Diamond Week

An Antique Jewelry Collection That Broke Our Brains

We’ve never seen diamonds this big, or this flawless before.

By: Laurel Pantin
Photography: Jake Rosenberg

Among the things you can expect to find in Austin, Texas, are hipsters (sigh…), live music, bats, and excellent queso. More surprising? Museum-quality, priceless jewelry—but then again, Austin is full of surprises!

Bell and Bird, founded by couple Cyrus and Rihanna Shennum, occupies a small storefront beneath a workshop where they make custom jewelry and must-be-seen-to-be-believed-level gorgeous jewelry boxes. Housed in the shop? Said priceless jewels, which, at the time we visited, included a matching pair of pear-shaped Type IIa flawless diamond drop earrings (in non-diamond nerd speak, that means really, really, really, ridiculously rare), a collection of custom diamond rings incorporating antique stones into custom settings, and an enormous emerald ring that this writer had a very, very hard time leaving behind. (Ahem, Santa…)

In one of the greatest days of our professional life, Cyrus and Rihanna let us fondle all the goods inside the vault, play a serious game of jewelry dress-up, and told us the stories behind some of the rarest, most special pieces they have.

It was truly a dream. Click through for a collection of antique diamonds that temporarily broke our brains.

“We were both separately in the [jewelry] business. I was working with private clients, making things for them and for other stores, and she was selling vintage jewelry to independent boutiques. We met when I was buying shoes at one of the stores [where she was buying], ByGeorge.”

“We were both in a relationship at the time, and about two years after that we started traveling to jewelry shows, and you know… So we kind of started as a separate business doing two different things. That’s what makes the store sort of unique in that we can have a little bit of high-low. We can have exposure to both. She’s very good at buying things because it looks great, and I’m more of an academic buyer, so we’re good for two different kinds of clients.” —Cyrus Shennum

“Our business would make a lot more sense in a bigger city where people actually wear jewelry. [Laughs]” —Rihanna Shennum

“[Laughs] No… Georgian jewelry particularly has sort of a darker aesthetic and it can be worn more casually in a sense. It’s just luck that we got into that particular category in this town. It’s easy to wear for people, and it goes with a lot of fashion. With us, it’s not all about the size of the stone—often you get a paste necklace that looks as amazing as the diamond version. Austin is a very subtle town, and so it works here.” —CS

On the pressure to pick the “perfect” ring when he proposed:

“I made the ring and sold it off her hand [laughs]. Every time I sell it, the rule is it comes back bigger. So now she’s on the ‘duchess’ [Laughs]” —CS

“[When we met, she was focusing on] Victorian jewelry and a lot of sort of that aesthetic, and I was doing a lot of stones. That’s when we started getting into older and older things, and as you do when you chase and collect things, you look for the rarer and the better. Also, your clients start looking for that. We have people that are buying jet earrings for $500 and then people who buy half-a-million-dollar diamond earrings.” —CS

These are French, and they’re from probably the late half to third quarter of the 19th century. They’re rose cut diamonds, which were made to reflect and sparkle in candlelight. Pre-electricity, you had gas lighting at the most in the house, and they would’ve been worn almost only at night. So they have this great look in the evening. You know, this very naturalist sort of motif that it has. This was very much ‘in’ in the 1860s in France. They’re mounted in silver and gold, so they have that sort of darker look with foil-backed rose cut diamonds.” —CS

“This is also French. The big piece is called a stomacher, and if you look behind it you’ll see a big loop, and so it also would’ve been worn high on the neck with a ribbon [or around the waist]. There’s a famous painting of Marie Antoinette, and she’s wearing a really similar piece, up high on her neck, but pre-French revolution—it was 1760s, 1770s, which was when this was made.” —RS

“In the trade, things move pretty fast, and sometimes you hold things that you know you just need to find the right collector for. You buy things to get a client down the road because it’s something so rare that you want the customer that’s eventually going to come and seek it. It may take time to find it, but that’s okay. [That set] is not something that we could replace. We’ve never seen another set like it of that quality, and it will eventually go to either a top collector or a museum. The earrings are absolutely amazing, they’re really, really gorgeous, and they’re light enough to wear for somebody for a wedding or something. It’s a special set; it’s not something that somebody would buy just for fun. We can always trade out of it, we can always get out of it if we wanted to sell it, but it’s not something you get anxious to get rid of. You might see one of them in 10 or 15 years.” —CS

“[As a dealer, you] don’t mind [selling to a museum,] but it’s not the greatest because once it’s in a museum it never comes back. If you sell it to a collector at the end of their career, hopefully you get a chance to buy it again. There’s very finite amounts of early jewelry—that’s why there are very few dealers in it. I could name them on two hands, easily—the real people that do it.” —CS

“These are pear-shaped diamonds, a little over three carats each, and they’re Type IIa. It’s indicative of stones that are even much older than earrings would be. The romantic parts of the story would be that they possibly came from the Indian mines because they have all the qualities of those. And they’re original cuts, and they’re in old jewelry. They're very rare. A matched pair doesn’t exist. They’re just almost impossible to find. Even when you do, they’re at the top level, and they’ve always got a deeper story. You might not know it, but they didn’t come from a common person. These would’ve been aristocratic jewels at the time; things that have trickled down or been broken off of a necklace. This was obviously an element of a larger piece of jewelry, the way the wires were put on [to wear through your ears]. They were just haphazardly put on later on, so we will change those out. They sort of compound in rarity, because you could find a Type IIa old pear-shaped diamond, you find an original setting, but then you get a little rarer. Then, when you get a pair of them, and you just kind of go up and up the scale. They no longer trade like diamonds, they trade like an object of art or something much rarer than the actual substance itself.” —CS

“The emerald is English and from about 1910, when platinum was first used in jewelry. It had never been used prior to about 1900 because the torches weren’t hot enough to melt platinum. That’s why you always see silver and gold jewelry prior to about 1900. The property of platinum that made it so appealing was that you could make these impossibly delicate settings that you could never do before. When you see Edwardian or early belle epoque jewelry which is platinum, it’s going to be very, very delicate.”

“The stone is from Columbia. It’s got a certificate that says it’s minor oil enhancement, which is a traditional enhancement for any emerald. They would typically use seed oil, they would rub it in to fill up the cracks a little bit. As long as that’s not a heavy treatment, it’s considered to be a positive thing. That ring is from 1910 with a Colombian emerald, which looks bigger than it really is. It looks like eight carats, but it’s closer to five carats. We’ve never had it out of the setting, so it’s an estimate of weight from the laboratory. When you have an important colored stone, you would send it to a laboratory to get a certificate. This one went to Gübelin, which is a Swiss lab in Lucerne. When you look through emeralds, if you imagine looking through the bottom of a wineglass in the sun, that’s the perfect color of emerald. This is a little light, but it’s a really, really exciting, happy stone. It’s great for somebody to wear; it looks like this great table top. I love the stone.” —CS

“The sapphire is a similar story of an unheated or an untreated stone. [We think this is from England,] sometime in the 1800s to 1830s time period. The flat band is very similar to what you would find in a late 18th century ring. Again, it’s important to find a natural stone that’s not been treated, in an original [setting] that hasn’t been pulled out and re-foiled. It’s a rare one as well. It’s in the category of those earrings. It’s [super rare], I’ve never seen another one.” —CS

“The Tiffany bracelet has French-cut diamonds, which, in the 1910s and '20s, they were really experimenting with different diamond cuts. Tiffany’s was one of the heaviest users of those, especially for the line of bracelets. We’ve only come across a few. We’ve sold some amazing ones. This one came in in platinum, but what you think of as a Tiffany diamond bracelet, [this is] the top.” —CS

“Old stones have a much softer sparkle than a modern stone, and that’s why we’ve always been drawn to them, and that’s why people come to us for them. With modern stones, there’s two elements of sparkle: you have dispersion and scintillation. Dispersion is color light, it comes back from the diamond. Scintillation is the white light that returns to the eye. Old stones will cut more for dispersion, and that’s why they give that softer sparkle, because you’re seeing spectral colors; you’re not getting white interface. I think anybody who trades antique stones would give that same assessment; they’re a softer sort of sparkle. Not less, just different.” —CS

“The custom box thing was definitely influenced by finding a few special pieces [in original boxes]. I think [it was inspired by] just being so excited about finding something that’s paper and leather that’s lasted so many generations and wondering why they don’t do this anymore. We sell very nice new jewelry to people all the time, and to put it in a little paper box that was mass-produced didn’t feel right. So Cyrus, as a hobby, started fiddling with it, figuring out how to make a beautiful box to go with this jewelry.” —RS

“Turns out, it is very hard.” —CS

Part of the series:

Diamond Week

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