History of the 4 C’s

According to Lord Tennyson, “In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” For many, the next step in this sequence of romance is learning about the facts of life – or at least the 4Cs of diamonds. When an individual inexperienced in this modern expression of love walks into a jewelry store to look at rings, his education will begin with a discussion of these four ways to value diamonds:

  • Color
  • Clarity
  • Cut
  • Carat

While everyone agrees these are the basic elements that the world uses to determine the attractiveness and price of any given diamond, few really understand how this came to be. Additionally, most people don’t understand the American fascination with diamonds and engagements is, in fact, a fairly recent result of very successful advertising and marketing.

3 carat cushion cut engagement ring

According to an article in the New York Times, the advertising agency N.W. Ayers was tasked with the job of helping the monopolistic De Beers organization increase sales during the U.S. depression of the 1930s. Ironically, the mines of De Beers in South Africa, founded in the late 1800s, were one reason diamonds were no longer rare. To counter these problems, the agency set out to find a way to make the diamond more coveted by women.

Less than 10 percent of all engagement rings before WWII included diamonds, However, the efforts of N.W. Ayers’ historic “Diamonds are Forever” campaign changed that. As a part of the new marketing of this gemstone, jewelers were provide with a new sales pitch, designed around the 4Cs.

A few insights into these descriptors include:

Color. The evaluation of diamonds for wedding rings and other quality jewelry is actually based on an absence of color. While fashion trends and designer concepts cycle between various colored diamonds, the purity of a stone is a measure of its ultimate value. The current system of grading the color of diamonds was developed by Richard T. Liddicoat and is called the “D-to-Z Grading System.” The Gemological Institute of America provides guidance on the use of the system, and provides masterstones by which diamonds are compared under controlled lighting.

Clarity. Since diamonds are formed naturally through a process of great pressure and heat, they often contain blemishes (external) and inclusions (internal) that affect their value. The GIA also provides a Clarity Scale that measures the number, relief, size, nature and position of both characteristics. This scale has six categories, divided into 11 grades.

Cut. Known above all for its sparkle, a diamond purchased in a retail store is actually the end product of a carefully trained craftsman. The rough stone is cut to enhance its ability to sparkle and reflect/refract light. While there are many different cuts to choose from, and the fashion of the day will in part affect price, there is, again, a GIA scale for evaluating any stone’s cut. The scale evaluates the polish, symmetry and proportions of a cut and how it determines the amount of sparkle it produces.

Carat. This is, of course, in simple terms, the measure of size and weight of a diamond. Its origins for use actually go back centuries to the use of the carob seed as a measure of weight. This seed is very standard in size and weight and was used for centuries to evaluate different stones and other items. The modern carat weight, based on the metric system and adopted by the U.S. in 1913, sets the single carat at .2 grams.

It is important for that young man’s fancy, or any purchaser of diamonds, to remember that the ultimate value of a diamond is a combination of all four of these characteristics. While it may be nice to ogle a huge rock on the finger, a much smaller stone may will be far more valuable.

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