No other gem in history has provoked such fascination and mystery as the deep-blue 45.52 carat Hope diamond. This stone, however rare and beautiful, allegedly brought evil and misfortune to all who wore it.
That, legend claims, is why Louis XIV died in disgrace; Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette fell beneath the blade of the guillotine; the beautiful Princesse de Lamballe was torn to pieces by a mob of Frenchmen; a Folies-Bergere actress was shot onstage by Prince Ivan Kanitovsky, who himself had given her the stone.
Even the origin of the diamond is embroiled in legend, and one that links the diamond to the divine. A French merchant, Jean Baptiste Tavernier, allegedly tore the stone from an idol’s eye in India—and was later ripped apart by wild dogs on the steppes of Russia.
These are among the myriad myths and events that are unsubstantiated or have been disproved by the Smithsonian Institution, where the inauspicious stone now resides. According to the Smithsonian, the known history of the Hope diamond dates only to the early 19th century. A London diamond merchant, Daniel Eliason, sold the diamond to Henry Philip Hope for £18,000 (about $90,000), a considerable sum back in 1830.
Hope came from a long line of London bankers and, having sold Hope and Company to the Baring firm in 1813, had plenty of spare cash to indulge his fancy for art and precious stones. His extraordinary new diamond had apparently been in England for some years, for a corroborating description and illustration are found in John Mawe’s A Treatise on Diamonds and Precious Stones, published in 1823, and reference is made to a “superlatively fine blue diamond of above 44 carats” in Mawe’s first edition, published in 1813. Furthermore, American gemologist George Frederick Kunz found in Quaritch’s bookshop in London a book by Pouget containing two precise drawings of the Hope diamond. These were made by a Soho lapidary in 1812.
Twenty years before this, the world possessed another spectacular diamond, also the color of sapphire. This was the French blue, part of the French crown jewels. The merchant Tavernier had traveled to India in 1642 and bought, among others, a diamond weighing 112 3/16 carats, believed to have come from the Kollur Mine in Golconda.
Louis XIV was intrigued with Tavernier and still more intrigued with his wares. For the blue diamond alone he paid 220,000 livres. Because the Indian cut was rather rough and failed to highlight the stone’s brilliance, the King had his diamond cutter, Sieur Pitau, recut it. The finished gem, 67 1/8 carats, was triangular and was named the Blue Diamond of the Crown. The Sun King wore the diamond suspended on a long blue ribbon around his neck; Louis XV had it set in the Order of the Golden Fleece; and Louis XVI wore it along with his diamond epaulets and jewel-studded sword. But so much grandeur and display was its own ruin.
The Revolution erupted in France and the King and his ostentatious Queen, Marie Antoinette, were whisked off to prison. The Minister of Interior then suggested to the National Assembly that the jewels be sold for money to back the inflationary paper currency. In September 1792 some thieves beat them to it, slipping into the Garde-Meuble (a temporary treasury) and making off with nearly 3 million francs in jewels. While most of the stones were soon found under a tree, the French blue was never recovered.
The Hope diamond’s appearance two decades later got a London jeweler, Edwin W. Streeter, to thinking. If the French blue had been cut to disguise it, the result might well have included the smaller Hope diamond, one of whose sides is straighter than the other, perhaps marking the plane of cleavage. Streeter came across another clue in 1874.
At the sale of the jewels of William, Duke of Brunswick, he noted a deep-blue, drop-shaped diamond of six carats. He compared this with the Hope and found their colors identical. As far as Streeter and many others were concerned, this proved beyond doubt that the French blue had been recut and had become the Hope. Just one of the flaws in this theory (which Susanne Steinem Patch points out in her book on the Hope) is that if the 6-carat and the 44-carat diamonds were truly of the same color, they would not look identical because of the difference in size, or depth, which would produce different intensities of color.
It is possible Streeter looked only at the quality and called the two shades identical, despite the disparity in intensity. But we cannot know for certain on what he based his appraisal. Furthermore, Streeter discussed his theory about the Hope’s origins in a half-dozen or more editions of his Precious Stones and Gems and in The Great Diamonds of the World, and some of his comments are blatantly contradictory. For example, stones described in one place as of a different color than the Hope are elsewhere described as part of the same diamond that yielded the Hope.
There are still missing threads in the elaborate tapestry of the Hope’s history, and for the rational historian its origins are yet to be discovered. It seems that the prized stone, once bearing so much influence, refuses to relinquish all its mystique.