September 17, 2007

Where There’s Hope … ; … There’s Curiosity and Rumors of a Curse Surrounding the World’s Largest and Most Famous Blue Diamond

By Charity Vogel

There's nothing on Earth like a big gem.

Especially when it's a diamond.

(Anita Loos knew it. In "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," gold digger Lorelei Lee put her opinions about men's gifts this way: "Kissing your hand may make you feel very, very good, but a diamond ... lasts forever.")

And so, by logical deduction, a great big diamond should be the best of all.

Enter, the Hope Diamond.

If you've traveled to Washington, D.C., and have been to the Smithsonian Institution, you've no doubt ogled its deep, dazzling blueness -- 45 carats' worth -- resting in pristine splendor behind a bulletproof window in the National Museum of Natural History, remote and inaccessible as the Himalayas.

If not, you've at least heard about it -- perhaps the legend of its dark curse.

This mammoth, rare gemstone -- the world's largest blue diamond, according to the Smithsonian -- is the subject of an exhaustive book, "Hope Diamond: Legendary History of a Cursed Gem," by University at Buffalo alumnus Richard Kurin, which is now out in a new and updated paperback edition.

Why does this single gorgeous diamond drive men and women a little bit mad?

We quizzed Kurin, director of the Smithsonian's Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, to find out.

Read on for answers to the 10 questions you're dying to ask about the Hope Diamond.

1) Let's get right to it. Is the Hope Diamond cursed?

"Not in any supernatural sense. The curse was made up in the early 1900s by the Cartier brothers, well-known French jewelers. They based their story on the Moonstone, a fictional tale by a British author, who in turn adapted an Indian legend.

"Pierre Cartier told the story to an immensely wealthy Washington socialite Evalyn Walsh McLean in order to entice her to buy the Hope Diamond -- which she and her husband, Ned, did. When the McLean's young son was tragically killed some years later, the curse story took on an air of truth. Ned was involved in the Teapot Dome scandal, ran the Washington Post into bankruptcy, divorced Evalyn, and died in an asylum. The McLean's daughter committed suicide. These tragedies buttressed the legend in the American public imagination."

2) What makes a diamond -- such as the Hope -- blue?

"All diamonds are made of carbon. Sometimes, when the carbon is crystallizing under great heat and pressure, other elements in small trace amounts get mixed in. These give diamonds different colors. Scientists estimate that there is one atom of boron for every million atoms of carbon in the Hope Diamond. That gives it a deep blue color."

3) Why do people covet diamonds?

"Prior to discoveries in Brazil in about 1720, all diamonds were mined in India where they were coveted thousands of years ago for their spiritual value and the protective power they supposedly afforded those who wore them. With the discovery and availability of enormous numbers of South African diamonds in the 1870s and 1880s, new uses had to be invented to absorb the huge supply. Marketers came up with a brilliant ploy -- associating diamonds with love. The tradition of giving a diamond engagement ring was invented for the masses.

"In the midst of the Gilded Age, wealthy men competed to show off their prowess by decorating their women in more and bigger diamonds - - and women generally complied, coveting them as a symbol of their own worth. This equation, perfected in the late 1940s with the 'diamonds are forever' advertising campaign, is amazingly still with us."

4) Tell us about the most glamorous woman ever to wear this gem.

"Well, Marie Antoinette never did, despite the legend. It was worn by her husband as a knightly decoration. Evalyn Walsh McLean wore it with gusto -- but so did her Great Dane, Mike. Hundreds of women around the U.S. wore it at charity events organized by Harry Winston in the 1950s. But the winner for sheer glamour is Michelle Pfeiffer -- who modeled the Hope Diamond for a photo shoot at the Smithsonian."

5) You spent years studying all the people who ever owned this gem. Which one was your favorite?

"May Yohe was the wife of Lord Francis Hope, who had inherited the diamond. She was a popular stage actress in the 1890s, originally from Bethlehem, Pa., and he an English lord. Known as 'Madcap May,' she shocked staid England with her melodramatic antics though they endeared her to others. She left Hope, running off with the son of the former Mayor of New York, and later left him for a South African Boer. In all, she probably had five or six husbands and numerous well-publicized affairs. May often wore a fake Hope Diamond on stage and said she occasionally wore the real one. ... I like May because she was such a spirited woman who crossed so many lines, and somehow persevered despite numerous falls."

6) Where did the name "Hope" come from?

"The diamond was initially called the Tavernier Blue for its first owner. When he sold it to King Louis XIV it became known as the French Blue. It was later cut down to its current 45-carat size and owned personally by the English King in the 1820s when it was known as the George IV blue diamond. It was sold to pay off George's great debts to a diamond collector, Henry Philip Hope. Interestingly enough, he just called the diamond "Number 1," but when his nephew exhibited it at London's Crystal Palace in 1851 it was referred to as Mr. Hope's blue diamond. The name stuck."

7) Is the Hope Diamond the most popular exhibit at the Smithsonian?

"Yes. In fact, it is the most often-visited museum object in the world. About five to six million people a year ogle at the diamond in the Winston Gallery of our National Museum of Natural History. I visit the Hope quite a bit."

8) What is the Hope worth?

"Smithsonian curators are not allowed to appraise objects, but Ronald Winston, Harry Winston's son, recently estimated its value at about $200 million."

9) How did you research the history of the Hope?

"I spent 13 years doing research on the Hope -- basically going everywhere it did over its 350-year history, following its trail from India to France, from England to the United States. I found the abandoned diamond mine of its origin, guided by a treasure map. The great thing was that research became a family project with my wife and two daughters. We explored the palaces and battlefields where it was acquired and surrendered. We went through the archives of kings, queens and aristocrats in Switzerland, Germany and Russia; examined 19th century jewelry bills in Windsor Castle, and acquisition files in the Smithsonian. We worked in the world's greatest libraries with old manuscripts, old newspapers and catalogs, but also interviewed family members and others who had a connection to the Hope Diamond."

10) OK, back to that curse again. Have you ever held the Hope Diamond? Did anything bad happen to you after that? C'mon - be honest...!

"Officially? No comment. But people can read the book to find out more..."

E-mail: [email protected]


Diamond digits

Quick facts and figures about the Hope Diamond:

Year Found: 1653, by Frenchman Jean Tavernier in India Weight when found: 112 carats

Weight today: 45.52 carats

Shape: Heart

Color: Deep "violet" blue

Year Sold by Hope Family: 1901, because of debt problems

Year donated to Smithsonian: 1958, by jeweler Harry Winston

Estimated value in 2007: $200 million

Annual visitors: 5 million to 6 million

Source: Buffalo News research

Originally published by NEWS STAFF REPORTER.

(c) 2007 Buffalo News. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.