Any mention of diamonds and precious stones immediately brings to mind major trading centres such as Antwerp and Paris, legendary companies such as De Beers, or countries like Russia, Botswana or South Africa where diamonds are mined. It seemed there was little to link this fascinating world to Switzerland and Geneva. This, however, was before the spectacular surge in interest in fine watches and record-breaking auctions, both of which explain the increasingly important role Switzerland plays for the precious stones trade.
Over recent years, as lading watches with stones has become a rite of passage for many manufacturers, and as setting techniques have grown more and more sophisticated, the Swiss market is increasingly in demand. Cast your mind back to Hublot’s One Million $ BB, one of the show-stoppers at Baselworld 2007 whose diamond cladding was the work of Swiss firm Bunter using the coveted mystery setting technique. Since then, crisis or no crisis, customers are as enamoured as ever with fine jewellery watches. Demand has rocketed for mechanical complications combined with complex gem-setting while in certain markets, men’s watches incorporate as many precious stones as models for women, if not more.
One of a kind
One of the foremost names in gem-setting in Geneva, Pierre Salanitro confirms the trend: “The high-end segment is in fine form,” he says, “with strong demand these past two years for bespoke and one-off pieces, commissioned directly by the customer.”
Established in 1990, Salanitro SA provides its sought-after skills to more than forty of the most prestigious brands. Anticipating the trend, ten years ago Pierre Salanitro set up an independent production chain dealing exclusively with this type of request. This wise move means the firm can deliver large-volume orders as well as meet the more specific requirements of exceptional creations.
The sovereign diamond
As desirable as other precious stones may be, the allure of diamond is still strongest. Rarity, cost, and in certain cases history and provenance set the diamond apart. Remember that diamond is a natural substance, a pure carbon crystal which forms inside the earth’s mantle under conditions of extreme temperature and pressure. Volcanic eruptions push diamond-bearing rock up towards the surface of the earth in magma, through narrow chimneys known as pipes, most of which cannot be mined. Those which can be extracted are located in certain parts of the globe.
Over-exploitation means open-cast mines are now producing fewer diamonds. Extraction can involve complex and costly procedures, with rock drilled as far down as a thousand metres. The diamond market is therefore one of relative scarcity. The industry is estimated to make US$ 66 billion a year and directly employs one and a half million people, many working in difficult conditions. The diamond is still the most expensive mineral in the world. A good quality brilliant easily sells for between US$ 1,000 and US$ 2,000 per half-carat or one-tenth of a gram. An exceptional stone garners in excess of one million dollars a carat.
Following a series of scandals, in 2003 the Kimberley Process imposed requirements that would oblige the diamond trade to put its house in order. Governments and industry adhere to a certification scheme for rough stones, intended to stem the flow of diamonds used to finance conflict. The Kimberley Process now has 48 members and 74 countries, including Switzerland. Other initiatives, such as the Responsible Jewellery Council, also aim to monitor the origin of diamonds and introduce international standards.
This is one reason why Switzerland as a country, and Geneva in particular, are now attracting gemmologists and their precious expertise in evaluating diamonds. Franck Notari is one. His company, GemTech Lab, is located next to Geneva’s free port. “Our profession has changed somewhat due to increased occurrences of fake diamonds, often in the small batches that are used for setting large orders. The clients we work with belong to the fine watch segment and therefore impose high standards. The techniques we have developed in response deliver reliable results in a short timeframe. Knowing there can be up to fifty thousand individual stones in a single batch, some smaller than three millimetres, professional evaluation is vital.”
Geneva has become the city of sparkle in other ways too, as it has forged a reputation for auctions of outstanding jewels. In autumn 2012, the Archduke Joseph Diamond, once the property of Archduke Joseph August of Austria, went on sale at Christie’s where its beauty, clarity and lineage assured a record price of US$ 21.5 million. No doubt the spring season of sales will be lit by more exceptional stones.