cut from the rough. In the last ten years, however, I’ve mostly been cutting stones that are already cut but that we are changing or improving upon, making them cleaner as far as imperfections or changing the angles to make them have more luster. Changing the angles of some stones can make a really big difference in the overall appearance.
I’ve been working with people who buy jewelry, whether it’s from the public or estates or auctions, and fixing certain stones that are already in jewelry. When a diamond is on a piece of jewelry for many years, it gets abrasions and little chips, so I get a lot of those stones to re-cut.
What are the steps that you take when bringing a project from start to finish?
The first thing to remember is not to rush. One of my strong points is slowing down the decision- making and not rushing into the project because you could make a mistake with the angle that you’re cutting certain stones or misjudge where to start cutting.
When you get a stone, you study the stone to see where the weak points are and think about what you can do to make the sure the stone transforms into the best-looking diamond it can be. You take it from there, stage by stage, and sometimes leave the stone alone. Think about it, look at it. My strength is approaching a stone and deciding how to cut it and what shape it will become. Take some time, study the stone, and take it slowly.
What are some of the experiences that have shaped your career?
One of the most important experiences that I’ve had in the last ten years has been cutting those alternative shapes. One stone that comes to mind was this large stone with very high color. We decided to cut it in a potato shape, meaning we left the shape the way it was and concentrated on the angle. That was a breakthrough stone for me in understanding how to cut those stones that are a little bit off-shape, and it was a very successful project, and I always remember that stone.
A bad experience a diamond cutter might have (fortunately, I have not had too many), is when you cut a stone, and it’s in the tool, and you don’t judge exactly how much weight you’re going to lose. For example, you take a stone that is supposed to be finished 5 carats plus, which is a very standard weight. The price of a 5+ carat stone is very different from a 4.99-carat stone.
I once had a stone that I misjudged and didn’t take out of the tools enough to check its weight. When I finally took it out, the weight was just below 5 carats at 4.99. When you see this on the scale, your heart drops. The stone was not damaged, but weight-wise, it lost a lot of its value by price per carat. If the stone were $20,000 per carat at 5 carats, at 4.99 carats, it goes down to $15,000 per carat.
Another mistake you want to avoid is if you work on a stone, and the stone is going on the wheel, up and down, up and down, and you put it on the wheel, and you check it with the loupe, and you put it on the wheel, and you check it again, and then one time you pick it up and the stone is shattered like a windshield on a car might splinter. This is the worst feeling a diamond cutter can have.
Other memorable experiences are from cutting stones that are not white, but other colors, such as very pink or blue. I handled some stones in my life that were worth millions of dollars. They were deep, deep blue or very pink. These are very, very interesting stones because what you see in the rough might be different from what you see for the finished product.
I once received a greyish stone in the rough, and I began to cut it, and I never forgot what happened. The owner said, “Is the stone getting any whiter?” I said, “No, but it’s getting bluer!” It was a complete surprise, but after cutting and cutting it, the stone ended up performing as a very beautiful blue stone, which is very extraordinary and fine, and it was worth 20 times the value than if it were a white stone. That’s a stone I’ll never forget.
Throughout my life, I’ve also cut many stones that were various shades of elegant yellow, very few blue, some orange, and some pink. One shipment that came from Australia had 50 stones and 30 would become the most beautiful types of pink stones you could imagine. You can’t remember every stone you cut, but there are certain stones like these that leave a mark.
Sometimes we’ll also match pairs. Maybe a couple of years ago, I matched 2 5-carat stones that were both flawless. We matched them to look like old stones, and each stone looked so exactly like the other one. I worked extremely carefully during that project, and when it was finished, I was quite happy with the results, and more importantly, the owners were also very happy.
What are some of the most significant lessons you’ve learned in the industry?
To be very patient. You have to be very patient with cutting when, for example, the stone is not cutting as well, and it takes longer. You have to take it out of the tools and let it rest, approach it from a different angle sometimes because diamond is the hardest material. When you try putting
it on the wheel, and if you don’t put it on at the right angle or the right way, it won’t cut. You could leave it for days, and it would not move even one little point. Sometimes you leave the stone and take it off and then come back to it few hours later or the next day. My best advice for cutters is to not lose patience with a stone. If you do lose patience, you can damage the stone or not finish the stone the right way, or prevent yourself from making the best stone you can possibly cut.
What are some of the major issues in the industry?
Newer generations are not appreciating the beauty of the diamond. They are looking into other replacements - man-made or lab-grown diamonds, not real diamonds. Cubic zirconia and moissanite are different types of stones that people buy instead of diamonds to save money.
Each diamond has its own personality and power, yet many people don’t get involved or appreciate the beauty of diamonds. In the past few years, we’ve seen more and more of the business going other places, such as artificial or lab-grown stones that are not the same as a diamond that was in the ground for a million years, whereas lab-grown diamonds can be made in a few weeks in the lab. They are sold as if they’re the same diamonds, but they’re not.
What’s one aspect of diamond cutting that you’d like the public to know about?
I would like for people to really appreciate what a diamond is. I like when people come in to see what it takes to cut a diamond. That doesn’t always happen because most people don’t have access to someone who can show them how to sit on the wheel and cut diamonds and see what it means to have a beautiful diamond that starts from nothing. When people come, the first thing I do is place a rough diamond in their hands. Most people don’t always understand what a rough diamond looks like, only what a diamond looks like when it’s finished.
I love when people come and see me while I’m working. That’s my way of showing people what a diamond looks like and what it takes to cut it. Their connection to the diamond changes when they see that.
Explain the difference between diamond cutting and gem cutting.
They’re completely different. Sometimes people come to me with a ruby or a sapphire and ask, “Can you cut it? There’s a chip here.” I say, “No, no.” They don't understand that diamond cutting is different from cutting other types of stones.
The diamond cutting machine is very powerful and strong. The speed that the wheel is turning is so high, that if you put any other stone on the diamond wheel besides a diamond, it would shatter in seconds. It wouldn’t cut. I cut diamonds, so I don’t know how they cut the other types of stones, but I know there are very specific machines for cutting rubies, emeralds, and sapphires.
How has the trade/industry changed over the years?
The biggest change is that it’s been very difficult to find nice diamonds to work with because the cutting part of the industry has moved mostly from Europe, Israel, and the United States to India. Most diamonds are now cut in India to save on labor costs.
A lot of dealers who used to work and travel to Belgium and London to buy diamonds and have them cut there go to India to have them cut, so the industry is getting smaller and smaller in the United States. There used to be a lot of cutters in New York that used to work for the big companies like Van Cleef, but not anymore.
Many of the workers in India cut smaller stones and work from one point to a carat. They work all day, performing the same task over and over, which is not something that I would be able to do.
Part of the business is going to different hands, but there a lot of younger people starting to have knowledge and appreciation for diamonds. I appreciate seeing the trust they put in the industry, and they’re not letting it completely disappear, whether it’s in New York, Los Angeles, or other parts of Europe, where they’re keeping up the industry in larger stones.
What makes diamonds so valuable, and what are the factors that determine a maximum return on investment?
Diamonds are valuable for the shape, angles, and performance of the stone. When you look at it from face-up and you see that the stone is giving you the best luster that it can, or the fire, as we call it, the power and the spirit of the stone is undeniable.
Apart from that, the Four C’s - clarity, cut, color, and carat weight. When you cut a diamond, you try to save as much weight as possible. You also want to cut the stone correctly by using the right shape and angle to clean out the imperfections that are close to the surface. If you have any imperfections or carbon in the heart of the stone, you cannot do anything about it, but if they’re closer to the surface, if you cut the diamond in the right shape, you can create a flawless stone and greatly improve the value of the diamond.
A good diamond cutter will look at a diamond and study it, working the stone in stages without making a decision you cannot go back from. If you put a big facet somewhere on the diamond, and it was not in the right place, you cannot change that. Once you cut a diamond, you cannot go back, which is why it is important to be patient and take your time to study the stone and to look at it.
Many times, in the middle of cutting a stone, we change the direction - the shape or the angles - we are pursuing. That’s what makes the work so interesting. The stone shows me a direction I didn’t see before, but I see it now, and therefore I am feeling much better about where the stone is going.
If you had one more thing you wanted to share with the public about diamond cutting, what would it be?
The next stage that I would recommend for anyone who is interested in diamond cutting is to see what diamond cutting actually involves, and you will have a much bigger appreciation for what a diamond means to you personally. Purchasing a diamond is different from going to a store and buying a regular piece of jewelry.
If you walk into the building where I work, which includes diamond cutters, people who design jewelry, and people who set stones, and if you can look at the stages of the work, the person wearing the jewelry will have much more of an appreciation for what she has on her finger than just going and buying it.