Tuesday, 12 February 2013

The Romance of Diamonds

Mumtaz Mahal (left), his beautiful queen.
After his defeat in battle in 1833, the Afghan prince Shah Shuja was blinded and tortured for days before he would give up the Kohinoor diamond to Runjeet Singh, the victorious Lion of the Punjab. His captor, curious at his stubbornness, asked him why he had resisted for so long.

"Because," answered the sightless shah, "it brings good luck and has ever been the bosom companion of him who has triumphed over his enemies."

This story illustrates only too well the fascination and power that a small "colorless" stone has exercised over the minds of men for centuries. "To win them, temples have been profaned, palaces looted, thrones torn to fragments, princes tortured, women strangled, guests poisoned by their hosts, and slaves disemboweled. Some have fallen on battlefields, to be picked up by ignorant freebooters, and sold for a few silver coins. Others have been cast into ditches by thieves or swallowed by guards, or sunk in ship-wrecks, or broken to powder in moments of frenzy. No strain of fancy in an Arabian tale has outstripped the marvels of fact in the diamond's history."

So wrote Gardner Williams, the American mining engineer who became general man-ager of De Beers in the 1890s. But sixty years later Ian Fleming in Diamonds Are Forever described the fatal allure of the diamond even more dramatically. James Bond has just examined a piece of quartz handed to him by "M," and mistaken it for a diamond. "M" now gives him a top-quality diamond to look at, a blue-white stone of 20 carats:

What he now held had a heart of blue white flame, and the infinite colors reflected and refracted from its depths, lanced into his eyes like needles. With his left hand he picked up the quartz dummy and held it beside the diamond in front of his glass. It was a lifeless chunk of matter, almost opaque beside the dazzling translucence of the diamond, and the rainbow colors he had seen a few moments before were now coarse and muddy.

Bond put down the piece of quartz and gazed again into the heart of the diamond. Now he could understand the passion that diamonds had inspired through the centuries, the almost sexual love they aroused among those who handled them and cut them and traded in them. It was domination by a beauty so pure that it held a kind of truth, a divine authority before which all other things turned, like the bit of quartz, to clay. In those few minutes Bond under-stood the myth of diamonds, and he knew he would never forget what he had suddenly seen inside the heart of this stone.

But the diamond is more than just a beautiful stone. It has properties that set it apart from every other gem. It is the hardest natural substance yet discovered—the name itself is derived from the Greek adamas, meaning unconquerable—and it is also the purest. Yet, almost paradoxically, the diamond is composed of one of the commonest elements in nature, carbon, in crystalline form. The diamond thus combines the ordinary with the extraordinary, in a sense mirroring the human condition.

It is therefore not surprising that diamonds have always been associated with religion and the concept of eternity. To quote Gardner Williams once more, "the diamond that gleamed with such strange fire in an idol's eye before the rising of the Star of Bethlehem may be sparkling today with more dazzling radiance in the crown of an emperor. Koh-I-Noor and Darya- I - nur and Taj e mah and Regent and Orloff and Sancy and Shah will shine no less resplendent when the sovereigns that now treasure them shall be dust." The diamond is as indestructible as the human spirit—if a little more tangible—and while the Hindus divided diamonds according to their qualities into the same castes as men—that is, into Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas and Sudras—other religions and beliefs were prepared to ascribe to diamonds even greater powers.

In the first century A.D., the Roman author Pliny the Elder wrote of diamonds: "They resist blows to such an extent that the hammer rebounds and the very anvil splits asunder, but this invincible element which defies Nature's two most violent forces, iron and fire, can be broken by ram's blood. But it must be steeped in blood that is fresh and warm and, even so, many blows are needed."

Pliny was right, but only up to a point. A diamond will penetrate the jaws of a steel vice—a phenomenon often demonstrated by the eminent nineteenth-century physicist Sir William Crookes—but like other objects of great hardness, it is relatively brittle and can be shattered by a well-placed blow. The Swiss mercenaries, who defeated that early diamond fancier Charles the Bold, duke of Burgundy, in 1476, found many diamonds in his baggage and, believing the old story, tested them to destruction with their war hammers. Centuries later in India and in South Africa, merchants who knew the true facts were reputed to have encouraged miners to use this drastic testing procedure. . . and then to have picked up the broken pieces of diamond after the disappointed miners had left. The use of ram's blood in Pliny's alchemical instructions then becomes purely incidental—and later perhaps a deliberate deception perpetuated by diamond merchant’s eager to hide the profitable secrets of their trade.

The south german portrait of about 1470 shows both the bride and the groom wearing rings.The custom of giving betrothal rings had been well established for centuries before this picture was painted.Recognition of the diamond's unique qualities meant that very early in its history the diamond seemed to be invested with magical properties. It was worn in battle as a symbol of courage and virtue, and in the sickbed as an aid to healing. It was also reckoned to be of use in winning the heart of a reluctant maiden and there is a story that the arrows of Cupid were tipped with diamonds. This is probably the only legendary attribute of diamonds that has as much credence today as it had over a thousand years ago.

There was more room for doubt about the medicinal properties of diamond especially when, instead of being worn or held next to the body, it was actually administered in powdered form. Ancient authorities are remarkably divided as to whether powdered diamond would kill or cure.

The Hindus pronounced that only the powder of a flawless diamond would cure and impart energy, strength, beauty, happiness and long life, while that of a flawed diamond was poisonous. This qualification could well have been a case of being wise after the event. By the mid-sixteenth century Ivan the Terrible had no doubts. While exhibiting the contents of his treasury to the English ambassador to Moscow, Sir Jerome Horsey, the latter reports that the czar pointed to a diamond and observed, "The least parcel of it in powder will poysen a horse geaven to drink, much more a man."

But elsewhere in Europe, powdered diamond still seems to have been used fairly indiscriminately, in one century as a poison and in another as a medicine. The death of the Emperor Frederick ll in 1250 was widely blamed on an administration of powdered diamond, as was that of the Turkish sultan Bejazet in 1512 along with the victims of Catherine de Medici and her infamous poudre de succession in the mid-sixteenth century. Yet in 1532 the unfortunate Pope Clement VII was liberally dosed with powdered diamond. He is reported to have expired after the fourteenth spoonful, but the prospect of a bill of 40,000 ducats must take at least a part of the blame for his death!

By this time, not surprisingly, the consensus had come down on the side of the diamond being poisonous, and it is probably not unduly cynical to believe that this view was officially encouraged in order to stop workers smuggling stones out of the mines by swallowing them.

The stories of the finding of the first diamonds are also cloaked in mystery and imagination. The legend of the Valley of Diamonds begins in or around 350 B.C. with its discovery by Alexander the Great during his campaign in India. It was guarded by great and terrible snakes whose gaze could allegedly kill a man. Alexander instructed his soldiers to polish their shields to a mirror-like finish before advancing on the snakes. With their gaze turned back on themselves, it was the snakes and not the soldiers who were struck down. Carcasses of freshly slain sheep were then thrown into the valley. The diamonds stuck to the greasy carcasses and eagles, attracted by the meat, swooped down into the valley to carry them off. But Alexander's bowmen, who were positioned around the edges of the valley, shot the birds as they emerged and recovered the diamonds.

This story bears a remarkable similarity to that of Sinbad the Sailor who, during one of his adventures, was stranded in a diamond valley which, apart from being full of diamonds, was also swarming with snakes and vipers "each as big as a palm tree." The resourceful Sinbad, noticing that great chunks of fresh meat were lying on the ground and recalling the legend of the valley from which diamond-studded meat was "plucked by eagles," wrapped himself in one of the carcasses after filling his pockets and his turban with the choicest diamonds. Before long Sinbad, concealed in his carcass, was swept up by an eagle and carried out of the valley to safety.

Charles the Bold, duke of Burgundy. One of the first of the European nobles to take a fancy to diamonds, the duke encouraged Louis de Berquen in his early efforts to apply scientific principles to the cutting of diamonds and to establish a cutting industry in Europe.One thing both these tales demonstrate is an early familiarity with two special characteristics of the diamond. These are its inability to be wetted by water and its affinity to grease. In fact, a grease belt over which the diamond concentrate passes plays an important part in the recovery process today, serving exactly the same purpose as the fatty sheep carcasses of two thousand years ago.

There is no lack of evidence documenting the fact that diamonds were known to the ancients, but pinpointing the first undoubted reference to them before Pliny is quite another task. Much has been made by some writers of the references in the Bible to the "diamond" in the breastplate of the high priest in Exodus, the "stones of fire" of Ezekiel, and the "diamond" penpoint of Jeremiah. Unfortunately, in this premineralogical era, the word adamas might have been applied to any stone or object of exceptional hardness; and, given the comparative rarity of diamonds and their limited source, there must be consider-able doubt as to the authenticity of these Old Testament references. Nevertheless, it is interesting to record that Edwin Streeter, one of the most celebrated writers on precious stones in the nineteenth century, not only regards the finding of stone implements in Kimberley as evidence of prehistoric diamond mining, but suggests that the area was the origin of the "diamond" in the breastplate of the high priest as well as of those presented to King Solomon by the Queen of Sheba.

With Pliny, however, the historian is on much safer ground. Not only does he stress the rarity of diamonds—"the most valuable thing on earth," he wrote, "is the diamond, known only to kings and to very few of those"—and as we have seen, describes its characteristic hardness, but he also adds the first clear description. The true Indian diamond, he says, is "colorless, transparent, with polished facets and six angles ending either in a pyramid with a sharp point or with two points like whipping tops joined at the base." These are perfect descriptions of an octahedron crystal and a dodecahedron, the most common of the classic rough diamond shapes.

It is India which from then on continues to supply allusions to diamonds both as ornaments and as tools. The Hindus are said to have repelled the early Aryan invaders with dazzling swords of remarkable cutting power; and they are known to have been early users of diamond-tipped tools and diamond-edged knives. Because of their unique value as cutting tools, these instruments became greatly sought after and soon formed the basis of a very valuable export trade. They were in great demand in China particularly, where they were employed in jade cutting.

The earliest references to diamonds in Western Europe are found in a lapidary dating from the first half of the eleventh century. The description of the diamond along with that of other precious stones is brief but to the point: "There is a certain stone called Diamond; neither iron nor steel nor anything hard will cut it, but each is the worse for touching it." These lapidaries, or accounts of the mystical and medicinal properties of the many varieties of precious stones, are very much a feature of medieval literature and serve to illustrate the great importance ascribed to such stones. Perhaps the most comprehensive of these early descriptions of the attributes of the diamond is that contained in the Anglo-Norman document of 1243 known as the Sloane Lapidary:

Jean Baptiste Tavernier was a French jeweler with a passion for Oriental travel. He made six journeys to India and Persia, meeting kings and princes and trading diamonds and other precious stones. It was he who first brought to the West the famous Hope Diamond. The stone's reputation for bringing had luck to its owner is sometimes credited with Tavernier's own death: he is said to have been devoured by wolves on a trip to Russia.Diamond comes from Inde and some from Arabie; that which cometh from Inde is clipped males, ye other female. The male is Broun appon light shining, ye female is whit & beautiful of coulor like Cristal. These diamonds is very precious to thee and of great hardness, for they will graue in Iron or Steele, taking no harme. If a man weare it, it strengthen him & kepith him from dreming in his sleep, from faintness and from poyson, from wroth & chiding. It sendeth & helpeth men to great worth. It defendeth a man from his enemies, & kepeth a man in good estate wher he findeth him; it comforte a man witt, & support him of retches’. And though a man do fall downe from a cart or a wale he shall not break any of his bones if the stone be on him. . . . It destroy Lechery; and he shall not lightly be acombred so yt he fears god. And it will keep the seed of a man’s body within a woman’s body, so yt the children's limes shall not be wrong ne crooked. And it must be set in the mettle of steel & bore of a man’s left halfe.

But for all the familiarity the world was beginning to have with diamonds, there was little knowledge of their origin. It was as if the extraordinary qualities of the diamond were quite enough to make people content to accept extraordinary and romantic ideas of where they came from. Some believed that such marvelous stones were indeed splinters of the stars, and others that they were formed when lightning bolts struck the earth. Plato thought they might be the purest and noblest part of the finest quality gold, which had fused into a brilliant and transparent mass. Some Hindu miners believed that diamonds grew like onions and that size and quality denoted age. Another school supposed that rock crystals were simply immature diamonds. 

The belief that diamonds are living, growing things is still held in some parts of India, where the miners actually expect the diamond beds to yield a new harvest of stones every twenty years. Another theory was that diamonds were created by the supernormal hardening of dewdrops, something which occurred only very rarely at a special conjunction of the stars. But perhaps the most attractive story of where diamonds come from is this one related by the Gigue servant of an early South African digger:

After the passing of many moons, and when there was great sorrow in the land, a spirit, pitying the wants and difficulties of mankind, descended from Heaven with a huge basket full of diamonds. The spirit flew over the Vaal River, starting beyond Delport’s Hope, dropping diamonds as it sped on. Past Barkly West and Klipdam it flew toward the place now called Kimberley, ever throwing out handful after handful of gems from its huge basket. On reaching Kimberley, where at that time large trees were growing, one of the spirit's big toes caught in a branch of a camel thorn tree, and tripping, he upset the basket, emptying out all the diamonds, and thus forming the Kimberley Mines.

An incident from the Diamond Necklace Affair: the court jeweler Boehmer is in despair when Marie Antoinette refuses to purchase the diamond necklace originally commissioned by Louis XV as a present for his mistress, Madame du Barry.Today the Indian beds are largely exhausted, but it was to those Indian diamonds and the growing trade with the Orient from the fifteenth century onward that Europe owed its early familiarity with gemstones. The growth of Greece as a trading nation from about 500 B.C. had marked the beginning of the flow of precious stones from East to West, a flow which quickened with the conquests of Alexander the Great and became a flood as the Roman Empire spread eastward. After Pompey's victory over Mithridates in 66 B.C., precious stones and pearls poured into Rome and desire for them rose to such a passion that Pliny could write: "We drink out of a mass of gems crusting our wine bowls, and our drinking cups are emeralds." Later writers record that Lollia Paulina, wife of Caligula, wore a dress completely covered with pearls and emeralds; that Nero showered his mistresses with pearls; and that by A.D. 330, Constantine could challenge the splendor of the Oriental monarchs by riding into Rome in a gold chariot studded with precious stones.

But despite the apparently limitless wealth and desire for display manifested by ancient Rome, allusions to diamonds are few and far between. And apart from their rarity—none have been discovered during the excavations of Herculaneum and Pompeii or even of the most celebrated temple sites and royal tombs—the reason is almost certainly the limitations the unique hardness of the diamond placed on the skill of the early jewelers. Diamonds had obviously acquired something of a cult following among the princes of the East who valued them chiefly for their size. Brilliance was very much a secondary factor. 

Tavernier, for example, records that the Moguls were quite content to have a stone simply rounded off and the pits polished. The idea of creating a more brilliant and valuable jewel by cutting away the greater part of it, as commonly happens today, would have been regarded with horror even had it been possible. As a result, a fine white diamond which was little more than an inexpertly shaped and polished rough—made a poor showing in European eyes when compared to a well-cut sapphire, emerald or ruby.

It was not until the development of the knowledge of optics based on Euclid's treatise in the twelfth century that the diamond began its rise to the now preeminent status it holds among precious stones in Europe. Given that the diamond has a uniquely high degree of refraction and reflection as well as clarity, dispersion and luster, only faceting in accordance with the rules of optics could possibly bring out the hidden beauty of the diamond.

Queen Maria Luisa of Spain, a portrait painted by Goya in 1799, showing her wearing a necklace containing a large blue diamond. Some historians believe this to be the Hope Diamond, the whereabouts of which were unaccounted for between 1792, when it was stolen from the French Treasury, and 1830, when it reappeared in a London salesroom.There are records of European cutters in the fourteenth century, but the credit for the first scientific cutting of diamonds is generally accorded to Louis de Berquen of Bruges who in 1476 faceted the three biggest diamonds in the collection of Charles the Bold, duke of Burgundy. It was he who worked on the famous yellow diamond now known as the Florentine, covering it front and back with small triangular facets. The subsequent dramatic history of this stone caused Gardner Williams to pronounce that by unlocking the hidden beauty of the diamond, Louis de Berquen ushered in that period of history when "famous diamonds would pass over the face of Europe like meteors."

The Florentine itself is reputed to have been taken from the body of the duke by a soldier after the Battle of Nancy and sold to a priest for a florin. After that it changed ownership many times until it came into the hands of the Medici family in Florence. It was in that city that the French jeweler and traveler Jean Baptist Tavernier saw it in 1657 in the possession of the grand duke of Tuscany. He noted in his meticulous manner that it weighed 137.27 carats, was cut in a double rose with 126 facets, and had an irregular nine-sided outline. In the eighteenth century the diamond passed by marriage to the Hapsburgs and the Empress Maria Theresa placed it in the Austrian crown. 

With the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in World War I, the Florentine went into exile with the royal family—and into oblivion. Some reports say that the diamond was stolen by an adviser to the royal family who fled with it to South America. Others believe that it was smuggled into the United States in the 1920s, recut and sold. At all events, there can be no certainty as to the present whereabouts of the Florentine. The Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna, where the diamond was on display prior to 1918, regards it as "officially" lost.

Nearly all the great diamonds have stories as varied and violent as that of the Florentine, for far from being simply adornments for princes they were very much part of the political and economic scene. By reason of their great value, they were often used as pledges to raise armies or as collateral for foreign loans, and they were frequently given by one ruler to another as tokens of friendship or alliance.

The story of the Regent diamond embodies all the elements of high drama. The huge 410- carat rough was originally found in the Par teal Mine on the Kistna River in India in about 1701 by a slave who smuggled it out of the mine concealed in a self-inflicted wound in his leg. He then made for the coast, where he offered a British sea captain half the value of the stone for a safe passage out of India. The captain agreed, but as soon as they were at sea he killed the slave, took the diamond, and flung the body overboard. He then sold the stone to a prominent Indian diamond merchant named Jaurchund for £1,000, but he seems to have profited little from the deal. Legend has it that the captain squandered the money in the bars and brothels of Bombay and later hanged himself in a fit of remorse.

Catherine ll of Russia was a great collector of diamonds. Her most celebrated possession was the 200-carat Orloff which she had mounted in her imperial scepter.Jaurchund was now faced with the problem of selling an exceptionally large diamond which had no provenance and which was bound to cause a stir. He let it be known that he had "large diamonds to be sold" and great interest was shown by the British governor of Fort St. George near Madras. This was Thomas Pitt, the grandfather of William Pitt, who was to become Britain's youngest prime minister during the American revolutionary period and after whom Pittsburgh was named. 

The governor invited Jaurchund to visit him and, knowing the dubious origins of the stone, beat Jaurchund down from his asking price of £85,000 to nearer £20,000. As soon as he had acquired the diamond, Thomas Pitt sent it to England for cutting. The result was a flawless 140.5-carat cushion-cut brilliant. The cutting took two years and cost him £5,000 but a number of small rose-cut stones were produced at the same time and sold to Peter the Great of Russia for the equivalent of £7,000. The diamond was now known as the Pitt, and its owner as "Diamond Pitt"; it acquired its present title, the Regent, in 1717 after Thomas Pitt sold it to the duke of Orleans, regent of France, for £135,000.

The diamond was worn in the crown of the young King Louis XV at his coronation in 1722, and two generations later Marie Antoinette used it to adorn a large black velvet hat. By this time, the Regent was regarded as the most valuable jewel in the royal treasury—it was valued at 12 million livres or £5 million—and it is hardly surprising that it was the prime target for the robbers who ransacked the treasury in 1792 during the early days of the Revolution. They took the Regent along with a number of other jewels, including the Sancy and the French Blue. The Regent was one of the first to be recovered. It is said to have been found in a hole in a beam in a Paris garret. 

Back in government hands, the Regent was used to finance Napoleon's rise to power. He carried the diamond set in the hilt of his sword when he was crowned emperor in 1804. After his exile to Elba in 1814, his second wife, Marie Louise, took possession of the Regent but her father, Emperor Francis I of Austria, insisted that it be returned to France. Once again part of the French crown jewels, the stone was set in the crown of Charles X for his coronation in 1825, and it remained in the crown for the next fifty years until Napoleon III gave it to the Empress Eugenie to wear in a Greek diadem for her hair. Many of the crown jewels were auctioned in 1887 at the time of the founding of the French Republic, but because of its unique historical significance, the Regent was preserved for the nation. It now rests in the Louvre.

Diamonds have always played a major role in the history of France, but none more so than those forming the diamond necklace which some historians believed sparked the French Revolution. Originally commissioned by Louis XV from the royal jewelers Boehner and Bassange, the necklace was to be a present for his mistress, Madame du Barry. It took two years for the jewelers to amass the 647 flawless stones weighing 2,842 carats needed to complete the necklace, and just when their work was done the king died. 

The Emperor Maximilian of Mexico and the Empress Carlotta. One of the emperor's most prized possessions was a 42-carat diamond which he was wearing round his neck at the time of his execution in 1867.  Unhappily for Boehner and Bassange, the necklace had not yet been paid for and they were left with what was literally the most expensive piece of jewelry in the world. The young King Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette, were great collectors of diamonds. They were tempted, but even they were not prepared to pay the price for the necklace despite the anguished pleadings of the two jewelers who knew they faced ruin if they could not sell it.

It is at this point that the Count and Countess La Motte come into the story. Poor but ambitious minor nobility, the La Mottes conceived a plan to make a fortune based on three elements. One was the eagerness of the jewelers to sell the necklace, another one was the known interest of Marie Antoinette, and third was the desire of the unpopular Cardinal de Rohan to find favor with the queen. The La Mottes first approached the court jewelers, ostensibly as emissaries of the queen, with the story that she wished to buy the necklace secretly and to pay by installments. They then went to the cardinal, saying that the queen needed his assistance in this delicate matter, and induced him to act as a go-between in the negotiations.

Their scheme was successful and the La Mottes won possession of the necklace, hacked it to pieces, and began selling the stones one by one. However, they soon began to commit the one classic mistake of nearly all nonprofessional criminals. They spent too much too soon, thus drawing attention to their new-found affluence and also making it impossible to pay even the first installment on the purchase price. Boehner and Bassange went to the palace of Versailles to collect their money—and the whole plot was unmasked.

The king was outraged by the conspiracy and instead of listening to those of his advisers, who suggested that the affair was best forgotten, insisted that the whole story be made public and the guilty punished. Unfortunately, although Louis and Marie Antoinette were totally innocent in the matter, the state of political and social unrest in the country was such that the mere thought that they could have been involved in such frivolous and extravagant actions gave a tremendous boost to the antiroyalist cause. All the grievances of an oppressed people, already nurtured by reports of the luxury and debauchery at Versailles, now centered on this one scandalous incident and on Marie Antoinette's supposed part in it. She became, in the words of Carlyle, "the symbol of the sin and misery of a thousand years."

The fact that Madame du Barry, for whom the necklace was originally made, and Louis XVI and his queen all died on the guillotine might have been expected to give further currency to the belief that diamonds were unlucky for their owners. And yet despite their tragic fates and those of so many of the owners of other famous diamonds, the legend of ill fortune attaches to remarkably few of the world's great stones. Perhaps the most celebrated exception is the Hope diamond. A unique violet blue diamond of 44.5 carats, the Hope is believed to have been cut from the 112.5-carat stone which Tavernier brought back from India for Louis XIV in 1668. The king had the stone recut into a 67.5-carat heart shape for his mistress, Madame de Montes-pan, and renamed it the Blue Diamond of the Crown, although it soon became better known as the French Blue. 

 Agnes Sorel, the beautiful but low-born mistress of Charles VII of France, loved diamonds and is widely credited with being the first commoner to wear them.It subsequently passed into the hands of Louis XVI and was often worn by Marie Antoinette. After the revolution the diamond was among the royal jewels placed under guard in the Treasury, from where it was stolen in the famous robbery of 1792. It did not appear again until 1830 when it was put up for sale in London and was purchased for the collection of the banker Henry Philip Hope for £18,000. The intervening years have never been convincingly accounted for, but a portrait by Goya of Queen Maria Luisa of Spain, painted in 1799, shows her wearing a diamond remarkably like the French Blue. Subsequently renamed the Hope, the blue diamond was shown at the Great Exhibition of 1851, where it was a great attraction along with the even more famous Koh-I-Noor.

It was not until the diamond passed out of the hands of the Hope family in 1906 that the stories about its bringing bad luck began to be told. The first new owner was a Parisian gem dealer, Jacques Celot. In 1907 he committed suicide and the Hope was bought from his estate by a Russian playboy called Prince Kanitovski, who was engaged at the time in a tempestuous affair with a beautiful French actress. He gave the fateful diamond to her to wear for one of her performances at the Follies Bergere and then from his box shot her dead in the middle of her act. Two days later the prince was stabbed to death by exiled Russian revolutionaries.

Tragedies continued to dog successive owners of the stone with monotonous regularity. The next owner was a rich Egyptian merchant, Habib Bey, who drowned together with his whole family in a steamer collision off Singapore. At first it was thought that the diamond had gone down with the ship, but it later turned up in the possession of a Greek broker named Simon Month rides, who sold it to the sultan of Turkey, Abdul Humid II, for a reputed $400,000. The broker's brief period of possession of the Hope was not enough to save him from what was rapidly becoming known as its curse. Just after the deal had been completed, he and his wife and child were killed when his car drove over a precipice. 

Nor did the diamond bring any luck to its new owner, the sultan. Known as Abdul the Damned because of his corrupt and tyrannical rule, he gave the diamond to his favorite, Salama Zubayba. In 1908 a group of army officers staged a successful revolt and the desperate but still jealous sultan shot her dead as the rebels broke down the palace gates. The eunuch in charge of the royal jewels, including the Hope diamond, was hanged from the Galata bridge, and the sultan was deposed and exiled.

Cartier of Paris then bought the Hope and later sold it for $154,000 to Edward B. McLean, son of the millionaire publisher, as a gift for his bride, the celebrated Evelyn Walsh McLean, who was also the daughter of a millionaire. It was the misfortunes that then began to occur to the McLean family which caught the imagination of the American public in the 1920s and 1930s and established the Hope's reputation as a stone of ill luck. Their eight-year-old son was run over and killed by a car; one of their daughters and a granddaughter both died of an overdose of barbiturates; and Edward McLean had a nervous breakdown and eventually died in a mental hospital. 

Queen Victoria on her wedding day in 1840. She is wearing a necklace of large round diamonds.On the death of Evelyn McLean in 1947, the mysterious blue diamond was bought by Harry Winston, the New York gem dealer, for $180,000 and subsequently presented by him to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., where it is now on permanent display. The curse is popularly supposed to have ended there and then, but Harry Winston relates that among the thousands of letters thanking him for his donation was one from a woman begging him to take the diamond back. The country, she insisted, had gone to pieces from the moment the Hope had arrived at the Smithsonian.

But even when enclosed behind bullet-proof glass and protected by electronic alarm systems in museums and royal treasuries, the great diamonds of the world are still able to stir the passions of governments, if not of princes. The latest diamond to cause an international incident is the Koh-I-Noor, the oldest known diamond in the world and probably the most famous gem in the British crown jewels. In 1976 the government of Pakistan demanded its return on the grounds that it was part of the country's heritage and had been illegally removed by the British in the last century. The British government rejected the claim saying that the stone had passed through so many hands in its long history that no one could establish a right to it superior to that of Britain's, and that they had no intention of handing it back to Pakistan or to India.

The known history of the Koh-I-Noor begins in 1304 when it was first reported as being in the possession of the rajahs of Malwa, the territory which has since been split into Indore, Bhopal and Gwalior. Following the Mogul invasion, the diamond passed into the hands of Sultan Baber, a descendant of Tamerlane and founder of the Mogul Empire in India. A much treasured possession of his, Baber refers to it in his diary in 1526 as "the famous diamond" of such value that it would pay "half the expenses of the world." It remained in the ownership of his descendants for the next two centuries, thus giving some substance to the legend that "he who owns the Koh-I-Noor rules the world." 

In 1739, however, it was lost to the Persians who, under their ruler Nadir Shah, invaded India and sacked Delhi. There is a story that for fifty-eight days the stone could not be found because the conquered Mogul emperor Mohammed Shah had hidden it in the folds of his turban. Told the secret by a member of the ex-emperor's harem, Nadir Shah invited him to a feast and, observing an ancient Oriental custom, proposed an exchange of turbans. Mohammed was in no position to refuse. Once he had the turban, Nadir Shah ran to his tent and on seeing the great diamond among the silk of the unrolled turban, cried "Koh-I-Noor," which means Mountain of Light, thus giving it the name it has borne ever since.

Over the next two hundred years, the Koh-I-Noor changed hands many times. Shah Rokh, the son of Nadir Shah, died under terrible torture rather than reveal the diamond's hiding place to his conqueror, the Aga Mohammed, and its bloody history continued once it passed to the Afghan princes. Imprisoned and blinded by his brother Shuja, Shah Zaman defiantly hid the Koh-I-Noor for years in the plaster of his prison cell, and Shuja, now blinded in his turn by a third brother, Mahmud, yielded his prized possession to Runjeet Singh only to save his family from torture and death. 

Runjeet Singh was enormously proud of his new acquisition and had the diamond set in a bracelet which he wore constantly. On his death the gem descended to his son, the rajah Dhulip Singh. It remained in his possession until the seizure of the Punjab by the British after the Indian Mutiny when it was among the jewels in the treasury at Lahore that were confiscated and taken as reparations. Two officers carried the "famous diamond" to London and on June 3, 1850, the Koh-I-Noor was presented to Queen Victoria at a great reception held in St. James's Palace to mark the 250th anniversary of the founding of the East India Company.

The Koh-I-Noor may have been "coveted and hoarded with insane passion" in India, but Queen Victoria was not all that impressed. Used to well-cut diamonds full of fire and brilliance, she was positively disappointed with the rudely cut 187-carat stone, as were the people who viewed it at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London in 1851. Finally, the queen decided to have it recut. A special area was set aside in the workshop of Garrard's, the crown jewelers, and for a fee of £9,000 a cutter from Amsterdam was induced to undertake the task. The Prince Consort took a keen interest in the proceedings and is said to have spent many hours "assisting" in the cutting of the stone. 

This same necklace was to be worn over a century later by Princess Margaret when she married Anthony Armstrong-Jones.Indeed one report says that "Her Majesty herself and nearly all the members of the royal family personally assisted at putting on the facets, which for perfection are unequalled; the Duke of Wellington personally putting on the first." When they had finished, the Koh-I-Noor had been reduced to a 108.93-carat oval—and still lacked fire and brilliance. To what extent this was due to the inability of the Dutch cutter to check the enthusiasm of his royal helpers is impossible to say, but no one was pleased with the result. In fact, the Koh-I-Noor lay neglected in a strongbox in Windsor Castle for many years, but in 1911 it was placed in the crown of Queen Mary. There it remained until 1937, when it was made the central ornament in a new crown for Queen Elizabeth, consort of George VI, for their coronation.

No one can doubt the role that the Koh-I-Noor played in the history of India and that, initially at least, it was insufficiently appreciated by its new owners. However, for the British government to return the stone would set a precedent which could strip the treasuries and museums of the world of some of their most prized possessions, all too many of which came originally from the hoards of Delhi.

Another such diamond is the 200-carat Orloff, now in the Kremlin Museum in Moscow. It is shaped like half an egg and many believe that it could be the legendary Great Mogul diamond seen by Tavernier which disappeared after the sack of Delhi. Another and more colorful account of its history records that it was once an eye of the Hindu god Sri Ranga in the temple at Mysore, and that it was stolen by a French deserter who had disguised himself as a Brahmin in order to gain access to the inner shrine.

The soldier then fled to Madras where he sold the "eye" to a British sea captain for £2,000 who carried it to London and in turn sold it to a Persian jeweler called Khojeh for £12,000. Khojeh took the diamond to Amsterdam where it was seen by Count Gregory Orloff, a once power-ful Russian nobleman who had been dis-missed from the court by Catherine the Great. Thinking that a present of such magnificence would restore him to the queen's favor, the count bought the diamond for £90,000 and returned to Russia.

Catherine accepted the gift, but instead of wearing it had it mounted on top of the double eagle in the imperial scepter where it has remained ever since. Despite the lavishness of his present, Count Orloff was not reinstated in his former position of power and influence at court.

All the tales of blood and thunder told so far have concerned the older Indian diamonds, but it would be a mistake to think that the great diamonds produced from the South African mines over the past hundred years are without interest. Their stories may be less violent and bloody but they are nonetheless dramatic, and there is little doubt that in earlier centuries they would have rivaled their Indian predecessors. Take the Cullinan, for example. Found in the Premier Mine in 1905, it weighed 3,106 carats and is the largest rough diamond yet discovered. It provided nine major gems, all of them now either in the British crown jewels or in the personal possession of the royal family. The two largest are, in fact, the two largest cut diamonds in the world. One weighs 530.2 carats and is set in the Imperial Scepter, while the other weighs 317.4 carats and is mounted in the band of the Imperial State Crown.

This huge diamond was acquired by the Transvaal government for £150,000 and presented to King Edward VII on his sixty-sixth birthday on November 9, 1907. The task of cutting the largest diamond in the world was entrusted to the famous Escher Diamond Company in Amsterdam. The senior member of the firm, Joseph Escher, studied the great stone for two months before deciding the best way to cleave it. On February 10, 1908, he was ready to begin. He placed his blade in the V-shaped groove he had made in the top of the diamond and struck it with a heavy steel rod. 

The fulfillment of the American dream circa 1870: the husband presents his young wife with her first diamond necklace. Diamonds were soon to become the status symbol par excellence in American society of the last quarter of the nineteenth century.Nothing happened, and the diamond remained intact. The second attempt was a complete success and the Cullinan cleaved exactly as Escher had planned. There is a popular story that the whole operation was carried out with a doctor and nurse in attendance and that Escher fainted as soon as his work was done. His son Louis, however, reports that "no Escher would faint over any operation on any diamond." All his father had standing by, he claims, was a bottle of champagne.

Until the discovery of the Cullinan, the Braganza, weighing 1,680 carats, was the largest rough diamond in the world. It was reputed to have been found in Brazil in about 1790, but its claim to fame is somewhat tarnished by the fact that its present whereabouts are unknown; the Portuguese government disclaims all knowledge of it. Most commentators believe that it is a topaz and not a diamond, but no one has ever seen the Braganza—even to verify that it ever existed.

There is no doubt about the two Brazilian diamonds purchased by the young Archduke Maximilian of Austria, later to become the ill-fated emperor of Mexico. One was a 42-carat cushion cut, now known as the Emperor Maximilian. It had a strange violet fluorescence in daylight, and Maximilian was so attached to the stone that he wore it in a little bag around his neck. He was wearing it at the time of his execution in 1867, and after his death it was sent to his wife, the empress Carlotta in Europe. The diamond later passed into the hands of Ferdinand Hotz, the Chicago gem dealer, and on his death in 1946 it was sold to a private collector.

The other diamond that Maximilian bought in Brazil was a greenish yellow stone weighing 50 carats which he then had refashioned into a 33-carat cushion cut as a present for his bride, Princess Carlotta of Belgium. It is known as the Maximilian and also as the Carlotta. The stone disappeared after Maximilian's execution, but turned up again in 1901 when two Mexicans were caught trying to smuggle it into the United States. Confiscated by the United States Customs authorities, the stone was put up for auction and fetched $120,000. Its subsequent history comes to an abrupt and undignified end in 1961. Then owned by New York jeweler Morris S. Nelkin, the diamond was hidden in a garbage pail by his daughter, who suspected that there was a burglar in the house. Unfortunately, no effort was made to retrieve the stone until the following morning by which time the sanitation men had already called. The Carlotta has not been seen since.

The great diamonds of the world all have their romantic and historical associations, but so too do the small ones. Ever since 1477 when Archduke Maximilian of Germany ordered a betrothal ring set with a diamond for his bride-to-be, Princess Mary of Burgundy, a diamond ring has become the accepted symbol of enduring love. The custom of giving betrothal rings is an ancient one and occurs in Roman, Egyptian, Greek, and Hebrew civilizations, but the combination of the ring with a diamond remained for a long time a comparative rarity outside court circles.

The first commoner to wear diamonds is reputed to have been Agnes Sorel in the mid-fifteenth century. She was the young and beautiful mistress of King Charles VII of France and is widely credited with inaugurating the change in the role of the diamond from a symbol of royal power and wealth to one of simple feminine adornment. She may also have been responsible for the slightly risque image that diamonds have which runs parallel with their ultra-respectable role as a token of everlasting love and fidelity when set in a betrothal ring. There may be more than a little truth in the saying that a man buys three diamonds in his life: the first for his bride-to-be, the second for his mistress, and the third for his wife when she finds out about his mistress. 

Agnes Sorel may have been a commoner but she was still a king's mistress, a position that placed her above the laws forbidding both the wearing of jewelry except by nobles and clergy and trading with the infidel in the East who supplied the diamonds and other precious stones. Diamond rings enjoyed great popularity in England during the reign of Henry VIII and in France under Francis I. Both kings were amorously inclined and used their rings to inscribe flirtatious messages on the windows of castle and chateau, a habit their courtiers were quick to emulate.

Famous diamonds are often featured in motion pictures. Here Jane, played by Dorothy Hart, wears the Transvaal Diamond, a 68-carat champagne-colored stone, in Tarzan's Savage Fury. Lex Barker plays Tarzan.It was not until the discovery of the huge deposits in South Africa in 1870 that diamonds began to reach a much wider market. Cecil Rhodes, the great architect of De Beers, was quick to spot the potential for expansion and deliberately encouraged the romantic appeal of diamonds. The relationship between man and woman, Rhodes insisted, was the foundation of the diamond's worth, and as long as men fell for women, diamonds would be in demand. Or as Barney Barnato's nephew, SoIly Joel, put it twenty-five years later, "Women are born every day and while women are born, diamonds will be worn."

This has remained the consistent theme of the marketing policy of De Beers and others ever since. Emphasis on the romantic appeal of diamonds managed to extricate the industry from the terrible privations of the 1930s and in subsequent years has provided it with a degree of stability and growth that is the envy of every other trade. But in order to achieve such signal success for so long, De Beers had to satisfy two preconditions. One was to have a unique product to sell. The other was to appeal to a basic need in its customers. That the diamond is a unique product is un-questioned. No more than forty tons of gem diamonds have been excavated since the beginning of time, and each single stone loses as much as 50 to 60 percent in the cutting. The end result may be a crystal of 20 points or .5 carat, 1 carat, or 10 carats, but each one is different and distinguishable from another. A diamond, as one advertising copywriter claims, is "Nature's limited edition."

As for the idea of appealing to a basic need, De Beers had a head start thanks to roughly two thousand years or more of tradition. The ring or circle is probably the oldest of man's symbols. Suggested by the appearance of the sun, it has always been imbued with an aura of mystery and magic. With no beginning and no end, it was the natural representation of eternity, and its ability to surround or enclose caused it to be popularly invested with protective powers.

Rings or circlets were almost certainly the first objects ever to be so used, initially for protection and later for decorative purposes as well. Whether worn on the finger, around the neck, on the wrist or the ankle, in ears or in the nose, the ring soon became the most popular single means of personal adornment throughout the world. After a time, the ring may have lost many of its magical con-notations, but it has never lost its symbolism. As we have seen, the ring has been used in betrothal and marriage ceremonies through the ages and it was an inspired, if natural, step to encourage the combination of a diamond with the ring. After all, by reason of its virtual indestructibility, the diamond symbolized eternity too, and for good measure it also represented courage, virtue and purity. A ring on its own meant a great deal, but a ring with a diamond was an unbeatable combination.

It is therefore not surprising that the idea caught on with remarkable rapidity, particularly in America and in Britain where the diamond engagement ring has become so much a part of tradition that one is given to between 80 and 90 percent of young women marrying for the first time. The habit is catching on in France and Italy, and even in Germany and Sweden where the diamond ring has had to contend with a traditional engagement ceremony involving the ex-change of plain gold rings. Instead of trying to establish a new custom, diamond promotion has aimed at adding a diamond ring to the gold bands as a further present for the woman. In Japan, too, where even the ring by itself had little place in traditional betrothal ceremonies and the diamond had no special significance, sales of diamond engagement rings have leaped dramatically over the past decade.

Shah Jahan (right), Mogul ruler of India from 1628 to 1658But despite the growing popularity of diamonds throughout the world, the impact of the great diamonds has never waned. Few have captured the public imagination more in recent years than the beautiful pear-shaped 69.42-carat diamond bought by Richard Bur-ton as a birthday present for his wife, Elizabeth Taylor. Originally owned by Mrs. Walter Ames, sister of Walter Annenberg, the publisher and one-time US ambassador to Britain, the stone had been cut from a 240.8-carat rough found in the Premier Mine in 1966. It had been bought at auction in November 1969 by Cartier of New York for $1,050,000 at the time the highest price ever paid for a diamond at auction and immediately sold to Richard Burton for a rather higher figure. 

The Taylor-Burton diamond, as it came to be called, was in good company. The year before, Richard Burton had bought the 33.10-carat Krupp diamond from the estate of the German munitions king for $305,000 and two years later he also acquired the engraved heart-shaped diamond, now known as the Taylor-Heart. This diamond had been purchased in India in 1971. It had once belonged to Queen Mumtaz, wife of Shah Jehan, in whose honor the Taj Mahal had been built as a tomb. Thereis a story that at a Hollywood party, an elderly gentleman complimented Elizabeth Taylor on her striking pendant and asked her what it was. "You stupid xxxx," replied the actress, "that's the Taj Mahal diamond."

It may be a far cry from the court of Shah Jahan to a film star's mansion in Beverley Hills but the contrast emphasizes the point that the story of a great diamond is never closed. Many have been lost, only to appear centuries later to take on a new and often more magnificent life. And few have ever actually been destroyed like the Piggott diamond which the dying Ali Pasha ordered to be crushed to powder before his eyes. Diamonds outlast dynasties. Or, in the words of Gardner Williams once again:

A jewel may rest on an English lady's arm that saw Alaric sack Rome, and beheld before—what not? The treasures of the palaces of the Pharaohs and of Darius, or the camp of the Ptolemy’s, come into Europe on the neck of a vulgar pro-consul's wife to glitter at every gladiator's butchery at the amphitheatre; then pass in a Gothic ox wagon to an Arab seraglio at Seville; and so back to its native India to figure in the throne of the Great Mogul; to be bought by an Armenian for a few rupees from an English soldier—and so at last come hither.

Writer – George G.Blakey
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