Master Diamond Cutter Mike Botha Takes On Esperanza


Esperanza, the most valuable diamond mined in the US. © Embee Diamonds. Used with permission.
Esperanza, the most valuable diamond mined in the US. © Embee Diamonds. Used with permission.

June 26, 2015. That’s the date that Esperanza came to the surface at the Crater of Diamonds State Park in Arkansas. Brooke Oskarson stopped at the park outside of Murfreesboro, Arkansas (the only place in the world where you can go to mine your own diamonds) on her trip back home from a wedding. 30 minutes and $8 later, she had in her hand what is playing out to be the most valuable diamond ever unearthed at the park.

Esperanza was found in a part of the park known as the “pig pen,” a 37-acre piece of ground known to be a sloppy, muddy mess after heavy rainfall. There was no rain in the pig pen that day. It was a hot, dry, summer day in southwest Arkansas. She picked that location to dig because there was a giant banyan tree nearby to provide some shade from the blistering sun.

Stunningly white and shaped like an icicle, the diamond is, to say the least, unique. At 18mm long and weighing 8.52 carats, it’s the 5th largest diamond found since the park opened in 1972. Brooke had never seen anything like it. No one has ever seen anything like it, before or since. She named it Esperanza, after her beloved niece.

The Esperanza diamond in the rough. © Arkansas State Parks & Tourism. Used with permission.
The Esperanza diamond in the rough. © Arkansas State Parks & Tourism. Used with permission.

She and Esperanza quickly found their way to Neil Beaty, one of the top gemologists in the country and an Independent Certified Gemologist Appraiser with the American Gem Society (AGS). From the beginning, the plan was to sell it, and such a unique diamond required a unique plan.

There was a flurry of activity over the next few months. The process started with optical scans and microscopic grading at Beaty’s office, American Gem Registry in Colorado, and included laser 3D scans both in Illinois and at the AGS laboratories. In the first two months, Esperanza had already visited eight states. A Raman scan at AGS proved what was already suspected. This was a type IIa diamond with zero nitrogen parts per billion. That’s the rarest of the rare. A D color grade (colorless) was a near certainty with nothing visible through the surface. An IF clarity grade (internally flawless) was definitely on the table. Hundreds of photos were taken from every possible angle. Esperanza is one of the most photographed rough diamonds ever found.

With the stone itself safely stashed in a vault, the scans made their way to Mike Botha, master cutter at Embee Diamond Technologies, who designed a brand new facet pattern that he calls the “triolette.” It’s three-fold symmetry of 7×7 facets. 147 facets in total with two culets, three keels, and no table. A unique design for a unique diamond that shows off the color and transparency from every direction while preserving as much weight as possible.

Esperanza and Mike Botha. © Arkansas State Parks & Tourism. Used with permission.
Esperanza and Mike Botha. © Arkansas State Parks & Tourism. Used with permission.

People often ask about this shape. It’s so … different. The secret is in the light performance when seen as a 3D item. Diamonds are generally designed to be viewed from one, and only one, direction. Mike took a radically different approach. Given the starting icicle shape, a more traditional cut would have lost vastly more weight and gained nothing in return. Sure, it could have made a fantastic 3.5-carat marquise, but that would be missing an opportunity. It’s not just different, it’s better. A lesser diamond could never pull it off. A lesser cutter could never pull it off.

The Esperanza diamond, triolette cut. © Embee Diamonds. Used with permission.
The Esperanza diamond, triolette cut. © Embee Diamonds. Used with permission.

Two months later, Mike made a stunning move. He took his 800-pound cutting bench to North Little Rock, Arkansas where he teamed up with Stanley Jewelers|Gemologist to stage a live cutting event, the first ever on such a magnificent diamond. Under the eyes of ever-present security, a live webcam, and a steady stream of press and interested customers, he spent 137 hours cutting his masterpiece and another 43 hours ameliorating the finish by removing minute surface blemishes. A diamond with this many facets is prone to “spring” surface anomalies as the diamond heats up during the polishing process. It had to be perfect! Mined in Arkansas. Cut in Arkansas. The park service was there. TV crews were there. Politicians were there. Brooke was there. Even Beaty was there.

Mike Botha at work. © Arkansas State Parks & Tourism. Used with permission.
Mike Botha at work. © Arkansas State Parks & Tourism. Used with permission.

The shop was set up in Stanley’s main showroom and it was loaded. OGI Systems in New York contributed a 3D scanner for the job. Mike brought ten tangs, traditional polishing tools, to be ready for every possibility. Live webcams turned Stanley’s showroom into a combination diamond factory, TV studio, and jewelry store.

Esperanza and Mike Botha were the centers of attention at the live cutting event at North Little Rock, Arkansas. © Arkansas State Parks & Tourism. Used with permission.
Esperanza and Mike Botha were the centers of attention at the live cutting event in North Little Rock, Arkansas. © Arkansas State Parks & Tourism. Used with permission.

The task was gargantuan and went on for a week. 147 facets make this one of the most complicated diamonds ever planned. Everything had to be perfect because, since there is no table, every facet has 146 mirrors. It would take a supercomputer to ray-trace it. Mr. Botha was up to the challenge. He started out by roughing the equidistant triangular profile and laying out the three keels. Then, he worked from the center to the ends. He soon abandoned computer scanning and opted for true and tested trigonometric and geometric principles.

The complexity of the triolette design meant every facet had to be precisely planned and executed. © Arkansas State Parks & Tourism. Used with permission.
The complexity of the triolette design meant every facet had to be precisely planned and executed. © Arkansas State Parks & Tourism. Used with permission.

Every facet angle and length was calculated and cut by hand. From culet to culet there are seven facets, and from keel to keel there are seven across. 3x7x7. Touching one was touching nine. Even a tiny error and the polish or symmetry grades would be missed. AGS 000 (triple ideal)/GIA triple X (triple excellent) grades were the bar. Nothing less was acceptable. It was the most difficult diamond he’s ever taken on, particularly because of the extreme hardness due to the absence of nitrogen, which makes a diamond easier to cut.

Esperanza's chemical properties made faceting a special challenge. © Arkansas State Parks & Tourism. Used with permission.
Esperanza’s chemical properties made faceting a special challenge. © Arkansas State Parks & Tourism. Used with permission.

After leaving North Little Rock, he continued to work on the diamond at a distant location. After a total of 180 hours, it went to the labs. AGS Laboratories first. D/IF. Then to the Gemological Institute of America (GIA). D/IF again. Done. Set it. Sell it.

How to sell such a treasure is another tricky problem. This gem is absolutely unique, and it’s hard for people to imagine a mounting. The team brought in AGS members Ian Douglas of Inspired Jewelry, for the design, and Byard Brogan, for the manufacturing. What was needed was a design that highlights the shape of the diamond and emphasizes the fact that the best direction to view the Esperanza is any and every direction. It draws viewers in. The more people look, the more interested they get. The pieces around the outside have the same cross section as the stone and come from all directions, mimicking the light performance of the stone itself. The stone is tension set by the ends and pushed forward to encourage a full 180° viewing angle.

Esperanza in a pendant setting create by Byard Brogan. © Byard F. Brogan Inc. Used with permission.
Esperanza in a pendant setting created by Byard Brogan. © Byard F. Brogan Inc. Used with permission.

It’s perfect, but that added a new problem.

When every facet shouts “Pick me,” how do you photograph the gem? In many photographs the Esperanza just looks like a marquise. From the beginning, it was obvious this is a piece that needs to be experienced to be understood. That led to the national tour. In conjunction with the AGS, Esperanza is on a tour of jewelers across the country. First, it went to Summa Jewelers in Missouri, Black, Starr and Frost in Arizona and California, and Molina Fine Jewelers in Arizona. Then, it was back to Stanley’s in North Little Rock and on to Whiteflash in Texas and Underwood’s in Florida. More frequent flyer miles for Esperanza. All are at the front of a sealed bid auction.

Esperanza is for sale. Appraisers have estimated she’ll bring upwards of $1 million, making this, by far, the most valuable diamond ever mined in the United States. Interested buyers can contact any of the stores above or Mr. Botha directly. Operators are standing by, but it won’t last long.

Now that’s a piece of Americana that doesn’t come along every day.

“Crater of Diamonds State Park, Ark.” by Kathy is licensed under CC By 2.0
“Crater of Diamonds State Park, Ark.” by Kathy is licensed under CC By 2.0