No need to romance the stone: the Hope Diamond and the French Revolution

It sometimes happens that objects, like people, have fascinating destinies. Such is certainly the case of the blue gem now known as the Hope Diamond.

The story begins in 17th century India, in the legendary mines of Golconda. A blue diamond weighing an astonishing 115 carats was discovered there. For those of you unfamiliar with jewelry, one single carat is considered a very respectable size for an engagement ring.

A French merchant by the name of Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, who was traveling in India, purchased the gem around 1660. He brought it back to Europe with the idea of reselling it for a handsome profit. The stone, then the largest known blue diamond, became the Tavernier Diamond.

When Tavernier returned to France with his find, the stone was shown to King Louis the Fourteenth, who was indeed impressed by its size and deep blue color. The Court jeweler was entrusted with the delicate task of cutting the stone. The Tavernier, now a mere 67 carat, became part of the French Crown Jewels. It was now called le bleu de France, the French Blue.

Louis XV Hope DiamondLouis the Fourteenth and later his great-grandson and successor Louis the Fifteenth (as here, as part of a Golden Fleece decoration) wore the French Blue. So did Marie-Antoinette.

Arrived the French Revolution. The political system and social fabric of the Old Regime crumbled in a matter of years. On August 10, 1792 the monarchy collapsed. The Crown Jewels became the property of the Nation. The French Blue was kept, along with the rest of the Crown Jewels, at the Garde-Meuble, on what is now the Place de la Concorde in Paris.

In the period of upheaval that immediately followed the fall of the monarchy, a group of daring thieves broke into the Garde-Meuble, then poorly guarded, and stole the Crown Jewels.

Here’s an excerpt of my novel, Mistress of the Revolution, about the event. Diamonds, pearls, sapphires, emeralds and rubies were found on the streets of Paris. Good citizens returned
them to the Garde Meuble. A beggar woman, having discovered “little stars” laying on the ground, brought them to the nearest police station and left without claiming any kind of reward.

The thieves were promptly arrested, tried and sentenced to the guillotine as royalist conspirators. Upon hearing the death sentences, they begged for mercy and disclosed the whereabouts of part of the loot. The Crown Jewels would be recovered over the years, some in unbelievable circumstances. Others, including the French Blue, seemed to have vanished.

Forever? Oh, no. In September 1812, twenty years exactly after the theft, a large blue diamond strangely similar to the missing stone was recorded in the possession of a London diamond merchant named Daniel Eliason. Was it a coincidence that the twenty-year statute of limitations on the theft of the French Crown Jewels had just expired? Was the Eliason diamond indeed the French Blue, barely recut? To ask the questions is to answer them.
The diamond was next sold in 1824 to a gem collector, Henry Philip Hope, who gave it its current name. In 1910, Pierre Cartier, the Paris jeweler, purchased it.

The current setting of the stone is Cartier’s idea. Frankly, I find it unimaginative, unworthy of the gem itself and Cartier’s sense of design. Furthermore, the white diamonds surrounding the Hope give it by contrast a dark, dull color. I have seen images of the French Blue worn by Louis the Fifteenth. The stone, without the glare of the white diamonds, was then a deep, vibrant blue.

Unfortunately, the Cartier setting is still with us, apparently to stay. In 1911, the jeweler sold the jewel to American socialite Evalyn Walsh McLean. She had qualms about purchasing a stone that had by then acquired a sinister reputation, but she had fallen under the spell of the diamond. She took it to a priest and had him bless the jewel. In 1949 Ms. McLean sold it to New York jeweler Harry Winston, who in turn donated it to the Smithsonian Institution in 1958. That part of the story too is astonishing: Winston sent it through regular U.S. Mail, in a plain brown paper bag. And the diamond still made it to its destination!

The Hope Diamond is now part of the National Gem Collection in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. In 2005, the Smithsonian published the findings of its year-long study on the stone. The result? The Hope Diamond is indisputably the French Blue.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email