February Editorial      


The curse of the Hope diamond


The history and the legends surrounding Hope diamond show the fascination that these beautiful stones exercise on people's imaginations. The Hope diamond's turbulent history starts in India. As an uncut stone, it originally weighed 112 carats, though no-one is certain where or when the diamond was discovered. The best available research sources it from the Golconda area of India, which in those days was the only major source of Indian diamonds. According to legend, the Tavernier Blue was stolen from an eye of a sculpted idol of the Hindu goddess Sita, the wife of Rama, the Seventh Avatara of Vishnu. When the priests noticed the missing eye, they placed a curse on whoever owned the diamond. The legend never mentions the fortunes of the second eye, which certainly has never been traced - nor has the the temple in question, much to the disappointment of those wanting to follow in the footsteps of Indiana Jones.

The stone was certainly discovered (or stolen), before 1668. This is when it first comes to light in the possession of a French gem merchant called Jean-Baptiste Tavernier. He sold the 112 3/16-carat blue diamond to King Louis XIV of France, who ordered the stone to be recut into a heart shape, as a result reducing it's size to just over 67 carats. Thenceforth, the diamond was officially named as the "Blue Diamond of the Crown" or more commonly the French blue.

When Louis XIV died (he was apparently killed by his own man) the French Blue passed to King Louis XV who ordered the court jeweller Andre Jacquemin to reset it as a piece of ceremonial jewelry for the Royal Order of the Golden Fleece. Louis XV probably meant well, but his inability reform the French monarchy, his lack of morals, and his disastrous policies on the European stage lost him the support of his people, and he died one of the most unpopular kings France ever had. Louis XV brought most of his problems on himself. Certainly no-one was blaming the diamond - yet.

The French blue passed into the hands of Louis XV's grandson, Louis XVI, who gave it to his wife Marie Antoinette. Both ended their lives under the guillotine during French revolution, which could certainly be counted as a serious misfortune. As for the diamond, it is believed that this was stolen by one Guillot who eventually brought it to London where, apparently seriously in debt, he tried to sell the French blue and other jewels he had taken at the same time. In 1796. For his troubles he ended up in prison and the diamond briefly vanished from history. It resurfaced some 16 years later in the hands of London diamond merchant Daniel Eliason. From this point the Hope diamond's history can be positively verified. (The Hope diamond was always believed to have been the same stone as the the French blue, but definite proof only came in 2005 through computer analysis of the way the stones were cut.) The legend fills the diamond's 'missing' years with various plots, murders and assorted sticky ends for those who had the misfortune to possess it, but the mundane reality is that it was probably sitting securely in a strong-box somewhere.

Eventually the diamond ended in the private collection of Henry Philip Hope in 1824 and the former French Blue was given his name. Although the legends states that the diamond contributed to the financial ruin of Hope who died a relatively poor man, the fact is that acquiring a diamond such as French blue would would considerably shrink anyone's fortune. Philip Hope never married and his estate and jewel collection was passed to his three nephews, who fought in court for ten years over their inheritance. Henry Hope finally acquired the gems, including the Hope Diamond which remained in the possession of his family until the beginning of the 20th century. Because of the gambling debts the last last keeper of the Hope diamond - Lord Francis Hope was desperate sell it, but there was a snag. According to the will, he had only a life interest to his inheritance, meaning he could not sell any part of it without the court's permission. He eventually received this in 1902 and the diamond was sold to Adolf Weil, a London jewel merchant who sold the stone on to U.S. diamond dealer Simon Frankel, who took it to New York.

The diamond changed hands few more times before was finally bought by Henry Winston, a New York diamond merchant in 1949 He exhibited the diamond on different charity exhibitions around USA, and to increase the brilliance of the stone he had the bottom facet cut. In 1958 he donated the diamond to Smithsonian museum, where it remains today. The diamond reached the Smithsonian by the ordinary US mail, being mailed in a plain brown paper bag. No misfortune appears to have struck the postman, though there are those who will claim that the US mail has been going downhill ever since.

At the Smithsonian, the diamond has its own display room, adjacent to the main gem exhibit, where it rests on a rotating pedestal inside of a cylinder made of 3-inch thick bullet-proof glass. And the curse? The story first appeared in a magazine article of 1909, written by the journal's Paris correspondent who listed a number of owners who had come to grisly ends. The truth is that most of these people seem never to have existed. And as to the confirmed owners of the diamond, if they suffered misfortunes, it was mostly by their own doing. Certainly, the last owner of the diamond, Simon Frankel died at the age of 82 from a heart attack long after the diamond was passed to the Smithsonian Institute.


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