In every field of interest, there’s one point of reference that even the uninformed can conjure to mind. In other words, you don’t have to possess an GIA certification to know what the Hope Diamond is.
Ah, the Hope Diamond. Arguably the most famous gemstone in the world. A piece that, in its 400-year history, has traveled the globe, being bought, stolen, and embroiled in controversy and legend. There’s a reason the Hope Diamond is so notable (aside from its huge-ness): this is a rock with some serious branding.
Let’s go back four centuries, to India. Nobody knows exactly where the piece originated, but the first notes we have about it involve a French diamond merchant named Jean-Baptiste Tavernier. He either bought the piece, or stole it (he was a pretty bombastic guy, and jewelry peddlers were a crude lot, back then), and by the time it made its way to France, it possessed its original shape: a crudely cut, blue-tinted triangle of approximately 115 carats (about the size of an egg—again, huge-ness).
It was sold to King Louis XIV, who had it cut down to a more flattering shape (reducing the weight to about 67 carats), set it in gold, and wore it to official ceremonies. It even earned a new name: the French Blue, alluding to its luster, elegance and (thanks to the trace atoms of boron), a distinctly blue tint. It stayed with the family for a while, eventually being passed down to Louis XVI, whose reign (high school history time), coincided with the French revolution. In 1793, when 16 was taken off to meet Madame Guillotine, a lot of his stuff had already been looted, including the crown jewels. The French Blue was lost to history.
Details after this are a little sketchy. It’s assumed that the stone was cut down into two smaller stones in an attempt to disguise it. While the smaller one is still missing, the larger half resurfaced in the early 19th century in London. It looked different, and was only about 45 carats (still the size of a walnut), but the tint drew some attention, and over the following century, it would be owned by the British royal family, and by a succession of aristocrats (including the wealthy Hope family, who caused the name to stick).
It was in this period, in Victorian England, where the “Hope Diamond” received a lot of its fanfare. You see, there’s another reason you’re probably familiar with this particular gem: the curse. How does it go? He who possesses the Hope Diamond is doomed (cue dramatic thunder effect)! But does the curse truly exist?
Accounts of the time paint the tale. Tavernier, our jewel merchant, wasn’t a French businessman at all: he was a gallivanting, Indiana Jones archetype who had plucked the stone from the eye of a massive idol in deepest India, at which point, the angry priests of the temple cursed the gem (Tavernier, according to one source, was apparently torn to bits by wild dogs in Constantinople). Another story says that one owner was hanged in Turkey; a princess who had worn it was beaten to death by an angry mob; one man stole the jewel and committed suicide; a powerful sultan killed members of his court to have control of the gem’s mystical abilities; the list goes on. Countless lost souls died penniless and disgraced, were imprisoned, or were abandoned to terrible, terrible fates.
Now, that’s some branding. Yes, there have been numerous stories throughout years that those who have owned the stone have killed themselves, been driven mad, become destitute—all that nastiness.
The reason, it’s been proffered, is education. During the Victorian era, a funny thing was happening in England: people were become regularly educated, and for the first time, the common person could read. This led to the need for newspapers and authors to appeal to the masses, by actually writing stuff that was of interest. As the Hope Diamond made its rounds in the enviable social circles of England, it gained a mystique, and thanks to the writers of the time, gained what we today call a backstory.
And, because the Hope Diamond so frequently changed hands, it’s not like anyone tried to quell the superstition. For every new owner was a seller who could turn a profit on the stone—even Louis Francois Cartier (that Cartier) got into the act, using the legacy, mystique, and supposed tragedy surrounding the gem as a selling point.
Today, four centuries and three continents later, the gem rests in the permanent collection at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., and can be viewed on any given visit. For now, it appears the only addition to its storied past will come in the form of a daring, Ocean’s 11-style heist—speaking of which, stay tuned for a future blog entry, entitled “How to Become an Old-Timey Jewel Thief in Six Easy Steps.”
Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution