Monday, November 12, 2007

Book Review: American Cut, The First 100 Years by Al Gilbertson

by Richard W. Wise

Al Gilbertson, G.G.
The Gemological Institute of America
Paperback, 214 Pages. $29.95

American Cut, The First 100 Years, sets the record straight. Al Gilbertson tells the true story of the development of the ideal cut round brilliant diamond. First, Gilbertson clears away the prevailing myth endlessly repeated by industry writers, including this one, that Marcel Tolkowsky was the first to articulate the proper proportions for fashioning a round brilliant cut diamond.

Gilbertson has done his homework. He traces the origin of a finely cut diamond from its origins in Early European history to a maverick American jeweler by the name of Henry Morse. Morse, a jeweler not a cutter, opened a diamond cutting shop in Boston around 1860. Morse had the idea that improving the cut of a diamond would result in a more beautiful stone and that better looking stones would sell better. This revolutionary concept brought him in direct conflict with his own employees, diamond cutters educated in Europe where cutters were actually fined if they lost too much weight cutting a diamond.

The author makes the point, not unknown to young men shopping for an engagement ring today, that in diamonds, better meant bigger. From earliest times, European monarchs were in competition with one another to own the biggest diamonds. The ownership of a big rock was a status symbol that added luster to a reign not to mention being a highly portable source of ready money. Not everyone agreed, Louis XIV, the biggest gem collector of them all, ordered his jeweler, Pitau to recut the French Blue from a hefty 114 carats to a mere 66, a loss of 41%, simply to improve its sparkle.

Morse has the good luck to hire a fellow named Charles Field, as his shop foreman. Field invented a mechanical diamond bruting machine that replaced the old method of hand rounding, a laborious process of hand rubbing that required weeks to shape a single gem. Morse experimented with a series of cutting angles and by 1870 had discovered crown and pavilion angles that dramatically improved face-up appearance. Morse and Field then invented a gauge to be used by their cutters to achieve the true precursor of modern "ideal cut" round.

There is a whole lot more. Gilbertson takes us right to the present discussing the influence of Tolkowsky and American pioneer gemologists, Frank Wade and GIA founder Robert Shipley. Gilbertson’s own insights into beauty and diamond cutting are of real interest. He was part of the team that researched over 70,000 sets of proportions that led to the new GIA diamond cut evaluation system and knows whereof he speaks.

Profusely illustrated, well researched and thoughtfully written, American Cut, The First 100 Years gives us the real story. It is one of those books that deserve a place of every gemologist’s library. At $29.95 it is a bargain. Order here

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michaelgem said...


Here is my review, which you might use as a comment.

Ideal Evolution

Ever wonder why a large majority of diamonds are cut and polished as 58-facet round brilliants? Why are top quality round brilliants referred to as American Ideal, Tolkowsky Ideal or just Ideal Cut? Al Gilbertson asked those questions back in 1976, the first day on the job as faceter for an American Gem Society (AGS) jeweler. Al’s subsequent jewelry career spans over 30 years as gemstone cutter, then jeweler, independent gemologist-appraiser and finally researcher in cut grading at the Gemological Institute of America (GIA). Today, Al presents us with the definitive answers to these questions in his new book just out: “American Cut─ The First 100 Years.”

Everyone, from those just learning about the Ideal Cut to the “diamond mavens” among us, will appreciate the significance of this historically important research on the evolution of the American Ideal Cut. The publication of Al’s book presents a great opportunity to set the record straight for the diamond and jewelry industry concerning the “myths” surrounding the origins of the Ideal Cut. Al’s exhaustive research is the last and best word on this subject. It has added significance due to its publication by the GIA and endorsement by GIA’s president Donna Baker and chairman Ralph Destino. Donna wrote, “This important work will change your understanding of how and why diamonds are cut the way they are today.” Ralph added, “The book is clearly the definitive text on the subject and, as such, will have genuine lasting value in gemological history.” Clearly, GIA’s endorsement of Al’s research through publication of his book is an indication of their wish to set the record straight and correct the myths concerning this most important and most popular of diamond cuts.

Chief among the discoveries you will make in this great read is that the Ideal Cut of today evolved from uniquely American origins, beginning with Henry Dutton Morse of Boston in the 1860's.

“The myth is that the American Cut was created by Marcel Tolkowsky. Many believe that the cutting style he wrote about was his ‘ideal,’ and that somehow he only saw a narrow set of proportions as the best.” says Gilbertson. He points out that Tolkowsky himself did not call it “ideal,” and that he did indeed see other widely ranging proportions he thought had been cut to “obtain the liveliest fire and the greatest brilliancy,” This should give everyone pause. Al goes on to say: “While Tolkowsky’s influence did modify the American Cut’s table size, he was not the first to advocate many of the proportions proposed in his book. That started in the late 1800s with Henry Morse in Boston, who wanted to cut diamonds for beauty, not weight. The story of Morse, and later Frank Wade, the industry trade press and GIA founder Robert M. Shipley’s influence on cut, has, until now, been obscured by the Tolkowsky myth.” Al’s vision for his book was to share the real evolution of the American Cut and in doing so, “credit all of the diamond cutters and industry advocates who contributed to what many think are the best proportions to make a diamond sparkle.”

I expect many in the trade to continue perpetuating the marketing myths that attribute the Ideal Cut solely to Marcel Tolkowsky and his single combination of theoretical angles. But after reading the rich history uncovered by Al’s work, and perhaps doing a little research of their own using his large bibliography of references, many others will replace the myths with an even richer reality.

In talking to Al about his research for the book, I learned that GIA, AGS and the cutting firm of Lazar Kaplan (LK) were early promoters of the Tolkowsky theoretical pavilion and crown angles of 40.75° and 34.5°, attributing them to what they called the American Cut and the Ideal Cut. Curious about the early beginnings, Al talked to some of the early pioneers in diamond cutting, including George Kaplan. George had no recollection of LK cutting to Tolkowsky's proportions until they became active with GIA and AGS. George thought that this was in the late 30's, years after Tolkowsky's book. Al's research turned up (limited) articles from that time about LK. Supporting Kaplan's recollections, the articles did not mention the Ideal or Tolkowsky. Interestingly, the term Ideal cut, referring to a round brilliant that was cut to Morse's angles (with a smaller table than Tolkowsky), appeared in American literature decades earlier (Cattelle, 1903).

So, as Al’s book carefully documents, the most important angles associated with the Ideal Cut began with Henry Morse and subsequent supporters and cutters who used his pavilion and crown angles in attaining the Ideal in round brilliant diamond cutting.

I view Al's book as a factually supported, exhaustive, historical account of the evolution of the American Ideal Cut diamond, and hope that many will read it, gaining insight into these issues.

To learn more about Al Gilbertson and the significance of his research on the evolution of the American Ideal Cut see his video on YouTube:

Also, go to:

for an audio presentation of a reading from Chapter 2. There you will be introduced to Henry Morse, the Book’s central figure.

Other views and reviews of Al’s book can be found at: by Gary Roskin, JCK by John Pollard, Whiteflash by Richard Wise, Wise Goldsmiths

Michael D. Cowing

Richard W. Wise said...


Quite a comment but coming from one of the great experts on cutting one should expect no less.