You need an appointment to enter the elegantly splendid Renée De Clair, a boutique for diamond jewellery and a gemological laboratory on Sofia's Rakovski Boulevard – and this is just the first sign that you are up for an experience without parallel in Bulgaria. Charming and smart, Reneta Tsonkova, founder and owner of Renée De Clair, welcomes you and guides you through the complicated process of selecting the best diamond piece of jewellery for yourself or your significant other.

For ten years now, Reneta Tsonkova has offered a highly customised experience to a selected audience of connoisseurs of top-quality jewellery. She has trained as a gem cutter and diamond expert in Israel and is Bulgaria's only certified expert for evaluation of precious and semi-precious stones. At Renée De Clair you will find an elegant collection of engagement and wedding rings and other pieces of jewellery that you can customise with Reneta Tsonkova's technical and psychological advice. Because diamonds are not just crystals – they have souls and the owner of Renée De Clair knows how to read them.

Are diamonds still an exotic for Bulgaria?

I guess that depends on what we think when we hear the word exotic. Going back to the old way of thinking in Bulgaria, people considered diamonds to be only for kings and queens, for those of a certain rank which made it feel inaccessible to the rest of society. But I actually think the real reason for this was the lack of understanding of the stone's uniqueness and value. To like, appreciate and dream to have a diamond you have to be able to understand it, to be able to feel it and to me that's when something becomes exotic. Nowadays more and more people purchase diamond jewellery. Does that make them exotic or does it mean we finally understand them?

Your previous professional experience is in the corporate world. How did you decide to make diamonds your vocation?

I have always known that I will eventually work with diamonds. I reached this stage in my life little by little. It started when I was a CEO in an institute for management and technologies, responsible for the company business in Central and Eastern Europe, Turkey and Israel. At a certain moment I realised that I had grown tired and bored, my mind was anxious for something new to learn and explore. Rather unconventionally, I started learning Hebrew. My work in ballistic protection brought me regularly to Israel, I built contacts with many local companies. Israel is a world centre of diamond trade and processing, and eventually I realised that the time has arrived to make that old dream a reality.

I discovered I had a talent for this. The art of gem cutting is still male dominated. The cutter has to possess the amazing ability to penetrate the stone and feel it, to make it a part of themselves and to read its soul in order to understand it.

What do you feel when you hold an uncut diamond and you are considering how to cut it?

Often, as a gem cutter and diamond evaluating expert, I work with rough diamonds still in their shell of rock. In this case I need to find a crack in it to see what is inside. It can take a lot of time.

Once I am aware of what the stone is like, I need to understand whether there are any cracks or intrusions, what its structure is. It is only then that I can say what cut will be best for this particular diamond. Modern technologies allow us to scan the rough diamond and suggest different cut options that maximise aesthetics and value. We also have such a machine.

But for me each stone, intrusions free or not, has its own unique beauty.

The question is whether the intrusions can damage the diamond during the cutting process. They contain gas and if you touch it during cutting, the stone might break.

We also choose the cut based on what message we want to convey with the diamond. Each cut has its own history, meaning and even aura. Each cut has a reasoning behind the way it's made. The Marquise cut, for example, is based on the shape of the face of the famed Madame de Pompadour and is best for powerful, strong-willed women. Another example would be the round cut Brilliant. It's the only cut where if it's perfectly made when you look closely at it you will see the shapes of hearts and arrows, which is why it has become such a popular stone for an engagement ring.

I always show such details to the client before they decide on which diamond to go for.

How much time does it take to make a piece of jewellery?

It depends on the piece and the client's deadlines. We have made a piece covered in precious stones in just four days, but generally we can finish an order in ten workdays.

Of course, it also depends on the material – platinum is harder to work with and such pieces ask for 20-30 days. Bigger, more lavishly decorated items also can take up to a month to create.

When a client decides to change the diamond cut or the ring shape, this means totally changing the overall design. We look at different sizes, cuts, and cases. This makes the clients excited and unleashes their fantasy. Once we spent six months on designing a single ring. Our jewellers are really very talented and dedicated professionals.

All of this shows why we, at Renée De Clair, are not and do not feel like merchants. When I started the company I promised to myself to set a part of myself in it. I have been true to this decision ever since.

Opening a diamond boutique on your own must have been a big, bold step.

It was. Bulgaria's market is not as big as Russia's, and most of the people are not educated to value stylish diamond jewellery. According to my statistics, about 200,000 Bulgarians actively buy jewellery, and true connoisseurs are a tiny fragment of them.

Also, I started my business with my own money, with the conviction that even if I don't make it I wouldn't have lost more than what I already had. When it comes to my finances and business, the risks I take are always measured and premeditated. I never allow myself to be reckless in that regard. I can't allow someone else to make a decision for me because I'm responsible for myself, my family and the people I work with and I can't take a risk unless I intuitively feel it with my whole being. Which is how I made the decision to start working for myself in the first place. I felt it instinctively. And maybe that's why my progress has been slower.

However, I have no competition, even among high-level brands. The level of customised approach that a client finds at Renée De Clair is unparalleled. And as the similarities attract each other, my clients are a self-selecting group. A person who is not interested in the soul of the ring he is going to propose with to his future wife will not book an appointment at Renée De Clair.

Tell us more about your reason to set up an appointment-only policy.

Renée De Clair is an extraordinary and unusual jewellery store. We are all about offering a customised, personalised experience and so we attract a small, but dedicated and educated audience who cherishes individual approach and insists on giving their loved ones truly unique gifts and engagement rings.

I established an appointment-only policy because I value highly each client's personal space, emotions, finances. It does not matter whether their budget is 1,000 or 100,000 leva – everyone gets the same personalised treatment. I want to feel the personality of the client. When we select the stone and it arrives, I always show it to them, let them hold it and feel it, marvel it through the magnifying glass. This is the moment when the person and the stone develop a connection and become one whole.

When a Renée De Clair client wants to buy an engagement ring, I always insist on getting to know a bit about the woman who will hopefully wear it and how she looks. Only after I get a sense of her, we choose the diamond cut that will suit her best, that will underline or tone down a significant personal trait.

It takes time, but it is always worth it.

What is the origin of the diamonds you offer at Renée De Clair?

We at Renée De Clair work exclusively with natural diamonds bought from the Israel Diamond Exchange. I sell only diamonds certified by GIA or HRD, the two world renown certification laboratories. Each has its unique number engraved. As Bulgaria's only evaluation expert who testifies in court I am aware of the dangers of selling stones from unknown sources and I never buy from clients. I offer only diamonds that I can be responsible for.

Recently, the Bulgarian market has been flooded with synthetic diamonds. As an evaluation expert I also often work with natural diamonds that are chemically or thermally treated to cover imperfections. A professional can always tell the difference between a synthetic, a treated and a natural diamond. It is amazing. Theoretically, it is the same crystalline structure. But when I analyse a diamond in depth, I always discover that my gaze and soul can really penetrate and get "lost" in the kaleidoscopic universe that exists only inside natural diamonds.

Is there a diamond you worked on that you remember particularly strongly?

I put my heart in all the diamonds I work on. But for this year's St Valentine Day we had an extraordinary order: a ring with a 5-carat central stone and 300 additional stones. When you work on such an expensive piece of jewellery, you definitely lose your sleep! Before setting it, we all went to church and prayed that everything would be okay. The main stone was far from perfect and there was some danger of hitting a crack and ruining both the investment and the gift. It took us five hours to set it. The result was amazing.

Are engagement rings your most popular items?

Yes, they are the majority of diamond jewellery in Bulgaria. When clients buy other types of diamond jewellery they prefer cleaner, more elegant designs with smaller stones of about a carat or less. The Bulgarian public is yet to realise that a piece of diamond jewellery can send a powerful message as a part of formal or business attire. It is the same as perfumes and wristwatches. We use them to send a message to ourselves and the others: about the person we are; are we confident, or charming, or strong, or sexy.

Diamond jewellery has the same potential for its wearer. Recently, I asked a client who was choosing an engagement ring: How do you see your future wife? Do you think she needs to feel stronger and more confident or does she need to let her guard down and be more vulnerable?

It is not only the diamond that speaks without words to the wearer and the other. It is the metal, too. Gold is the metal of sun, strength and energy and is for women who want to emanate confidence. White metals are colder and more restricted, and reveal a personality that would rather keep some mystery about herself.

As you can see, I put a lot of thought and soul behind everything I do, in fact I insist on it being this way. Which can make me quite critical. Maybe in the eyes of other people that's not the right approach and I might lose on sales, but I prefer to have that connection to my work and my clients. 

VAGABOND Magazine, interview by Dimana Trankova; photography by Irina Shestakova, Nelly Tomova