16th Century Diamond Figurines
Diamond set figurines from the Continent are among the rarest pieces of jewellery known to exist, typically German or Austrian and made with a surprisingly wide variety of diamond cuts.
Some were badges of the order of St Michael, an order established in 1469 by Louis XI to rival the Order of the Golden Fleece which had been established 40 years earlier by the Duke of Burgundy.
Others were representations of Saints or Biblical characters, such as St George, or David and Goliath The diamonds were probably intended to symbolise invincibility. Sometimes the figures were surrounded by emeralds or rubies; emerald represented dedication and faith, rubies symbolised dignity and power.
The main image shows a 16th century pendant of the Order of St Michael, from the Spada collection. It is interesting how different cuts of diamonds are used for each part of the armour. The badge is 7cm high. St Michael is in a fighting position, with his sword aloft. His left hand holds the dragon’s tail. Most of the diamonds are pyramidal point cuts, a Gothic Rose Cut, and Flatback cuts, all very early forerunners of the diamond cuts we know today (Brilliant, Rose and Emerald cut respectively).
Next is a pendant which again shows St Michael. Again there is the fighting pose, with sword drawn. The Dragon’s tail is either not present or has been lost. The same enamelled face is shown. (The face is normally either enamel, mother of pearl or a white opaque gem with face carving). Once again there is a great variety of diamond shapes used to show the armour. Typically highly symmetrical cuts are used for joints such as knees and elbows, and longer cuts for limbs.
Below is a jewel with David and Goliath, 9.9 cm high. Goliath stands tall in the centre, holding a spear, towering over a small David. In contrast to the St Michael figures, Goliath has a diamond in his helmet, and a large diamond in his breastplate, symbolising invincibility. There is a step cut ruby in the shield, which reflects the belief that rubies allowed daring fighters to escape all perils unscathed.
This belief is shown strongly in the next pendant, that of Faith, where rubies adorn the body and base. The vibrant colours are in perfect harmony with the warm yellow of the gold, and the yellow enamelling.
The next pendant is a marvellous jewel of St George slaying the dragon. Whereas St Michael is always standing, St George is always on horseback. The detail in the body of the horse is incredible, and the way in which the diamonds are incoroprated into the armour of the horse is seamless and fluid. There is a pyramid point diamond on the bridle of the horse, and the dragon has a large ruby in its body. The whole jewel is on a row of step cut diamonds, with natural pearls suspended off it.
One last piece is in the British Museum, part of the Waddeston Bequest, donated by Ferdinand Rothschild. It is an oval medallion, possibly a hat jewel, dating from 1550-75. Once again we see different cuts to show different parts of the armour, interestingly the breastplate is made of two trihedral faceted diamonds. The armour of the horse shows similarly placed diamonds as in the previous example. These were produced in great numbers across the Continent until the middle of the 17th century, but owing to their age and small size, it is very unlikely to find one today outside of a museum.