“It’s a family trade,” Arie Maor, one of the few expert diamond craftsmen in Chicago, tells me, “and I learned by watching.” At the factory in Israel where his family worked, he started out as the designated coffee boy. After six months, he was finally allowed to work on a diamond by himself, and it took five years before he graduated from his apprentice status. Thirty-five years ago, Maor moved to Chicago at the behest of his sister, and he has been cutting diamonds in the same location ever since.
When I visited Maor, the first thing he shared with me was, “It’s called cutting, but really, we’re polishing the diamonds.” Rather than being severed by a sharp implement, material is removed from a diamond through a process of gradual erosion. Using a vise-like tool, Maor holds the diamond to a spinning cast-iron wheel that has been bonded with powder made from low-grade diamonds. Slowly but surely, the spinning wheel wears the diamond down, producing a new facet.
As with wood, diamonds have a grain, meaning that you have to find the right direction to cut before the diamond will respond to polishing. According to Maor, if a diamond is placed in such a way that the wheel rubs it against the grain, he could leave it there indefinitely, and it would not wear away. If, however, a cutter locates the right direction, he has to pay precise attention, or he could easily end up with a pile of powder.
While the visuals of a diamond are of utmost importance, Maor also relies heavily on feeling. He can tell by the way that the diamond reacts to the plate whether he’s cutting in the right direction, and his steady hand and an exact attention to pressure ensure that the diamond is polished to perfection.
The process requires not only a great deal of precision but also immense patience (and according to Maor, immense amounts of coffee). The time devoted to a diamond can vary radically, depending on its size, hardness, and the amount of work it requires. While a 1- or 2-carat diamond can take as little as a day or two, Maor reports having once spent a year on a single diamond. Generally, he works on two or three different diamonds per day, given that the diamonds can be overheated by the wheel, and they occasionally need to be set aside from time to time in order to cool.
While a diamond polished by Maor is not literally cut, its weight is significantly reduced; the process can diminish the stone by about 60%. While that figure may seem a bit extreme, it’s necessary in order to produce a perfectly proportioned, highly reflective diamond. The dispersion of light is what gives a diamond its luster, and in order to achieve a brilliant shine, each facet has to be accurately angled to maximize light reflectivity. A facet cut at a 45º angle could read as flat and dull, while a 41º angle offers a fiery brilliance. Computer technology has significantly helped cutters like Maor to determine the optimal angle for each cut, but the actual cutting process is still primarily a manual one.
Much of Maor’s work centers on repairing broken diamonds or re-cutting Old European Cut diamonds, which were often imperfectly proportioned. By adapting these diamonds to an American Ideal Cut, which has a larger table (the diamond’s top facet) and a smaller culet (the bottom point), Maor adds a great deal of reflectivity. A typical round brilliant cut, the shape used for most ring settings, has an impressive fifty-eight facets, which keeps light bouncing inside the stone in kaleidoscopic patterns. While the old adage tells us to seek the diamond in the rough, any rough diamond would pale in comparison to the glittering masterpieces that leave Maor’s table.