A rich cultural history of the Hope diamond, neither the most precious nor the largest gem in the world, but arguably the most storied.
For a traveling exhibit marking the 150th anniversary of the Smithsonian, curators were free to choose from any of the 140 million items owned by the Institute except for three: the too fragile “Star-Spangled Banner” and Wright Brothers flyer, and the too-valuable Hope diamond. The gem merchant Jean-Baptiste Tavernier first acquired the large, rough-cut, heart-shaped blue stone in 17th-century Golconda, the center of India’s diamond trade. Sold to Louis XIV and re-cut and reshaped by the court jeweler, the gem became known as the French Blue. Stolen along with other Crown Jewels in the wake of the French Revolution, a cut-down version of the Blue later emerged in the possession of George IV of Great Britain. At the profligate King’s death, banking heir Henry Philip Hope purchased it. It was twice sold before the Cartier Brothers acquired the diamond in 1910, and, in an inspired piece of salesmanship, created the legend of the “cursed” Hope diamond. Just the thing for credulous and incredibly wealthy Washington socialites Ned and Evalyn McLean, the new owners who do indeed suffer some unusual ill fortune, thereby perpetuating the Cartier concocted fiction. Nearly 40 years later, Harry Winston bought the stone and donated it in 1958 to the Smithsonian. Kurin, an Institution director, meticulously traces the diamond’s provenance and weaves in fascinating stories about celebrated satellite figures—Marie Antoinette, Georges-Jacques Danton, the Duke of Brunswick, Napoleon, Queen Caroline of England, Wilkie Collins, Jackie Kennedy, Nancy Reagan—who were touched by or contributed to the jewel’s legend. The author also discusses the geological processes that create diamonds, the methods by which they’ve been mined, cleaved, cut, fashioned, weighed and rated, and their shifting cultural significance through the ages.
Kurin has fashioned a well-written “biography” of a rock more interesting than most people.