May 15th was a magical evening with Dr. Richard Kurin, Director of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, part of the Smithsonian Museum complex. Dr. Kurin recently authored: Hope Diamond: The Legendary History of a Cursed Gem.
With 13 years of study already, Dr. Kurin is still collecting facts and lore about this mysterious gem and will be authoring a second edition.
The study began when a group of Smithsonian scholars decided to get to know each other’s disciplines by choosing a topic that had nothing to do with their particular expertise. Dr. Kurin began his research on the Hope and presented his findings to the group, complete with a staged theft of the gem in 1993. Since then, he has immersed himself and family into following the gem’s trek through history by going to India and France in search of the truth.
The first mention of this diamond was by Jean Baptiste Tavernier in the mid-1600’s. Tavernier visited India’s famed Golconda region and reported on mining techniques. He acquired a 112 ct. piece of rough from the Kollur mine and called it “violet”. He was able to purchase the stone easily due to the Indian belief that blue was associated with the God of Death. The stone was eventually sold to France’s Louis XIV who had it cut into a heart shape weighing 67 cts. It was renamed the French Blue. The stone was set into an adornment called the “Golden Fleece,” which was presented by members of royalty to each other. It was passed through to Louis XVI and disappeared on September 11, 1792 when the French Crown Jewels were stolen during the Revolution.
Fast forward to 1804, Napoleon is in power and wants nothing more than to recover the Crown Jewels. He was never able to do that so he created a Triple Golden Fleece and presented it to himself. In 1812, a 44 ct. blue diamond appeared in the possession of Daniel Eliason of London, England who sold it to George IV of England. England and France were fighting each other so what better time to put it into a Golden Fleece for the King of England! George eventually died in debt and his last mistress absconded with many of the Crown Jewels, including the blue diamond. She was forced to return the diamond and it was sold to Henry Phillip Hope, a brother of Thomas Hope who helped secure the Louisiana Purchase. Henry called it “Stone #1” in his vast collection.
The stone then went through several more changes until it reached Joseph Frankel in 1901, who purchased it for 2.9 million dollars. The New York Times wrote a story about the bad luck of the stone because Frankel couldn’t resell it and was going bankrupt in the meantime. This was the first mention of bad luck associated with the Hope and it stemmed from a fictitious story dating back to Tavernier’s time about an entirely different diamond that had been plucked from an idol’s eye and brought bad luck to the thief. The Washington Post perpetuated the story in 1907.
Pierre Cartier finally procured the stone in 1909, read Tavernier’s lore, embellished, it and took the gem to Ned and Evalyn Walsh Mclean, who were staying at the Hotel Bristol in Paris. She was entranced by the story but didn’t like the setting around the stone. Cartier, being the smart salesman, had it reset and the transaction took place in 1911 for $180,00.00 which would be 3.9 million today.
The Mclean family history is indeed a tragedy in many ways. Their eldest son was struck by a car and died in 1919 and their daughter later committed suicide. Ned was embroiled in the Teapot Dome scandal, became and alcoholic and died institutionalized.
Harry Winston bought the Hope from the McLean estate in 1949 and later donated it to the Smithsonian Institution with the idea of creating a court of jewels for the United States. The stone in its necklace setting now rests in a special display in the Hall of Gems in the Museum of Natural History and is one of the most viewed objects in the entire complex. There are many other stories of bad luck attributed to the stone and for those, keep tuned for the next edition of Dr. Kurin’s book.
Text by Sherlene Bradbury