"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Sybil Birnbaum’s Diamond–And The Cultured Fakes That Came Afterwards

My mother and her friends all wore ‘rocks’ – collectible diamonds that women of an earlier age valued as insurance against wayward and/or dissolute husbands.  Dinner parties were memorable – mink stoles, Chanel, rustling silk dresses, high heels, and diamonds.  My mother wore three on her ring finger – a large 5-carat solitaire, a diamond-studded engagement ring, and a smaller but rare Indian diamond set in old gold.

There was a lot of cattiness about diamond rings.  “Did you see the rock on her?”, my mother would say.  “Jewish. Diamond District. Déclassé”; but Mrs. Birnbaum’s ring was indeed impressive, of many carats, and set in a cluster of smaller diamonds. 

Sybil Birnbaum was proud of her ring and amazed at its clarity and brilliance.  On summer mornings she sat outside and let the early sun catch the diamond and cast a prism on the porch, playing colored light on the shutters, the magnolia, and the thick grass of the front yard.  She especially loved to look at her diamond in candlelight, and set her long formal dinner table with thin, elegant tapers.  Before the guests were invited to sit down, she turned off the lights.  The table, set with Baccarat crystal, Christofle silverware, and Limoges accessories, was magnificent.  The flickering light of the candles was reflected on the silver settings and picked up highlights of the gold trim on the Haviland ivory china. 

Image result for images baccarat crystal

The main reason for the candles, however, was let everyone see her diamond at its best.  When she discreetly held it up to the nearest candle, it shone yellow and burnished gold, had a lustrous but subdued sparkle, and cast a prism of soft light over the table.

Whatever the provenance and despite the disparaging remarks of my mother, Mrs. Birnbaum’s diamond was famous and was the envy of all the women in her circle.  Her flair was theatrical, not crass as her detractors claimed. She dressed to complement the diamond, never the other way around. She preferred black ensembles against which her diamond shone with exceptional brilliance, framed as it was by the severe but elegant black Dior dresses, Chanel suits, and dark black Alaskan fur coats and stoles. Light summer pastels – pink and yellow were her favorites – were perfect for the diamond in sunlight.  Occasionally she would wear a long white dress to formal events and complemented the diamond with three rings of cultured pearls.



No one could possible compete with her.  Money aside, Sybil Birnbaum had taste, elegance, and style.  She was demonstrative and graceful, and when she talked her hands were like birds in flight, especially her left, for she felt that the diamond gave her fingers poetry and special beauty.  The rest of the women in my mother’s crowd were pedestrian and ordinary compared to Sybil, no matter what they wore or how outrageously oversized were their diamonds. Sybil did not choose just any large diamond, but one which had been cut by a South African Jew from a diamond-cutting family who had cut gems in Kiev for a hundred years.  It seemed to have hundreds of facets, for when she turned her hand in the light, the reflections and sparkles seemed to come from all directions at once.

Image result for images diamonds


The diamond itself had come from a mine in South Africa, and had a long and storied history. It had been mined in 1889 only a year after Cecil Rhodes had founded De Beers.  Perhaps because the first De Beers mine had not yet been fully explored, or the first gems extracted; or because of pure luck, but Mrs. Birnbaum’s diamond was one of the purest and most beautiful ever to have appeared in Europe.  It was relatively modest in size, but its perfection became renowned.  It made its way through the principalities of Italy and the duchies of France. Over the years it was set in gold, silver, platinum, and white gold.  It was set either as a solitaire or in a cluster.

The diamond made its way from Europe to America after the war, carried by a Jewish jeweler who amidst the desperation and misery of the Holocaust, managed to save it, secrete it, and bring it with him to New York.  He too looked at it as a collectible, his insurance against whatever pogroms and brutality might occur even in this new Promised Land. He eventually sold it to Max Birnbaum, the father of Sybil’s husband who was also a refugee from Europe but one who had quickly risen to the top of the fur trade and had become a millionaire. Sybil’s father-in-law kept the diamond, holding it in safe keeping until his son got married.

Leonard Birnbaum told Sybil the exhaustive story of the diamond, for a historical record had been kept in Kiev and other cities.  In days long before provenance was an important concept, he knew that the diamond was far more than simply a gem stone.  It had been worn by Countesses and Ladies, survived the Holocaust, and had made its way to his hands. Sybil wore it until the day she died, and since she had no children, stipulated in her will that she be buried with it.

This story is particularly relevant because Robert H. Frank in the New York Times (4.20.14) reported that thanks to modern technology, artificial diamonds that are indistinguishable from the real thing can be produced on a factory scale. 
In significant ways, the new cultured stones are actually better than many mined diamonds. The Gemological Institute of America classifies them as colorless or near colorless Type IIa stones, a premium category that includes only 2 percent of natural diamonds.
This means that for a fraction of the price, millions of women can own diamonds as big and beautiful as Sybil Birnbaum’s – with the same luster, the same marvelous prismatic array of colors, the same multi-faceted gleam and sparkle.  Mabel from Queens will be able to sport a rock the size of Coney Island, impress her friends, and be the envy of women from Bayside to Bay Ridge. The only problem is that her friends too will able to order these factory-perfect stones online, set them in silver, gold, or faux platinum, and wear them on a glitzy night out.

If everyone has a perfect diamond – a gem as magnificent as ‘the real thing’; as polished and lustrous as the best of De Beers, as remarkably flawless as the 20 carat diamond of Catherine the Great – what will be its value?  Will it have any value more than zircon?

Economics 101 suggests that since all diamonds, manufactured and mined, will be equal in quality, brilliance, and beauty; a new standard of value will have to emerge.  On top of the list is provenance.  Sybil’s diamond would be worth hundreds if not thousands of times more than one produced yesterday in Bayonne because it had an established provenance. Not only that, it had a storied history.  It was worn by princesses and countesses, survived the Holocaust, and became the crown jewel of a modern Jewish family.  Leonard Birnbaum, well before the advent of manufactured – or cultured – diamonds, had followed Sybil’s diamond into its romantic past.  Other diamonds will have similar stories perhaps even more romantic than the Birnbaum stone.  Diamonds after all are indestructible, and those worn by the courtiers of Louis XIV are still gracing elegant women’s hands.

Provenance, however, does not solve the more immediate problem of presentation.  The ladies at Sybil’s formal dinners dripped with envy at the sight of her magnificent ring even if they did not know its fabled history.  Now, however, even if a modern day Sybil were to have a certificate of provenance and an authenticated ancestry which chronicled its path from courtier to courtier, who would know? For all intents and purposes the 2014 Sybil could be wearing a fugazi.  Those who admired the original Sybil’s diamond, appreciated it for its worth – for its ostentatious worth, my mother commented - and for its undisputed economic value.  In those days provenance didn’t matter – appearances did; and anyone who took a gander at Sybil’s ring knew that the Birnbaums had to be filthy rich.  Now appearances don’t matter a whit, and what woman is going to trumpet provenance every time she wears her ring?

The case of the manufactured diamond ring has implications far beyond the Birnbaums’ wealthy circle, for not only diamonds but works of art can be robotically recreated with such accuracy that it is impossible to distinguish between the fugazi and the original.
Progress has been almost as striking in the duplication of oil paintings. Chemical and spectral analysis of original works can now identify paint compounds and hues precisely. A Cornell University electrical and computer engineering professor, C. Richard Johnson Jr., and his collaborators have been developing ways to identify an artist's signature brush stroke style by applying statistical modeling to 23 original works by Vincent van Gogh. To date, their efforts have been used mostly to help detect forgeries, but they will inevitably serve future copiers as well. Robots can already produce near-perfect copies of simple paintings. Skilled forgers have been fooling experts for centuries, but going forward, those artisans won’t keep pace with smart machines and 3-D printing.
The Van Gogh on the wall of my library room may not have been painted by the master, but by those same technicians in Bayonne who make diamond rings.  Yet there is no way to tell it from the original.  It has the same thick brushstrokes, the same demented colorations and distortions, the same dark and brooding backgrounds. Who’s to say that it isn’t one of Vincent’s?  If the reproduction captures not only his technique but his spirit and the unique energy that he brought to the canvas, then is it not an original?  If we feel the tormented soul of the artist, and thanks to our Bayonne Sunflowers will never look at a flowered field in the same way, has not Vincent’s purpose been served?



On an Econ 101 level, why shouldn’t an identical reproduction be worth the same as the original?  From the perspective of the alien who finds the Bayonne Sunflowers buried under tons of post-apocalyptic rubble and is moved by the painting’s emotive power, he has discovered a treasure.
The case of the Bayonne diamonds and the faux Van Gogh point to an even more fundamental issue – the nature of reality itself.  We live in a world in which reality is devalued daily.  The more realistic virtual reality becomes, the less we care about the nature of exotic smells. Who cares if the scents created as appointments in our virtual world are not those of tropical flowers, vanilla groves, or English gardens?  When the interface between mind and computer is complete, and when our world expands beyond a brick-and-mortar present to a living past which is personal, imaginary, and a product of fantasy and reality, what then?  Does ‘reality’ count for anything?

We care less and less for what is; and more and more for what could be.  We willingly lose the distinctions between a palpable, uninteresting reality and a limitless world of fantasy.  We care less and less about authenticity, provenance, and suffering; and more about what appears enticing, relevant, and real.

Sybil Birnbaum was an attractive and much misunderstood woman.  Few appreciated her attachment to – or rather her relationship with – her diamond.  She was parodied, pilloried, and dismissed as another Jewish American Princess, all Miami Beach, mink, and diamonds; but Sybil had a sense of history, place, and meaning that escaped everyone else.  She was not showing off when she raised her ringed finger to the candle; nor did she have anything in mind other than the celebration of the diamond’s remarkable past when she admired its prism, facets, and color.

I am all for a virtual world, for it is an expansion of consciousness far beyond any of us aging Sixties hippies could ever have imagined.  At the same time, I will never forget Sybil Birnbaum and her love for the diamond which was extracted from a seam in a South African mine, made its way to the courts of Europe, and was smuggled out of Russia by a survivor of the Holocaust. 

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