Breakfast with Tiffany's: meet the man behind the diamonds

Tiffany & Co's chief gemmologist Melvyn Kirtley discusses all things diamonds with Sophie Prideaux

Melvyn Kirtley, chief gemologist at Tiffany & Co. 
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There are few brands as instantly recognisable as Tiffany & Co. The storied jeweller’s signature blue boxes have become a symbol of both love and luxury, their contents longed for by romantics  across the globe.

And it’s that trademark hue that fills the presidential suite at Jumeirah Al Naseem in Dubai, where Melvyn Kirtley sits, looking out over the Arabian Gulf. “We’re completely blue today. We’ve got everything, from the ocean to the pillows,” he says, as I join him to take in the view.

“To Melvyn’s eyes,” interjects a colleague from across the room. And she’s right. The gemmologist’s eyes are as on-brand as the room’s decor, sparkling just like the diamonds he describes as he gets into one of the countless tales from his 30-year career at the luxury jewellery brand.

"It never gets old for me. Never," he says, talking about the first moment he lays eyes on a newly unearthed gemstone. "I'm looking for the stars of the line-up. Really, we are auditioning these gemstones, and I am looking for those that really have that special something … a personality. The way they speak to you, the way they interact, the way they return the light – I'm looking for a lot of things."

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – Jan 20: Tiffany & Co. Store at Dubai Mall in Dubai. (Pawan Singh / The National) *** Local Caption ***  PS03- TIFFANY & CO.jpgbz11mr-tiffany.jpg
Tiffany & Co has launched a new initiative to ensure its customers will know the provenance of its diamonds (Pawan Singh / The National) 

As chief gemmologist, it's Kirtley's job to source the stones that are Tiffany-fit – standards that 99.96 per cent of gem-grade diamonds fall short of, the brand says. And for those elite stones that do make the cut, Tiffany & Co will soon be adding another layer of quality assurance. The jeweller announced the launch of the Diamond Source Initiative in January, which will trace each of its diamonds of 0.18 carats or more. A unique serial number, invisible to the naked eye, is etched into the stone by laser. The initiative goes beyond the company's existing no-conflict guarantee, allowing customers to trace the exact provenance of their individual stone. 

"It's important to really know the beginnings and the pathway of the diamond through its life, all the way until it ends up on your finger," Kirtley says. "It's particularly important to our younger customers who really find that whole notion of provenance and origin a very important one to the story of their ring."

Kirtley’s visit to Dubai coincides with the regional launch of Tiffany True – the first new engagement ring design from the company in 20 years. The True – in comparison to the signature Tiffany Setting six-prong – is subtle, while still maintaining a sought-after sparkle. The True cut was developed in-house, with the help of Kirtley, and combines a brilliant-round and emerald cut, in a world-first design.

The new Tiffany True, the brand's first new engagement ring in 20 years. Tiffany & Co
The new Tiffany True, the brand's first new engagement ring in 20 years. Tiffany & Co

At first it's hard to understand what Kirtley means when he describes this ring as subtle. It's a beautifully wide, soft square diamond – a piece of jewellery that would simply be impossible to miss, even on the coyest of hands. But when Kirtley presents the ring in the line-up of Tiffany's entire engagement collection, I take his point. "It's a slightly more subtle light return, but, for a square diamond, it gives it a lot more character," he says, unable to take his eyes off the ring he helped to create.

For a man who sees and handles diamonds day in, day out, he still appears mesmerised by every stone he touches.

Best Original Song winner for "Shallow" from "A Star is Born" Lady Gaga and Best Original Score winner for "Black Panther" composer Ludwig Goransson attend the 91st Annual Academy Awards Governors Ball at the Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, California on February 24, 2019. / AFP / Robyn Beck
Lady Gaga attended the 91st Oscar ceremony wearing the Tiffany Diamond / AFP / Robyn Beck

Naturally, though, there are some that, for Kirtley, are truly unforgettable.

Worth an estimated $30 million (Dh110m), it's not surprising that he cites the Tiffany Diamond as his most memorable gem. The rare yellow gemstone is so valuable, it has only been worn three times in history, one of which, incidentally, was by Lady Gaga in this year's Oscars ceremony.

Gaga, he tells me, is a friend of the house, and her awards-season haul through the Tiffany archives is part of an ongoing narrative and "organic partnership", lending opportunities for collaborations on a regular basis – an alliance Tiffany enjoys with a number of Hollywood's biggest stars. But the house loaning Gaga its most treasured stone was the mark of an extra-special relationship, since the diamond last graced the neck of Audrey Hepburn in the promotional posters for the now seminal movie Breakfast at Tiffany's.

"I used to handle that diamond almost on a daily basis," he says, remembering a time when he was manager of Tiffany's flagship store on Fifth Avenue in New York. "It's a really special cut, a special stone. It's got a beautiful brilliance; it's a wonderful yellow. The Tiffany Diamond will always stick with me."

Inside Tiffany & Co's flagship New York store. 
Inside Tiffany & Co's flagship New York store. 

While Kirtley now spends much of his time travelling around the world in search of gemstones, for him, there's nowhere quite like that New York store. "It's an incredibly special place. Sometimes during Christmas, I would come down to the main floor and the activity going on would give me goosebumps," he says.

"For me, it's a very emotional place. Everyone is there for a special reason. Even if they come in just to look, they are there to soak in the atmosphere – there's no place like it in the world."