Hubert Burda Media

Behind the Scenes at the Tiffany & Co. Diamond Academy

A tour of Tiffany’s pop-up diamond workshop reveals a world of detail and dedication behind every piece.

A Tiffany ring is a byword for taste: impeccable in its simplicity and unmatched in quality. Yet the journey a Tiffany diamond makes from mine to finger is a lengthy process presided over by the finest eyes (and most stable hands) in the jewellery business, and not one that is often laid bare to curious eyes. This meant my invitation to the preview of the Tiffany Diamond Academy didn’t wait long for an RSVP; after all, who would miss the chance to discover the secrets of diamond design from one of the most celebrated and iconic fine jewellery houses in the world?

The workshop itself occupies a space opposite the brand’s boutique in Elements, welcoming guests with a stage painted in the label’s signature shade of robin-egg blue and an elegant open-walled Tiffany box that showcases a dazzling 10.13-carat engagement ring at its heart. I’m met at the door by Tiffany & Co.’s Chief Gemologist and VP of High Jewelry, Melvyn Kirtley. If ever there was a person to match a brand, Mr Kirtley is it. Perfectly composed with a quiet assurance and quintessentially British politeness (unchanged even after several decades living in New York), he possesses a knowledge of his craft that is matched only by the discreet passion he has to share it with others. Fortunately for me, the man himself is on hand to walk me through the workshop, comprised of several very specific areas where you can not only see, but also touch and work with a number of stones yourself. “The most important thing about this Diamond Academy is for our customers to see what differentiates a Tiffany diamond, the elements that make our diamonds different and better, in a totally immersive way,” he explains. “We want people to have the opportunity to not just see but interact with the different aspects of the process.” And the team certainly takes this literally; I check my bag and umbrella with the hosts at the door, leaving my hands free to get to work at each of the stations.

Brilliant-cut diamonds from Tiffany & Co.

First up, we enjoy a quick look at the finished product – a glass case of glinting, glimmering Tiffany rings that serve as a reminder of why a label founded in 1837 is still so relevant and loved today. One of the blockbusters I’m instantly drawn to is a beautiful eight-carat rock. “We created this for the 130th anniversary of this setting,” says Kirtley, carefully lifting the style from the case and sending shards of light bouncing off the walls. “Charles Tiffany designed this in 1886, so last year was 130 years since the Tiffany six-prong setting was designed. It became the standard throughout the world for engagement rings. It looks like it’s floating on the finger, it’s absolutely gorgeous.” As I ogle its size and brilliant shine, it’s not hard to see why it remains the best selling of all Tiffany’s designs. 

We move on to the grading station, where three powerful microscopes have been set up, each one giving an up-close-and-personal view of a diamond. The sequence shows the absolutely individual characteristics of the trio of stones, and it’s an incredible opportunity to fully realise the beauty and elegance of these sparkling gems. As I amateurishly peer through the lens – the artisans make it look so easy though it takes me five minutes just to focus properly – Kirtley recounts the four main elements that Tiffany works with when it comes to grading diamonds, and how a stone with too many inclusions may be discarded. By inclusion, does he mean flaw, I ask? “Inclusions can be crystals, feathers, clouds, pin points … natural things in the diamond process, and I guess you can refer to them as flaws, in a way, although they are really just unique characteristics. You just don’t want too many of them!” he says, laughing, hesitant to cast the natural formations of any diamond as innate defects, when it’s simply a case of a stone not quite reaching the standard of near-total perfection to which Tiffany aspires. 

Next, it’s a case of swapping high-powered technology for something a little more accessible: natural sunlight lamps, white paper and your eyes alone. Hannah Jee, the manager of Tiffany’s Diamond Grading Laboratory, guides me through the surprisingly low-key method behind colour grading, expertly and carefully tweezing the “unknown” stone into position to measure against the “master” diamonds which have already had their colour defined. It’s a revelation to me that the colour disparity can be so obvious to the naked eye. “Your eye is very, very sensitive to levels of transparency in a diamond, it’s incredible,” Kirtley tells me, as I exclaim my surprise. To see the minute colour saturation through the pavilion of the diamond is a unique and addictive experience, I find myself catching sight of other people’s rings for the rest of the day, silently grading (and judging) the pure brilliance of their shines. 

At the workman’s table

We navigate to the next station manned by two gents robed in Tiffany technician coats: Paul Kong, director of the Diamond Grading Laboratory, and Diamond Polisher Manek Patel. As the horizontal wheel they stand next to whirs into action (Patel poetically calls it his daily music), Kong shares the importance of this step in the process of managing a rough diamond. “When you’re polishing diamonds there are two factors that you need to consider,” he says. “The main thing is the brilliance, the light return. In order for us to achieve that the diamond has to be well proportioned, so here at Tiffany’s we compromise the weight – the carat size – to achieve that maximum brilliance. In addition, it’s our responsibility to make sure any other unwanted attributes are removed at this stage.” After watching the professionals at work, I try my hand at the helm of the polishing wheel. Needless to say, I have a way to go before I’ll be considered a master of the art.

Kirtley completes my circle of the Academy – at which tours such as mine can be booked until August 15 – with a view of a workman’s table, where the final, polished diamond would be set into the trademark six-prong Tiffany setting, before making its way to one of the label’s pristine boutiques. Throughout the workshop you quickly become aware of the intense scrutiny each stone is under; there’s no short cut to quality, and Tiffany only accepts a very small percentage of the diamonds that are on the market at any given time. It is this attention to detail that Kirtley believes sets the brand apart from other fine jewellery maisons: “We’re vertically integrated and we’re checking the quality and we’re in control of the quality at every point, from the rough all the way through to the finished piece. We’re monitoring every single step, we’re tracking it; I think that’s critical.”

As with the diamonds themselves – “each and every one of them has some sort of magic that captures you,” Kirtley says, knowingly – the team behind the scenes crafting, checking and setting every piece has a unique way of working, almost like a fingerprint. Case in point, when Jee is demonstrating the colour grading process and is having trouble picking up the diamonds with the pair of tweezers to hand, she suddenly exclaims, “are these mine? No, they’re not mine! I’m very connected to the feel…” before selecting a near identical pair sitting close by and – without pause – neatly lifting diamond after diamond onto her station. It’s clear that to this team of experts, this is more than simply processing a task; it’s feeling their way to perfection.