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Sun, Nov 02, 2008
Urban, The Straits Times
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Romancing the stone
by Clara Chow

Ask Sir Gabriel 'Gabi' Tolkowsky what it feels like to be a knight and he shoots back immediately: 'Very odd without a white horse and a sword.'

The master diamond cutter was made a Chevalier de L'Ordre du Roi Leopold II, a knighthood given by the Belgian government, for his services to the diamond industry in 2003.

Hailing from a renowned family of diamond cutters, he trained under his father Jean in the art of polishing diamonds before embarking in 1975 on a career with the De Beers group, to which he has been worldwide consultant since 1995.

He is perhaps best known for his commission by De Beers to cut the 273.85 carat Centenary Diamond, a task which took him three years by hand in a top-secret underground facility.

Exuding old-school gentlemanly charm, Sir Gabi, now 68, was in town earlier this year to launch his Sea Shell Diamonds - a collection of flat diamonds, given an imaginative cut he invented, priced from $3,000 - at the two Charlotte (Ehinger-Schwarz 1876) boutiques at Suntec City and Wisma Atria here.

He now runs his own company, Gabi S. Tolkowsky & Sons, which sells the 105-facet Gabrielle Diamond to a select clientele in Germany, Holland, Scandinavia, Singapore, Switzerland and the United States.

The 11-year-old Antwerp-based company has an annual turnover of

10 million to 15 million euros (S$18.9 million to S$28.3 million).

Prices for Gabrielle diamonds range from about $700 for a 0.10-carat stone to $40,000 for one carat, depending on colour and clarity.

There is also a made-to-measure diamond service offered by Charlotte. Customers can specify what kind of diamond and cut they want, provided it is at least 2 carats, and a rough stone fitting those specifications will be sourced and cut in Sir Gabi's atelier in Belgium.

Average waiting time is between three and six months.

Both Sir Gabi's ring and watch have diamonds embedded. The watch also has a love poem Sir Gabi wrote to his wife.

What is your earliest memory of diamonds?

I was born in Tel Aviv in 1939 and my father had a diamond polishing factory there.

Every day after work, he would come home from his workshop with people from all over the world who had come to learn about diamond-polishing, and sit in the one big living-cum-bedroom-cum-dining room we had.

My mother would prepare tea with sugar and lemons and some small cakes. They would speak in German, Dutch, Hebrew, French and English.

I was three years old and would sit on the lap of one of those people and listen. That was the beginning of my diamond knowledge.

What was your famous great-uncle Marcel Tolkowsky, who was acknowledged as the father of the modern round brilliant diamond cut, like?

I had a lot of conversations with him. He was a small, short fellow and quick.

Once a year, he would come from the US to Belgium and we would meet by the seaside and talk. He was much older than I but walked so much faster that I had to run to keep up.

Once, in a letter to me, he wrote that if he had known that his famous design, published in his 1919 book Diamond Design, would become so successful, he would have patented it.

Why have you trademarked your name to become Sir Gabi Tolkowsky(TM)?

When I retired from my job as director at the De Beers Group, I found out some months later that some people in Russia and the US tried to steal my name and build companies using it. The only way to protect it was to trademark it.

What I can tell you is that to trademark a name costs a lot of money.

What is the highlight of your career so far?

It's to see people smile. Really.

Tell us about the secrecy surrounding the cutting of the Centenary Diamond.

After the announcement by De Beers that I was to cut the diamond, my wife Lydia and I had to run away and hide from all the reporters who wanted to ask me questions.

So we left in a hurry for Cape Town, checked into a remote hotel, and stayed in an unlisted room in the basement.

Next, we had to build the underground facilities and install the security features. The diamond can burst into pieces if you don't do it right. The whole operation was a new method with new challenges.

It's like when you send a shuttle into space and suddenly there's a pinpoint of doubt. You take this point, build questions 360 degrees around it and find all the answers before you can proceed.

Do you believe a diamond is a girl's best friend?

Yes, sure, but the girl is also the diamond's best friend. When a girl loves a diamond, she makes sure it doesn't lie in a box and takes every opportunity to show off its beauty.

Do you approve of men wearing diamonds?

Definitely. You can wear it in a ring, like I do, or embedded in your watch, like I do too. This diamond in my watch is a Gabrielle diamond. An American customer of mine bought it and some months later, he came back and gave me this watch.

Inside the watch are two metal plates. One is engraved by laser with a picture of my wife and myself when we got engaged. The second plate is engraved with poetry in French that I'd written to my wife. What does the poem say? That's a secret.

» The Sea Shell Diamond Collection and the Gabrielle Diamond are available exclusively at Charlotte (Ehinger-Schwarz 1876) boutiques at 01-073 Suntec City and 02-33 Wisma Atria.

This article was first published in Urban, The Straits Times on Oct 31, 2008.

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