Masters of one of the world’s most revered forms of analog craftsmanship take on the smartwatch. ... Swiss watchmaking emerged from a radically different background, one rooted in meticulous manual labor. The industry got its start in the 16th century after John Calvin persuaded the City Council in Geneva to impose sumptuary laws banning jewelry, and the city’s skilled jewelers joined forces with the makers of pocket watches instead. Later, French Catholics chased Protestant Huguenots out of their country; many of these French exiles happened to be watchmakers, and they settled in Switzerland. In the mountains of the Jura region, they encountered local farmers who spent half the year indoors and idle and who turned out to be extremely patient and detail-oriented. The émigrés hired them to spend their winters hand-polishing tiny metal components for the “movements,” the watch’s spring-driven inner workings. ... By the 20th century, Swiss watches had become famous for their reliability and complexity. They are also marvels of energy efficiency, because dozens or even hundreds of components depend on tiny wound springs for power. Each new “complication” — say, a calendar that advances the date with a satisfying snap at midnight — demanded a new set of gears and more energy, thus requiring ever more clever compensations. A mechanical watch is both a dance with and a fight against physics.
I wondered whether a diamond grown in a lab could carry the same emotional weight as the real thing, without the guilt. And really, if it was identical to a natural diamond down to every last atom, as Roscheisen swore it was, what does it even mean to be the real thing? ... A carbon atom has four electrons in the shell around its nucleus—four little guys just looking to bond with electrons of other atoms. If four of those electrons form single bonds with, say, four hydrogen atoms, you’ll get CH4, methane. If the carbon atoms bond with more carbon atoms in a layered, chicken-wire pattern, you’ll have graphite—just one of many forms of pure carbon. ... So when you think about it, diamonds are a life force in its mightiest form: The densest, hardest, strongest expression of carbon, the element underlying all of life on earth. ... As scientific knowledge goes, our understanding of the conditions that cause carbon to bond this way, or exactly how long it takes, is limited. That’s because it occurs over 100 miles inside the planet, at extreme temperatures and pressures. Many of the world’s diamonds were formed billions of years ago, and scientists don’t know exactly how those carbon atoms got down there inside the mantle to begin with.
American Grown, which has exclusive rights to buy diamonds from several undisclosed labs in the US, started selling synthetics (a scientific term loathed by the lab-grown industry, but routinely used in the greater jewelry world) a little over three years ago and now wholesales stones to some 250 stores around the country. ... Though lab-growns have been around for a while, it was only recently that the science of creating colorless, nearly flawless diamonds was finally perfected. ... With technology advancing, and with younger shoppers drawn to synthetic options, the question of whether or not lab-grown diamonds will invade the market is now a matter of when, not if. ... the stones first gained commercial popularity in India, where diamond trading began as early as the 4th century BC. During the Middle Ages, caravans that unearthed diamonds in India's rivers traded them with Western Europe, where they became coveted by the upper class. The world's diamond capital moved from India to Brazil in the 1700s, and then to South Africa, when a giant diamond mine was discovered in the city of Kimberley in 1866. In 1888, British businessman Cecil Rhodes established his mining company, De Beers, in the country, and effectively founded the diamond industry as we now know it. ... A century before this, however, scientists began their quest to make diamonds in a lab. Ignited by Antoine Lavoisier's discovery that diamonds were merely a crystalline form of carbon, the result of pressure deep within the earth, in the late 1700s, little progress was made for nearly 200 years. ... Then came General Electric. Physical chemist H.Tracy Hall joined its "Project Superpressure," and in 1954, after nearly four years of synthetic diamond experimentation, Hall lead his team to a breakthrough. They were able to create small diamonds after heating carbon to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit and applying extreme pressure with a heavy hydraulic press — a method referred to as high pressure and temperature, or HPHT.
For eight days each year, Basel becomes the centre of the watch universe. The fair’s organisers claimed 150,000 paying visitors and 1,800 brands spread over 141,000 square metres of exhibition space. Admission cost 60 Swiss francs a day (almost £50) ... The show was a celebration of our mastery of timekeeping, and of the refinement and years of training that go into making objects of beauty and accuracy. But it was also a celebration of excess and superfluousness, of watches that exist merely because they can, like animal acts at a circus. ... These days, no one requires a Swiss watch to tell the time – or a watch from any country. The time displayed on our mobile phones and other digital devices will always be more accurate than the time displayed on even the most skilfully engineered mechanical watch, yet the industry has a visual presence in our lives like few others. The storefronts of the world’s big-money boulevards glow with the lustre of Rolex and Omega; newspapers and magazines appear to be kept in business largely by watch adverts; airports would be empty shells without them. The export value of the Swiss watch trade fell by 3.3% last year, due primarily to a downfall in demand from the east Asia. But it is up 62.9% compared with six years ago. In 2015 the world bought 28.1m Swiss watches valued at 21.5 billion Swiss francs. ... the most complicated limited-edition watches sell for £1m or more. These watches have a waiting list, as the world only contains so many squinting master craftsmen who can make them, and even they haven’t found a way to extend the day beyond 24 hours. ... Exclusivity is a key to desirability. ... In 2014, the Swiss exported 29m watches. This was only 1.7% of all watches bought globally, but 58% of their value. ... To classify as Swiss Made, a watch must a) have a Swiss movement (that is, the basic mechanism consisting of cogs and springs that make the watch tick) b) have this movement incorporated in a case that is made within Switzerland and c) be checked and certified in Switzerland.
Right now, in a vault controlled by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, there sits a 752-pound emerald with no rightful owner. This gem is the size of a minifridge. It weighs as much as two sumo wrestlers. Estimates of its worth range from a hundred bucks to $925 million. ... Emeralds invite stories—many of them dubious. At various points in history people have believed that emeralds were capable of protecting humans against cholera, infidelity, and evil spirits, and that an emerald placed under the tongue could transform a person into a truth-teller. This 752-pound emerald doesn’t quite fit under the tongue, and it appears to have had zero positive effects. ... the emerald trade is controlled by hundreds of tiny players. The price is, to put it generously, flexible. ... The market is especially shifty for so-called specimen emeralds—those that are big and weird, destined for curio cases and natural history museums. The emerald in the Sheriff’s Department vault is called the Bahia emerald and it is the consummate specimen: huge, strange, and composed of such low-quality crystals that, were those crystals broken down into smaller rocks, gemologists would call them “fish tank emeralds.” ... Over the past 10 years, four lawsuits have been filed over the Bahia emerald. Fourteen individuals or entities, plus the nation of Brazil, have claimed the rock is theirs. A house burned down. Three people filed for bankruptcy. One man alleges having been kidnapped and held hostage.