Examining the history of the exquisite Hope Diamond
The history of the stone, which was eventually named the Hope Diamond, began when the French merchant traveller, Jean Baptiste Tavernier, purchased a 112 3/16-carat diamond. This diamond, which was most likely from the Kollur mine in Golconda, India, was somewhat triangular in shape and crudely cut. Its color was described by Tavernier as a “beautiful violet.” Legend also has it that the infamous Hope Diamond brings misfortune to whoever owns it.
The story goes that Tavernier plucked the gem from one of the eyes of a Hindu idol and, for this sacrilege, was later mauled to death by dogs. In fact, the story is a myth: Tavernier returned to France and sold the gem to King Louis XIV for a pretty penny, after which he retired to Russia and died peacefully there. Scholars even question how Tavernier came upon the gem, as a second diamond never turned up, and no one else ever found the statue in question. In 1673 the stone was recut by Sieur Pitau, the court jeweler, resulting in a 67 1/8-carat stone. In the royal inventories, its color was described as an intense steely-blue and the stone became known as the “Blue Diamond of the Crown,” or the “French Blue.” It was set in gold and suspended on a neck ribbon, which the king wore on ceremonial occasions.
Louis, too, escaped misfortune despite his ownership of the French Blue. However, one of Louis’ descendants who inherited the stone was not as lucky. King Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette, lost their heads to the guillotine during the French Revolution, and thieves ransacked their crown jewels –including the diamond – in September of 1792.
In 1812 a deep blue diamond described by John Francillion as weighing 177 grains (4 grains = 1 carat) was documented as being in the possession of London diamond merchant, Daniel Eliason. Strong evidence indicates that the stone was the recut French Blue and the same stone known today as the Hope Diamond. Several references suggest King George IV of the United Kingdom acquired it. At his death, in 1830, the king’s debts were so enormous the blue diamond was sold through private channels.
The first reference to the diamond’s next owner is found in the 1839 entry of the gem collection catalog of the well-known Henry Philip Hope, the man from whom the diamond takes its name. Unfortunately, the catalog does not reveal where or from whom Hope acquired the diamond or how much he paid for it.
Following the death of Henry Philip Hope in 1839, and after much litigation, the diamond passed to his nephew Henry Thomas Hope and ultimately to the nephew’s grandson Lord Francis Hope. After Lord Francis received his inheritance at the age of 21, he married an American showgirl named Mary Yohe and lived so far beyond his means that he was eventually forced to sell the diamond and declare bankruptcy.
The showgirl ran off with one of his rivals and he eventually died in poverty. It was sold to a London dealer who quickly sold it to Joseph Frankels and Sons of New York City, who retained the stone in New York until they, in turn, needed cash. The diamond was next sold to Selim Habib who put it up for auction in Paris in 1909. It did not sell at the auction but was sold soon after to C.H. Rosenau and then resold to Pierre Cartier that same year.
Evalyn Walsh McLean wearing the Hope Diamond.
In 1910 the Hope diamond was shown to Evalyn Walsh McLean, of Washington D.C., at Cartier’s in Paris, but she did not like the setting. Cartier had the diamond reset and took it to the U.S. where he left it with Mrs. McLean for a weekend. This strategy was successful. The sale was made in 1911 with the diamond mounted as a headpiece on a three-tiered circlet of large white diamonds. McLean became the poster child for the Hope Diamond’s legendary curse. Her young son was killed in a car accident, and her daughter committed suicide. Her husband left her for another woman and eventually ended up in an insane asylum.
Harry Winston Inc. of New York City purchased Mrs. McLean’s entire jewelry collection, including the Hope Diamond, from her estate in 1949.
For the next 10 years Harry Winston Inc. showed the Hope Diamond at exhibits and charitable events worldwide. On November 10, 1958, they donated the Hope Diamond to the Smithsonian Institution, and almost immediately the great blue stone became its premier attraction.
The Hope Diamond has left the Smithsonian only four times since it was donated. In 1962 it was exhibited for a month at the Louvre in Paris, France, as part of an exhibit entitled Ten Centuries of French Jewelry. In 1965 the Hope Diamond traveled to South Africa where it was exhibited at the Rand Easter Show in Johannesburg. In 1984 the diamond was lent to Harry Winston Inc., in New York, as part of the firm’s 50th anniversary celebration. In 1996 the Hope diamond was again sent to Harry Winston Inc., in New York, this time for cleaning and some minor restoration work.
The weight of the Hope Diamond for many years was reported to be 44.5 carats. In 1974 it was removed from its setting and found actually to weigh 45.52 carats. It is classified as a type IIb diamond, which is semiconductive and usually phosphoresces. The Hope Diamond phosphoresces a strong red color, which will last for several seconds after exposure to short wave ultra-violet light. The diamond’s blue coloration is attributed to trace amounts of boron in the stone.
In the pendant surrounding the Hope Diamond are 16 white diamonds, both pear-shapes and cushion cuts. A bail is soldered to the pendant where Mrs. McLean would often attach other diamonds. The necklace chain contains 45 white diamonds.
In December of 1988, a team from the Gemological Institute of America visited the Smithsonian to grade the great blue stone using present day techniques. They observed that the gem shows evidence of wear, has remarkably strong phosphorescence, and that its clarity is slightly affected by a whitish graining which is common to blue diamonds. They described the color as a fancy dark grayish-blue. An examination on the same day by another gemologist using a very sensitive colorimeter revealed that there is a very slight violet component to the deep blue color, which is imperceptible to the naked eye. Still, one can only wonder that the original 112 3/16-carat stone bought by Tavernier was described as “un beau violet” (a beautiful violet).