Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Hope Diamond at the Smithsonian Institute.
When I saw the Hope Diamond at the Smithsonian, I was surprised. I had expected to see a bright Robin”s Egg-blue colored diamond sparkling in the showcase–instead, there was a large, hauntingly steel blue diamond which glowed in a black velvet lined case. I was intrigued with the famous “French Blue” the subtle hue was unlike any other diamond or gemstone that I’ve ever seen. The largest blue diamond in existence with a history of curses made the steel blue stone even more mysterious.
Seven million people view the Hope Diamond each year at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. In 1910 Cartier mounted the 45.52 carat Hope Diamond as a pendant necklace surrounded by diamonds set in prongs. It has remained in the original setting for one hundred years.
All of this is about to change with the celebration of the 50th year anniversary since its arrival at the Smithsonian. The public will choose from one of three submitted newly designed settings to temporarily display the Hope Diamond in. After the celebration the Hope Diamond will then be reset back to its original setting.
How did this blue diamond earn such a reputation as the “cursed diamond”? It is said to have started with the theft from the statue of the god Rama Sita in India. During a voyage to India, the French Explorer Jean-Baptiste Tavernier stole the large pale blue diamond. Soon after selling the diamond to Louis XIV, Tavernier became bankrupt and had to sail again to India looking for more gems and diamonds. It was there that he had a terrible death, eaten by tigers.
Louis XIV supposedly only wore the diamond once. Before his death the king offered the diamond to his two mistresses the marquise de Montespan and then countess du Barry, who was executed in 1793. Louis XVI gave the diamond to Marie Antoinette and her friend the princess de Lamballe to wear. Both famously suffered the same fate during the revolution.
The Hope Diamond naked currently on display
However, most of the stories attached to the diamond are folk lore, with some unfortunate happenings along the way. The diamond was in reality found in a tributary of the Coleroon in India and was purchased by Tanvernier. In fact, Tanvernier lived to the ripe age of eighty four, thriving for many years in Russia. Louis XIV purchased the diamond from Tanvernier in 1669, he of course went on to have a very illustrious reign in Versailles. In 1673 the king entrusted the diamond to the cutter Pitau to re-cut the 112 carat stone in the shape of a heart for the French Crown Jewels, reducing the weight to 67 ½ carats. As for the fate of the women of the French court, it is unlikely that they even wore the piece. Louis XVI had the stone set by the court jeweler Jacquemin for the , which is not allowed to be worn by women.
It was accompanied by a diamond shaped red spinel (the “Cote de Bretagne” stone) and a 31 carat hexagonal diamond, all forming the emblem of the order. Louis XVI”s experience owning the Hope Diamond was more turbulent, and probably the origins of the legendary curse attached to the stone. The 1792 theft of the French Crown Jewels during the turbulent French revolution, leaving the grasp of the French monarchs forever. The king himself died by beheading in 1793. The ‘Golden Fleece’ was broken up in England and it is recorded thatthe blue diamond turned up twenty years later in the possession ofthe gem dealer, Daniel Eliason in 1812, in the re-cut form as it istoday.
In 1908 Cartier had the opportunity to purchase two of the most historic and beautiful diamonds in the world; the “Star of the East” and the “Hope Diamond.”
Evalyn Walsh McLean, daughter of the gold prospector Thomas F. Walsh, married Edward Beale McLean and the newly weds traveled to Paris for their honeymoon in 1909. With a wedding gift of $100,000 cash, the newly married McLean’s went to Cartier to purchase a jewel. Mrs. McLean was shown the Star of East Diamond necklace set with an important emerald and pearl drop. The pear shaped brilliant diamond was one of the most famous in the world at 92 1/2 carats.
She was mesmerized by this necklace shown to her with the large tear drop diamond by Pierre Cartier himself, describing it as “a line of diamond fire in square links of platinum where it would touch my throat, the pearl was the size of my little finger end, which supported another thing I craved at sight—an incredible emerald. The emerald had six sides and weighed 34 ½ carats, and this was just the stone supporting the Star of the East diamond. With fingers that fumbled from excitement I put that gorgeous piece around my throat. “Ned, it’s got me! I’ll never get away from the spell of this.”” Cartier sold the magnificent necklace to Mr. McLean for $120,000.00. Evalyn treasured this Star of the East Diamond for the rest of her life.
Henry Philip Hope, from the London Hope banking family, purchased the “French Blue” diamond from Eliason in 1830 for 18,000 Pounds Sterling. It was then that the diamond in its re-cut form aquired its new name: “Hope Diamond.” Mr. Hope met an unexpected death in 1839, and his nephew Henry Thomas inherited the diamond. In 1851 it was placed in an exhibit at the Crystal Palace in London.
The Hope Diamond remained in the Hope banking family for three generations. In 1894, Lord Francis Hope married the American Actress May Yohe and she wore the blue diamond as her wedding ring until the following year when Mr. Hope went bankrupt. Lord Hope then sold the diamond to the “Red Sultan” for enough money to clear his considerable debts. Later, in 1921, May Yohe played herself in the film The Hope Diamond Mystery.
One version of the Hope Diamond story states that when the sultan was deposed in 1909 he sold the diamond directly to Pierre Cartier. The other version, (which I believe and is on record as the true historical lineage), is that the Hope Diamond was sold on the London auction block in 1901 to a New York diamond dealer known as “Joseph Frankel’s Son.” The amount that it sold for was not recorded. However, it is recorded that at the same time the Hope Diamond was offered to W.K. Vanderbilt for the price of $500,000.00, but he did not purchase the diamond.
At this point in the story, the Hope Diamond reappears in a Paris sale included in a collection of seven additional diamonds from the collector Salomon Habib. Gem dealer Rosenau purchased the stone for $80,000.00 and then sold it to Pierre Cartier for an undisclosed amount.
The House of Cartier remounted the Hope Diamond in 1910 in a modern setting with diamonds surrounding the stone, which dropped from a chain of diamonds.
When the McLean’s traveled to Paris in 1911 Pierre Cartier visited them at the Hotel Bristol with the Hope Diamond necklace to show to the McLean’s the newly mounted rare stone. Evalyn comments, “He carried tenderly a tightly closed package with wax seals, Pierre says ‘You told me that you had seen a jewel in the Sultan’s harem in Constantinople which was a great blue stone that rested against the throat of the Sultan’s favorite.’ And with that he presented the Hope Diamond necklace.”
Mrs. McLean did not immediately fall in love with the large blue Hope Diamond. However, Pierre Cartier being an excellent salesman, lent the necklace to her upon approval for the weekend. “For hours that jewel stared at me.”, recalls Mrs. McLean, “At some time during the night I began to want the thing.’”
The transaction was not a smooth one, as keeping in the lore of the Hope Diamond, the negotiations took several months, involved a lawsuit and required a blessing by the priest.
The selling price was finally confirmed in 1912 for $180,000 which included a payment of $10,000 for another setting in the form of a diamond bandeau. The initial deposit was $40,000 and Cartier agreed to accept the emerald and pearl set with the famous Star of The East necklace as $26,000 credit towards the purchase of the Hope Diamond. This did not include the return of the Star of the East itself, Evalyn held possession of the large pear shape diamond. The balance of $114,000 for the Hope Diamond necklace was to be paid over a three year period.
Although warned by her mother in law and May Yohe about the risk to the family by buying the Hope Diamond she was not deterred. Evalyn McLean must have inherited strength of character from her father, a Welch immigrant who made his fortune in the mining industry, because she would not be daunted by the legendary curse of the Hope Diamond.
The said curse was so strongly believed that even Cartier inserted a clause in the diamond purchase contract which stated “customer’s privilege to exchange goods in case of fatality.” And what about Mr. McLean’s fear of the curse? He reportedly refused all medical examinations so his wife returned the diamond to Cartier in complete disappointment. But Cartier sent the diamond back to Mrs. McLean immediately as they had no obligation to buy back the diamond, there had been no fatality.
Evalyn McLean writes “We set out in my electric Victoria for the church of Monsignor Russell. ‘Look Father, would you bless it (the Hope Diamond) for me?” We were in a small side room of the church and Monsignor Russell donned his robes and put my blue diamond on a velvet cushion. As he continued his preparations a storm broke. Lightning flashed and thunder shook the church, Monsignor Russell’s Latin words gave me strange comfort. Ever since that day, I’ve worn the diamond as a charm. Mrs. McLean wore the Hope Diamond necklace until the end of her days without any dire unexpected happenings. Had the curse been broken?
The 1949 McLean estate sale included the Hope Diamond which was purchased by the famous diamond collector Harry Winston for $179,920. Harry Winston owned the Hope Diamond for ten years.
And then in 1958, the diamond found its final home as Mr. Winston donated the largest blue diamond in the world without publicity. On November 8, 1958 the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., received a small package in the mail with $2.44 postage and postal insurance of only $151.
The necklace designed by the House of Cartier in 1910 with the famous blue Hope Diamond was in the box. According to the book, “The National Gem Collection” published by the Smithsonian Institution, the Hope Diamond is the most famous of all the gems and diamond collection at the Institute. Placed in a bulletproof glass show case and viewed by millions of people each year, the famous blue diamond should by now have earned a new reputation.
Janet Deleuse, All Rights Reserved
Some information credit and photo credits:
Diamonds, myth, magic and reality, Edited by Jacques Legrand, Crown Publishers Inc., New York 1980
Cartier, Hans Nadelhoffer. Chronicle Books, San Francisco 2007
Hope Diamond to Undergo Makeover, article written by Rachel Lieberman, Israel Diamond Industry 2009