A 21,000 kilometre journey in pursuit of Tiffany diamonds

A behind-the-scenes look at how Tiffany gems are sourced, sorted, cut and polished

Mauritius Laurelton Diamonds. Courtesy Tiffany
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On May 9, 2017, Tiffany & Co ran an advertisement in The New York Times. "We're still in," it said, before directly addressing the president of the United States. "Dear President Trump, We're still in for bold climate action. Please keep the US in the Paris Climate Agreement. The disaster of climate change is too real, and the threat to our planet and to our children is too great."

The diamond industry has not traditionally been synonymous with sustainable, ethical, environmentally friendly business practices. It has not traditionally been viewed as a proponent of positive change. In truth, it has a murky history littered with phrases like "blood" and "conflict".

But Tiffany & Co is trying to change all that.

Schupstraat, Antwerp

It may be the epicentre of the world's diamond industry, with an estimated Dh734.5m-worth of the gems passing through this "square mile" every day, but at 9.15am on a Tuesday morning, the three pedestrianised streets that make up Antwerp's diamond district are all but deserted.

Much like these sleepy streets, the unassuming exterior of the Laurelton Diamonds headquarters offers no indication of the treasures to be found within. This is the first stop in a 21,000-kilometre journey that I will take as I chart the course of a Tiffany diamond. I will follow the gems from this nondescript building at Schupstraat 9, where they are examined and sorted, to a low-key industrial estate on the paradisiacal island of Mauritius, where they are painstakingly cut, polished and transformed from their rough state.

Antwerp Laurelton Diamonds. Courtesy Tiffany
Diamonds are tested for fluorescence in the Laurelton Diamonds facility in Antwerp. Courtesy Tiffany

The gems are already billions of years into their own odyssey – having formed deep in the bowels of the Earth, they have, over the course of millennia, stealthily travelled up to the surface to be discovered in mines as far afield as Botswana, Canada, Namibia, Russia and South Africa. Those deemed worthy end up in this building in Antwerp. Only 0.04 per cent of the world's gem-grade diamonds meet Tiffany's exacting standards, and it is these that I discover piled up in a room within the Laurelton building. Sachets of tiny rough diamonds dot the tabletops, alongside neat piles of stones the size of mini sugar cubes. With so many gems gathered in one place, you could almost forget how valuable each one is. Almost.

In Antwerp, the gems are sorted for size, colour, clarity and fluorescence (in a special machine, the rough diamonds are exposed to UV light; those with too much fluorescence are rejected, as this will ultimately result in a milky effect in the polished stone). I watch on as experts use computer software to work out how to extract the best possible combination of polished stones from the rough. It's a game of millimetres and minutiae, of mathematical precision and infinitesimal angles. The stones are then taken off to be cut, using a water laser technology that is shrouded in secrecy.

Staff at the Laurelton Diamonds facility in Antwerp work out how to extract the best possible combination of polished stones from the rough. Courtesy Tiffany & Co
Staff at the Laurelton Diamonds facility in Antwerp work out how to extract the best possible combination of polished stones from the rough. Courtesy Tiffany & Co

Established in 2002 and named for Laurelton Hall, the Long Island home of Louis Comfort Tiffany, Laurelton Diamonds is a wholly owned subsidiary of Tiffany & Co, and responsible for managing the company’s worldwide diamond supply chain. Over the last two decades, Tiffany has transformed itself into a vertically integrated company that sources, polishes and cuts all its own diamonds. In an era when more and more people are paying attention to such things, this allows the company to achieve a level of transparency, traceability and accountability that had long been missing from the diamond industry.

Handling rough Tiffany diamonds in Antwerp. Courtesy Selina Denman
Handling rough Tiffany diamonds in Antwerp. Courtesy Selina Denman

As of this year, all of Tiffany's newly sourced diamonds of 0.8 carats and over are being marked with a unique serial number, etched on to them by laser and invisible to the naked eye, which will tell customers exactly where their diamond has come from. "There should be nothing opaque about Tiffany diamonds," Alessandro Bogliolo, the company's chief executive officer, said when the initiative was launched. "Our clients want and deserve to know where their most valuable, most cherished diamond jewellery is from, and how it came to be."

By 2020, Tiffany plans to be able to share details about the diamond’s entire craftsmanship journey: where it was sourced, its passage to Antwerp and then its onward journey to Laurelton’s various other operations around the world – the company has cutting and polishing facilities in Mauritius, Botswana, Vietnam and Cambodia, along with jewellery manufacturing facilities in New York, Kentucky, Rhode Island and the Dominican Republic.

Rose Belle, Mauritius

Newly arrived from Antwerp, the diamonds sit behind iron bars, encased in paper envelopes within neatly stacked boxes, at the Laurelton facility in Mauritius. Between 40,000 and 50,000 medium-sized diamonds pass through this building each year.

Mauritius Laurelton Diamonds. Courtesy Tiffany
Mauritius Laurelton Diamonds. Courtesy Tiffany & Co

Along well-lit work benches, a predominantly local workforce (which earns what Tiffany calls a “living wage”, at least 60 per cent higher than the minimum wage set by the government of Mauritius) industriously cuts and polishes priceless gems. I try my hand at the polishing process, running a diamond back and forth along one of the specially created wheel cutters, which are accurate to five microns. I feel the friction as the hardest material on Earth is forced to bend to my will, and marvel, once again, at the precision and patience required to shape such minuscule facets. Nature is responsible for the colour, clarity and carat count of a diamond; the cut alone is dictated by human hands.

Tiffany True. Courtesy Tiffany
The Tiffany True. Courtesy Tiffany & Co

Elsewhere in the facility, under a high-powered microscope, the bold modernity of the new Tiffany True reveals itself. Launched this year, it is the first new engagement ring design from Tiffany in more than a decade. The diamond’s main facet has been granted with a larger surface area, so it retains sought-after lustre. It is architectural and sits low on the finger. Up close, the cut of the stone is dazzling, but somehow more elegantly restrained than Tiffany’s signature six-prong setting.

"I like how it's clean and minimalist on the top but then when you look inside, there's all kinds of stuff going on underneath it – and that's because of the brilliant cut. That's what makes it so interesting; it's almost like its own little universe in there. You could dive in and have a look around.""We decided that we liked the look of the emerald cut on the top, which is open, with a brilliant cut on the bottom," Andy Hart, senior vice president, diamond and jewellery supply, Tiffany & Co, tells me.

The sea bed, east of Mauritius

The coral beneath me is bleached white. Lifeless spindles extend outwards in an intricate web, like discarded bones in an underwater graveyard. According to the United Nations' Development Programme, beaches in Mauritius have shrunk by as much as 20 metres over the last few decades, due to higher seas and weakened coral ecosystems. When I surface, I ask the skipper of our boat about the cause of the destruction I have just witnessed. "Sun block," he says. Just another example of humans mindlessly destroying delicate habitats around the world.

Mauritius, Riviere Noire, La Gaulette, Boats on the water, drone view. Getty Images
The coast of Mauritius. Getty Images

I am in the sea off the east coast of Mauritius. This is the last stop in my Tiffany journey and although there are no diamonds to be found here, the coral beneath me is an important symbol of the brand’s sustainability efforts.

Tiffany has always looked to the natural world for inspiration for its jewellery designs. And it is nature that provides the raw materials from which those designs are shaped. So the company is increasingly conscious of giving back to mother Earth. The Tiffany & Co Foundation was set up in 2000 “to preserve the world’s most treasured landscapes and seascapes”. It focuses on two key areas: responsible mining, and coral and marine conservation, and has awarded more than $20 million in grants to support coral conservation around the world.

“The marine ecosystem health has a huge impact on what happens above ground, across the whole world, and that’s why it is so critical,” Hart explains. “The coral reefs are the foundation of a healthy ocean environment. They are the treasure trove of marine biodiversity. They act as barriers to protect coastlines, they are major drivers of recreation and tourism, and they are facing threats from climate change, overfishing and the extractive industry, too.

“Some of our unnamed competitors are still selling coral in jewellery, and we think that’s awful,” he adds. “We stopped selling coral jewellery in 2004 and we just don’t think there is any way to sustainably harvest or mine coral.”

The diamonds and I part ways the next day. I head home to Dubai; they continue on to New York, where they will be vigorously inspected one more time. “A Tiffany diamond can be reviewed by the human eye over 1,000 times on its journey from mine to caseline,” Hart reveals. They will be carefully placed in one of Tiffany’s coveted blue boxes, before continuing on with the next stage of their ceaseless odyssey.