As Australian Diamond Portfolio welcomes master diamond cutter David Burger to the team, we take a look at how David came to cut some of the most valuable diamonds ever unearthed.
This article originally appeared in Wish by The Australian – September 2015.
In the world of diamond cutting, there is no room for trembling hands or a faint heart. Rio Tinto’s latest argyle pink tender is the jewel in the crown of David Burger’s long career.
Billions of dollars of the world’s finest diamonds have passed through master craftsman David Burger’s hands during his 40-year career, which he describes as a passion, not a job. At the age of 65, Burger is hanging up his tools and retiring from a profession he has a great love for and one that is a dying art in Australia’s diamond industry.
Born and bred in Johannesburg, South Africa, he emigrated to Australia in 1981. Six years later he started work for one of the world’s largest miners, Rio Tinto, crafting the exquisite pink diamonds from its West Australian Argyle mine. During his 27 years at Rio he has cut and polished the finest of Argyle diamonds, including reds, pinks, blues and yellows.
Burger, who polished the world’s first million-dollar-per-carat purplish red diamond in 1997, has cut and polished the vast majority of Argyle’s tender diamonds for the past 25 years. He worked on almost half — 29 out of 65 — of the stones in this year’s pink diamond tender, which is known as the “Connoisseur’s Collection”. The 65 diamonds weigh a total of 44.14 carats, including four “Fancy Red” diamonds. The 2015 Argyle pink diamonds tender has already had viewings in Sydney, Hong Kong, New York and Perth, with bids set to close on October 21.
The names of some of the best diamonds in this year’s tender have been inspired by the world of ballet, in recognition of Rio’s partnership with the Australian Ballet. One of the top stones this year is the “Argyle Prima”, a 1.20ct fancy red pear-shaped diamond.
Burger says his passion for the diamond craft was born in the 1960s through a family friend in South Africa, who introduced him to the profession and helped him sign on to a five-year apprenticeship. He says it was a close-knit industry and you needed to know someone to break in. Once in, he soon realised he had a skill for the “fancy” stones.
Lovers of diamonds marvel at the sparkle, shape and size of the precious stone, but before it is shining in a shop window, or being displayed around the world in an exclusive high-level tender, it starts life as a “rough”. Burger revelled in the task of extracting the maximum beauty and price out of what natural forces and time had created. Sitting at a work bench in the high security offices in Perth, he would examine a rough diamond and says he knew in 10 minutes what he would create.
“When I look at a stone in the rough, as I assess it I look at where the flaws are situated, what the shape of the rough is and more and more my mind starts working what it will make out of it,” he says. “When you see a piece of rough and it’s extraordinary you get excited and start thinking what am I going to do with that.” He explains that a diamond has 58 facets and through his five-year apprenticeship he was taught about the structure of a diamond and how it runs on the wheel.
“It’s not just like a semi-precious stone where you can put it in the tool and on the wheel and it rotates and polishes,” he explains. “A diamond has grain like wood, and knots like wood, so you have to find the running plane, and you have to plan the stone from the very beginning because your very first facet will determine where all the other facets will run.”
The master craftsman has twice visited the Argyle mine, home to the stones he has worked on over 27 years. The second trip was this year — but it was not for reasons of business or mere curiosity. He was there to attend a smoke and water cleansing ceremony. The local indigenous community had invited him there because he had polished a stone, named Lady in Red. When that stone was photographed, the image of a lady appeared in the photo and the traditional owners believed Burger had stolen the spirit of the lady from the Kimberley and requested he be cleansed. It’s an experience from an eventful career he says he will fondly remember in retirement.
Burger, who looks at the diamond with his left, short-sighted eye, says it takes anywhere from two days to a week to finish a stone, which goes on a one-year journey from mine to sale. “It is an art and a passion, it’s not just a job,” he says. “Once you’ve made a decision on doing something and it works out to the size and colour you had in mind, there is a tremendous sense of satisfaction.”
Burger’s boss, Shauna Holdsworth, says his artistic flare was amazing, explaining that he can visualise in 3D the final product even before the technology is applied to it. “He sits down and sketches,” says Holdsworth, the manager of operations at Argyle’s specialist cutting and polishing facility. “You follow his pencil drawing to put the stone together, so you have to listen to the polisher. You can have all the inputs in the world through technology, but if that stone doesn’t run like Dave said, then you have to readjust.”
Burger says some stones are more trouble than others, and a craftsman needs to be confident in his skills — there is no room for self-doubt: “If you don’t have strong nerves, this isn’t the job for you.”