Cursed! The Story of the Hope Diamond

It may be the most famous gemstone in the world, but the Hope Diamond is not known because of its size or its beauty. The Hope Diamond is world-famous because, legend says, it is cursed . . .

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The history of the Hope Diamond is somewhat difficult to trace, as some of it was undocumented, some of it is speculation and assumption, and some of it is more like myth and folklore. But as best as can be reconstructed, it goes like this:

From 1640 to 1670, a French gemstone merchant named Jean Baptiste Tavernier made five trips to India. On one of them (no one is sure which) he was offered a large rough-cut blue diamond, of 112 carats, by an Indian seller. According to legend, the diamond had been stolen from the eye of a Hindu idol by a slave; in other versions of the tale, Tavernier himself is said to have discovered the idol and stolen the eye–leaving the other eye behind. In reality, Tavernier probably bought it on the open market, from a native dealer who had himself most likely obtained the stone from the Kollur diamond mine in Golconda, which Tavernier mentions as a widely-known source of colored diamonds.

Tavernier took the blue diamond back to France, where, in 1668, he sold it to King Louis XIV as part of a deal that various accounts specify as including up to 44 large diamonds and as many as a thousand smaller ones. Tavernier was made a nobleman by the King and died in Russia at the age of 84.  According to the curse legend, he was the diamond’s first victim, and was torn apart by wild dogs. There is no evidence to support that story, however.

The blue diamond, though large, was only roughly cut into a triangular shape, and in 1673, Louis XIV had it recut and faceted, which resulted in the “French Blue” of 67 carats. On ceremonial occasions, he would often wear the diamond on a silk ribbon around his neck. During this time, according to the legends, the diamond claimed two more victims. Louis XIV gave the stone to one of his mistresses, Madame de Montespan–she later fell out of the King’s favor and died in poverty. Later, the French Minister of Finance, Nicolas Fouquet, borrowed the diamond to wear at a royal party; he was later arrested for embezzlement and died in prison.

In 1749, after King Louis’s grandson, Louis XV, took the throne, he had the French Blue mounted along with a large red ruby in a large pendant called “The Order of the Golden Fleece”. When Louis XV died, the French crown (and the French Blue diamond) were inherited by Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette.

In 1789, the French Revolution began with the storming of the Bastille, and when King Louis XVI and his queen fled Paris in 1791, they took the crown jewels (and the French Blue diamond) with them, but were captured at Versailles. All of the King’s jewels were stored in the Garde-Meuble (the Royal Guardhouse), but they were not very well-protected, and most of them were looted when a mob of revolutionaries broke into the storehouse in September 1791. Among the gems that were stolen was the French Blue. The French King and Queen are the most prominent victims of the diamond’s “curse”; the deposed King was beheaded in January 1793, and Marie Antoinette followed nine months later.

In 1812, a large blue diamond surfaced in London, where it was obtained by the jeweler Daniel Eliason, who according to some historical sources sold it to King George IV. Most historians have concluded that this diamond, estimated at 45 carats, was the stolen French Blue, which someone had recut to a smaller size and a different shape to hide its origin (the French statute of limitations for the theft, 20 years, had just recently run out). When King George died in 1830, the now-recut French Blue was reportedly sold to help pay off his outstanding debts (other accounts assert that the diamond was stolen by one of his mistresses).

Some time in the 1830’s, a large blue diamond of 45 carats was obtained from an unknown source by the wealthy London gem collector Henry Philip Hope. This was almost certainly the same French Blue which had been recut and sold to King George, and from this point on it became known as the Hope Diamond. Hope died in 1839 (another victim of the “curse”), and the diamond was inherited by his nephew, Henry Thomas Hope. Over the years, the Hope Diamond was passed on, until in 1901 it was sold by Lord Francis Hope, to pay off his gambling debts.

The Hope Diamond was bought by New York gem dealer Simon Frankel, who sold it to a wealthy collector in Turkey named Salim Habbib. According to some stories, the diamond then went to the Sultan of Turkey, “Master of the World and Prince of the Faithful”, who gave it to one of his wives. After she fell out of favor and was executed and the Sultan was deposed a short time later, the Hope Diamond was back in the hands of Habbib (or, as other versions have it, never left to begin with and was never owned by the Sultan). Habib sold the Hope Diamond in Paris in 1909, and shortly later it ended up in the hands of the famous gem dealer Pierre Cartier. From this point, the history of the diamond becomes firmly established.

Cartier sold it to American heiress Evalyn Walsh McLean, who owned it from 1911 till her death in 1947, wearing it often at society functions. During that time, her young son died in a car accident, her daughter committed suicide, and her husband was confined in an insane asylum. It was also at that time that the first written stories of the Hope Diamond’s “curse” began to appear–it is unclear whether the stories began with the McLean family, or if they had been spun by Cartier himself to help sell the diamond.

The entire McLean gem collection was purchased after her death by jeweler Harry Winston, who made several small cuts on the diamond to enhance its brilliance, and occasionally loaned it out to society women to wear at charity fundraisers. He also took the diamond, along with other gemstones, on tours across the country as “The Court of Jewels”. Winston was an advocate of a national gemstone collection, to be held by the US government–and in an effort to start such a collection and encourage others to donate gem stones to it, he gifted the Hope Diamond to the Smithsonian, where it arrived at the Smithsonian Castle in an ordinary US postal service package by registered mail in November 1958. One of the curators there put the diamond in his pocket and walked across the National Mall to deliver it to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, where it is on display as part of the National Gem Collection.

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Forgotten mysteries, oddities and unknown stories from history, nature and science.