Some diamonds that are forever
HISTORY OF SEVEN FAMOUS DIAMONDS: SOME DIAMONDS THAT ARE FOREVER
A diamond can be formed within certain stars, or here on our planet, deep beneath the crust, in conditions of pressure and temperature quite accurate. Hence it rises to the surface with volcanic eruptions, and is often removed from the midst of a bluish clay. But for all that people have done or failed to do to get it, it is sometimes easy to forget that it is simply a stone.
The extraordinary physical and chemical properties of this carbon crystallized in cubes have lead the Greeks to call it the "a damas", the indomitable. It can be used for cutting steel, titanium or literally any other material. Or to build camera lenses used in the hot acid-filled atmosphere of the planet Venus. A recent hypothesis says that, on Earth billions of years ago, it may have had some role in the attraction and arrangement of certain long molecules in the presence of hydrogen gas, turning them into complex structures similar to those we now call living.
But its extraordinary price, even though it normally contains impurities or imperfections which give it one or another hue (or sometimes due to these), must be for much more subjective factors. Let the people of giant De Beers, which dominates the world diamond market, tell us about that, despite new competition from artificial diamonds. And if they maintain absolute confidentiality about who recently bought the world's most expensive diamond, the Centenary of 274 carats (55 grams), and why this anonymous person paid an estimated US$ 100 million, it may still be possible to use a bit of folklore to get some insight: more than one suspect that it is because of what Marilyn Monroe once advised an audience of gentlemen, saying that diamonds were the best friends a girl could have. (Song "Diamonds are a girl's best friend", in Howard Hawks' film "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" with Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell and Charles Coburn, Twentieth Century Fox, 1953).
In 1851, a 13 year-old boy gave to Queen Victoria of England a small stone of only 38 grams, but of a very particular brightness, transparency and hardness. The boy's name was Dhulip Singh: he was the last Maharaja of the Sikh Empire in the Indian subcontinent. He said that the stone was a gift, very special indeed, for it was nothing less than the biggest diamond in the world.
That stone was discovered in India, probably in the region of Golconda, around the fifteenth century. It had been carved in the Hindu fashion, with a flat bottom and the dome-shaped top. It was said that its price could only be measured in terms of what all Humankind produced in a day.
During its history it had many owners, all powerful characters. One of the first was the Emperor Humayun, who when a ruler to whom he asked asylum hinted that it would be granted in return for the stone, he replied: "Such precious gems cannot be bought; either they fall to one by arbitrament of the flashing sword, (...), or else they come through the grace of mighty monarchs." (Quoted by Ryan Thompson, "The world of famous diamonds and other famous gems", available at http://famousdiamonds.tripod.com).
True to those words, the conqueror Nadir Shah, after marching triumphantly over the city of Delhi in 1739, demanded that the owner of the gem at the time, Mohammed Shah, hand him the famous diamond which he had heard of. The latter refused, until someone from his harem confessed that it was in the man's turban. Nadir Shah took the garment to another room, and when he unwrapped it in front of his subordinates, was so amazed by what he saw that he exclaimed: "Mountain of Light!". Since then it is known by that name, "Koh-I-Noor" in Persian. (Edwin Streeter, "The Great Diamonds of the World. Their history and romance." Published by George Bell & Sons, London, 1882, p. 123).
One of the last to acquire the famous diamond was the Governor General of India Lord Dalhousie, who after the British conquest of what is now the Pakistani city of Lahore, claimed as one of the terms of surrender that the Koh-i-Noor pass into the hands of the Queen of England. "It was more for the honor of the Queen that the Koh-i-noor should be surrendered directly from the hand of the conquered prince into the hands of the sovereign who was his conqueror", recommended this "ceremonious" politician. (Quoted by Ryan Thompson, "The world of famous diamonds and other famous gems", available at http://famousdiamonds.tripod.com).
Actually, when the world's largest diamond was showed to the British people during the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, the crowd, who believed it brighter, was not too enthusiastic. To remedy this, Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, had it carve again, losing in the process more than 40% of its weight but gaining much in glare. It is kept today in the Tower of London, from where the last time it was out (embedded in a crown) was in 2002 to honor the coffin of the late Elizabeth I, the Queen Mother.
THE DARYA -I-NOOR
Another diamond that shares a similar story is the "Sea of Light", Darya-I-Noor, of 186 carats (37 grams), but this never traveled outside the East and is now part of the National Jewels Treasury of Iran.
Differently to the Koh-I-Noor, which is transparent, the Darya-I-Noor has a slight pink tinge. It is also carved differently, in tablet form, which does not benefit its brightness but at least I did not reduce the size of the original stone. In fact, the Darya-I-Noor is the largest pink diamond in the world.
Apparently, it was part of an even larger diamond, seen by the French jeweler Jean-Baptiste Tavernier in the mines of Golconda, India, in 1642. The other piece of the once "Tavernier table" might be that what is known today as the diamond Nur-Ul-Ain ("Eye Light" in Persian), of about 60 carats (12 grams), also exhibited in Iran.
Another diamond of old which made it to present time is the Orlov, of 190 carats (38 grams). It has an even more fantastic story.
It was probably found in the fabled mines of the Golconda region of India, in the seventeenth century. Carved dome shaped with flat base (in the form of a "rose"), the traditional Indian style, it was apparently shown to Tavernier by Emperor Aurangzeb. Supposedly, it had another weight and another name: "Great Mongol".
Then follows a legend in which this diamond of blue-green hue would have been used as sacred eye of a statue in the temple of Ranganatha, in Srirangam, India. The temple was surrounded by seven walls, and no infidel could pass beyond the fourth wall. In the mid eighteenth century, a French soldier deserter would have joined the Hindu religion and have become a devotee. Over time he have been gaining privileges until one night he would be put in charge of guarding the innermost enclosure, next to the sacred statue. Without thinking it over too much, he would have ripped the glittering eye of the statue and fled in the middle of a stormy night.
Upon arrival at the port of Madras, he would have sold the diamond to the captain of an English ship, who would take it to Europe.
What is documented is the diamond being acquired by a jeweler named Safras, with operations in Amsterdam, who offered it to many royal houses. It ended up in Russia, set in the imperial scepter of Catherine the Great.
This famous stone was baptized with the name of Count Grigory Orlov, who finally handed it to the Empress. The transaction details are unknown: some say Orlov acted as intermediary, while others claim that he bought it with his own money. He was a lover of Catherine.
THE BLUE OF HOPE
This diamond apparently began as "The French Blue". Extracted from the Kollur mine, in Golconda, India, date unknown, arrived in France by the hands of the merchant Jean-Baptiste Tavernier. King Louis XIV became interested in it and bought it, still as a rough stone. He made carve it into pear triangular, ending with a gross weight of 67 carats (13 grams).
With the French Revolution in 1789, it disappeared along with many other royal gems. Officially it was never seen again, but coincidentally one day after 20 years have elapsed from the theft, with the crime prescribed, a rare 46-carat (9 grams) blue diamond appeared in London. Modern studies of the way it was carved suggest that this new stone is a re-cut of the famous French Blue, having suffered this "surgery" in order to hide its true identity.
It was bought by Henry Hope, and passed to his descendants, including actress May Yohe. At the beginning of the twentieth century it was sold again and taken to the United States.
Between 1920 and 1921, May Yohe created a cinematographic feature attraction entitled "The Mystery of the Hope Diamond", allegedly telling the story of it, including some of his former owners' misfortunes which make one conclude that it is haunted. However, there are no references that the alleged historical details that appear in the drama were true.
Anyway, in 1949 it was bought by jeweler Harry Winston, who in the end selflessly donated it to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.. Therein lies until today, exposed to public curiosity.
THE TIFFANY YELLOW
For centuries, the only known diamond mines were in India, but in 1725 diamonds were found in Brazil, and then in 1867 in South Africa, which would soon become the largest producer worldwide.
One of the most beautiful stones out of there is the Tiffany Yellow. Yellow diamonds are common and do not have much value, but this one is of a deep yellow color. It was found around 1878 in the Kimberley mine, South Africa, most probably in the section at that time belonging to the Compagnie Français de Diamant du Cap. It was taken to Paris, where the rough stone was carved by George Kunz until 90 different facets were achieved, giving it a glow of fire. It was bought by Gideon Reed, on behalf of Tiffany's of New York.
Once in America, it was exhibited in the New Yorker jewelry store and soon this 129 carat (26 grams) diamond became very famous. At some point a price of US$ 5 million was set, but it was never sold. It was used, on loan, by only two women: one of them was a lady named Mary Crocker Alexander, wife of U.S. diplomat Sheldon Whitehouse, during a fund-raiser ball sponsored by Tiffany's at the fabled Newport, R. I., Gilded Age Vanderbilt's Marble House, in 1957.
The other woman who wore the Tiffany Yellow finally cemented the stone's lore: she was, of course, graceful actress Audrey Hepburn, during a much more famous event, the 1961 promotion of the film "Breakfast at Tiffany's".
This diamond has acquired a very special symbolism for the jewelry store, so special indeed that it is said that in some occasion a newly-employed salesman asked his superiors what prize he would get if he succeeded in selling the Tiffany Yellow. The response was point-blank: the firm will summarily dismiss him for doing such a thing. (Ian Balfour, "Famous Diamonds", 5th. Edition, illustrated, Antique Collectors' Club, Suffolk, 2008.)
One late afternoon, in 1905, the superintendent of the Premier mine, located 40 km east of Pretoria, South Africa, was making his routinely rounds in the large open pit that this mine was. Suddenly, something caught his eye: there was something shining on the wall of the well, a bit over his head. He reached out and pulled from the mud an impressive stone the size of his fist. At first he thought it might just be glass, but a quick analysis at the mine's office showed they were in the presence of the largest diamond ever found, with a whopping 3106 carats (621 grams).
It was named Cullinan in honor of the owner of the mine, and taken to Amsterdam, Netherlands, to be carved. Unfortunately, it was full of cracks, so the cutter Joseph Asscher recommended splitting it into several gems. The largest piece, initially separated with a special wedge and a hammer (!), was called "The Star of Africa" and was given to King Edward VII of the United Kingdom, who placed it in the British royal scepter. In total, from the Cullinan diamond nine major diamonds (all proudly among the Crown Jewels) and 96 minor diamonds were cut.
Diamonds have always been constant company of royalty. In the democratic capitalist world of today, royalty has been supplanted by big industrialists, financiers, athletes and people from entertainment. Two of those figures, radiant in their own right, were Elizabeth Taylor and her fifth (and sixth) husband, his scene colleague Richard Burton.
Hollywood's Cleopatra was so fond of diamonds that she even got to write a book about her relationship with them. So when in 1969 the house Parke-Bernet Galleries of New York announced that a huge 69-carat (14 grams) colorless diamond recently discovered in the Premier Mine, South Africa, would go into auction, Mr. Burton appeared in the list of bidders.
The price, initially set at US$ 200,000, spiraled outrageously up until it surpassed the barrier of US$ 1,000,000, a price never before seen in an auction room for a diamond.
But when the hammer fell, the rights to decide which woman would wear it were not in the hands of the baffled British actor: the Cartier jewelry firm had offered more.
But days later, Richard Burton called the broker from a pay phone of a stylish bar in the south of England and exploded right there, vociferously demanding that (Balfour, 2008, see above) the agent should go and buy that diamond at once without regarding the cost.
The final price was never disclosed. All that the Cartier firm said (Balfour, 2008, see above) was that, by the fact that Ms. Taylor was very happy, their business was also very happy.
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Originally published in ABC Color on 11 January 2009. Photograph: Generic brilliants. Photo Credit: Mario Sarto, 4 February 2004 (original license, of the photo only, obtained at: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en). With permission from Mario Sarto.