An astute and intrepid Bay Area estate jeweler uncovers a necklace of extraordinary historical dimension and captivating beauty
By Nathan Cooper
The smooth-faced glass office buildings dotted along El Camino Real in Menlo Park, about an hour south of San Francisco, exude the kind of low-profile industriousness that brings to mind Silicon Valley law firms or just-sprouted social media outfits. Nestled on the second floor of one of these defiantly bland building blocks of NorCal’s high-tech economy resides an entirely unlikely entity: a literal treasure trove of covetable gems and baubles.
This suite of tucked-away offices is the domain of estate jeweler Stephen Silver, whose firm, S.H. Silver Company, practices the rarefied business of connecting the dots between those who may, for one reason or another, be interested in letting go of a few precious stones and collectors on the hunt for specimens brimming with historical interest and exquisite luster.
The exchange of beautiful pieces of jewelry hums along through booms and busts, and since setting up shop in 1980, Silver has steadily widened his reach and burnished his reputation among the gemelogically inclined with cunning appraisals, measured sales and acquisitions wrapped in an impeccable aura of discretion. But on one afternoon in his career of peering into all the right jewelry boxes, he caught sight of a piece of transcendent beauty and historical significance. This once-in-a-career find, which a lifetime of study and experience prepared him to recognize and act upon, now rests in the vaults of The Smithsonian Institute’s National Gem Collection in Washington, D.C., for all the world to see after lurking in obscurity for more than a hundred years.
Having grown up surrounded by the refined wares of his art-collecting family, Silver, who moved to the Bay area as a teenager and studied geology in college, embarked on a career in the jewelry industry after earning a graduate degree from the Gemelogical Institute of America – the Harvard of bling – in Los Angeles. He first worked as a mélange sorter for a large-scale commercial jewelry manufacturer in downtown L.A., sifting and grading thousands of tiny diamonds a day, honing his technical mastery of gems with each flick of his wrist.
It wasn’t until he joined an estate jewelry firm in San Francisco in his early 20s that Silver, who was flirting with applying to medical school, discovered the real source of his passion for the business of gems. Curious about the finer items in his new boss’ collection, Silver inquired about their origins. With a bit of background information in hand, he plunged into the library for more specifics, discovering not only that his employer had inaccurate information about some of his most valuable pieces, but that the misconstrued facts were undercutting their worth. “I fell in love with this industry on that basis,” says Silver. “All of a sudden this light turned on and I realized that a knowledge and appreciation of history created a great opportunity.”
And so in 1980, with an initial investment of $3,000, Silver struck out on his own, tapping into his network of friends and family in search of jeweled creations with enough history to transcend mere prettiness. Twelve years later, with his appraisal-driven business humming along, he received a call from a Portland-based retailer he had worked with in the past asking if he’d come up to have a look at the jewels of a woman who had recently moved to the Northwest from South Africa. Her assets were tied up in the murky process of immigration and she had a few things she was considering selling.
Owing a visit to the dealer anyway, Silver hopped on a flight to meet the prospective client. Anne Robinson and her husband picked Silver up from the airport and took him to their bank in Portland. A middle-aged woman of more sensible than fashionable appearance, Robinson presented him with a box of various diamond clips and baubles he estimated at a glance to be worth roughly $25,000. They were all handsome pieces to be sure, but none of any immediately apparent special interest. “I do have one other thing I wanted to show you,” Silver recalls her saying, after which she pulled out a second box.
He discovered inside what he recalls as one of the most beautiful works of art he had ever seen: a diamond necklace with a large bow motif dotted with nine sparking – and exquisitely rare – blue diamonds. Awestruck, he asked Robinson to tell him about the piece. “Well,” she recalled, “my great-grandfather gave it to my great-grandmother.” Upon being told her great-grandfather was Thomas Cullinan, the famed South African discoverer of the largest known diamond in history, Silver knew he was facing a precious specimen of epic historical significance.
Thomas Cullinan was a well-to-do South African builder with an interest in geology. Convinced that a tract of land near Pretoria had great mineral riches, he pursued the purchase of a farm on that land for several years, until the end of Boer War in 1902, when the owners found themselves strapped for cash and agreed to sell. There he established the Premier Diamond Mining Company and began to dig. While the land proved rich in precious mineral, it wasn’t until 1905 that its ultimate potential would be revealed. As legend has it, after blasting a section of earth to expand the mine, Cullinan and his foreman walked past a giant crystal hanging
on one of the freshly exposed walls for almost two weeks, thinking someone had affixed a hunk of quartz to the mine as a practical joke. Eventually, though, the foreman pried the crystal off the wall with a knife, only to discover that he was holding a nearly flawless 3,109-carat diamond of the highest color grade. “In over a hundred years, nothing has come even close to the Cullinan in terms of size and purity,” says Silver. “There may be something bigger out there—nothing’s finite about geology—but it’s truly remarkable,” he adds.
According to Robinson, Cullinan thus delivered on a promise he made to his wife, Annie, to one day bring her “the biggest diamond in the world.” But his plans for the crystal went far beyond the home front. In the wake of the recently ended Boer war between Britain and the Dutch-descended settlers of the Transvaal region of South Africa, Cullinan orchestrated the sale of the one-and-a-half-pound diamond to the government of Transvaal on the condition that it be given to England’s King Edward VII as a diplomatic gesture of peace disguised as a birthday present. A New York Times report in 1907 indicated the King was nervous about accepting such a lavish gift from the relatively poor people of Transvaal but, “it is regarded as probable that the King will accept the present, as to decline it would be likely to cause ill feeling, which is the last thing [England] wants to see in the Transvaal.” Lo and behold, the King did accept the Cullinan and sent it off to the Asscher Brothers of Amsterdam, who divided it into nine major gem-quality stones. The largest, 530 carats known as the First Star of Africa, is mounted in the head of the British royal scepter. The second-largest piece, 317 carats called the Lesser Star of Africa, became the fourth-largest polished diamond in the world and belongs, with the rest of the polished Cullinan fragments, to the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom.
While she lost out on her husband’s biggest prize, Annie Cullinan would not be disappointed for long. For his true love, the master prospector set about crafting a special necklace featuring a handful of extraordinary stones. Cullinan’s mine remains the only known significant source of blue diamonds in the world, and he gradually assembled a set of nine luminous stones the color of the sky, along with 251 other diamonds, with which to forge his gift for Annie. The occasion to give her the necklace, which includes 5.32 carats of blue diamonds, arose when King George elected to knight Cullinan for his largesse and deft political maneuvering. The necklace was then passed to the first daughter in each successive Cullinan generation, winding its way through appearances at opera galas in Johannesburg all the way to a bank in downtown Portland, Oregon. “Your great-grandfather was Thomas Cullinan?” asked Silver, imagining the various appraisers and possible buyers with whom Robinson might be meeting. “Well, yes,” she replied, without any particular pride or enthusiasm. “Let me tell you,” he said, “if anyone you show this necklace to does not know who your great-grandfather was, they have no business owning it.” Having established an understanding between them, Silver made an offer, which Robinson accepted. But just when the ink on the deal was nearly dry, she revealed she did have one more appointment that afternoon with an auction house from San Francisco, and she felt obligated to hear them out. Flummoxed at having the necklace pulled out of his grasp, Silver, who was due back home that evening for his daughter’s seventh birthday party, implored her not to sign anything, no matter what they offered her, so that he would at least have the chance to make a counteroffer.
Back in Menlo Park, Silver found a message from Robinson that the auction house had named a price she couldn’t refuse. Alarmed, he called her, pressing to know whether they had actually written her a check outright, which auction houses are legally barred from doing. “Well no,” she answered, “but they assured me I would get at least one hundred thousand dollars more than what we had agreed on.” In the hours since first seeing the necklace, it had become increasingly clear to Silver that owning this glittering relic would not only be a point of pride, but would greatly lift the prominence of his business. The values being discussed for the piece transcended its material worth, and Silver decided it was worth pursuing the gem to add its mythical potency to his portfolio. “Rarely in our industry do you have something like this, with a firsthand accounting of history, with the piece being sold to you from a primary owner, with provenance that can be bona fide without question, and which the world has never been exposed to before,” says Silver. “I saw it as a career opportunity.” And so he matched the auction house’s higher price, convincing Robinson to annul the contract she had signed with them. Silver dispatched an employee to retrieve the necklace from the auction house’s San Francisco coffers. “My biggest fear was that it wouldn’t be as beautiful or important as I thought,” he recalls. But when it arrived, it met all of his expectations. The question, then, was what to do with this trophy. The first move he made was to draft a letter to the National Gem Collection at the Smithsonian.
Silver didn’t have any intention of reselling the necklace to make a profit, and so he began a lengthy discussion with Jeffrey Post, Geologist and Curator-in-Charge of Mineral Sciences at the Smithsonian. Learning of the Cullinan Necklace’s existence from Silver was a revelation for Post. “Any piece these days that has any kind of significant blue diamonds in it is already special,” he says. One out of 200,000 diamonds might have a strong enough color to rate as a “colored” or “fancy” diamond, he notes, and among those few, blue is among the rarest, with only a handful being discovered every year, and some years none at all. But it was the necklace’s story that really drew Post’s attention. “We might have been interested in it just because of the blue diamonds, but it’s a nice bonus that you have a piece that connects back to one of the most famous names in diamond history,” he says.
After a temporary one-year exhibit of the necklace at the Smithsonian in 1994, Silver continued to ponder where it should ultimately reside. And in 2006 he arrived at the conclusion the National Gem Collection, which he likens to America’s crown jewels, ought to be its home. The piece is now in Post’s hands in Washington, and he’s thrilled to be able to reveal this rare specimen to the public after its long and quiet journey from remote South Africa through the Northwest and down to San Francisco. “The most captivating gems bring together this wonderful confluence of natural history, human history and also beautiful artistry in one object,” he notes. “This necklace does that very well.”