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A night with a man who sees the souls of diamonds.

Romancing the Stone

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We are awaiting South Africa's leading lapidary. Master diamond cutter Philip Van Banks is flying from Johannesburg, South Africa, to Richmond, by way of New York. He will demonstrate his art. But Van Banks' flight is running late, and the small group seems anxious. We are gathered at Carreras jewelry salon on Libbie Avenue. Those gathered here sell jewelry for a living. Some have visions of an erudite gem-cutter cleaving a stone, producing the perfect solitaire from a few clean strokes of luck and genius. The scene promises drama. People crane their necks; they stare out windows. They wonder what type of person possesses the self-confidence and determination to cut into a rock worth more than some people's salary. While they wait, they talk about - what else? - diamonds. They agree there's a heck of a lot more to diamonds than the gems typically advertised in Sunday circulars. They call the cheaper stuff "ice spit." "Before you came in here, the one thing you knew about diamonds is they're the most beautiful, brilliant mineral God ever created," says salon owner William Carreras, who has spent 38 years buying and selling the things. "But it's not really the case. It's only what we do to it. Everything is determined by nature except the cut. It is 50 percent of the money and 90 percent of the beauty of the stone." "I've cut for demonstration purposes," Carreras adds, "not on anything worth more than twenty-five dollars." Carreras' wife, Rejena, breaks in: "But you can not say you are a diamond cutter." Carreras shakes his head. When it comes to sawing, bruting, cross-working and brillianteering diamonds, it's up to Van Banks to impress this crowd. While we wait for Van Banks, Carreras demonstrates a simple, inexpensive apparatus called the Path of Light Machine. He turns out the light in his office and tells us to examine three differently proportioned plastic orange diamond shapes as light is cast from the machine and separately passes through each figure. Through the first figure, red light spills out from the bottom, indicating a poor cut that's too deep. Through the second, red light flickers on the wall behind, showing a cut that's too shallow. But on the third shape the light dances only on the top. It represents the "ideal" cut that allows the diamond's "inner fire" to emanate. Then he shows the results. He lifts with silver tweezers a carat-sized round diamond from an otherwise inconsequential piece of folded white paper. Most diamonds he sells are like this one, he says, and can fetch up to $7,000 for the stone. "I sell to people who are in love," Carreras says. "Whether you're in love with yourself, your fiancée, your mother, aunt, sister or brother." Van Banks arrives. Instantly, we are whisked into a James Bond movie. He looks exotically handsome and cool in a sage silk sweater and black jeans. His lilting South African accent sounds almost hypnotic. It's easy to imagine Van Banks, 46, dripping in uncut diamonds. Eyes widen as the diamond wheel is set up for him to use during his three-day visit. Van Banks explains that industrial-grade diamonds, the low-rent siblings of the jewelry diamonds, are pulverized into powder and mixed with olive oil to provide friction so the blade cuts the diamond. "Only diamond cuts diamond," he says. But, regrettably, we're not in for an actual demonstration. Precise diamond cutting takes hours, days, weeks, even months to complete. The excitement deflates. But Van Banks is just starting to discuss his favorite subject. Van Banks drops a loose, pebble-colored "rough" onto the floor. "You wouldn't know that's a diamond," he says. "But it's a gem. I can promise you it's a gem." He scrutinizes the peanut-sized rock marked with India ink to show where it must be sliced in order to create two perfectly proportioned carat-sized diamonds. Then he picks out a heavier "rough" from his most recent parcel and stares at it quizzically. "If you want to buy this diamond, you instantly get the shakes. I can study a diamond like this for six weeks before I cut it," Van Banks says. He turns it over in his hand as if it were a butterfly he had caught only to release it again. "I've done so many thousands of diamonds," he muses. "But when I finish I look and admire each one. "There's nothing so true to love and romance as the diamond," he adds. He sounds utterly sure of this. Later, he says: "They'll kill you for your jewelry in South Africa. It's not just the fact that they steal it; they almost give it away. They'll stop me, kill me, take the diamond and sell it for one-tenth of its value." For Van Banks, that's the travesty. "You can remove 600 tons of soil and only find one decent-sized rough," he says. "But people will always dream of

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