Look at diamonds. Symbols of beauty, rarity, riches and purity. Then there are cursed objects. Things that strike fear but also arouse fascination. Now imagine a combination of the two. Horror at the curse, or greed for the wealth – which one wins? Does a million-year-old stone that stunning really bring bad luck? This is the story of the cursed hope diamond.
1. Origins of the Diamond
Mined from the Kollur (also called Kolluru) Mine in the Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh, the Hope Diamond is one of the famous Golconda diamonds. It is known for its rare, deep blue hue and was later called the French Blue.
1.1 What Are Golconda Diamonds?
These diamonds come from the Golconda region in present-day Andhra Pradesh, India.
Ancient texts such as the Arthashastra, Ratna Pariksha and the Puranas mention places where diamonds could be found in India. Medieval accounts also mention the Golconda region in their descriptions of European trade with India, which began from even before the medieval ages.
For at least 2000 years, Golconda (also known for its famous fort with the same name) was the only known source of diamonds in the world. South-African diamond mines wouldn’t be discovered until the 19th century. There were other Indian sources of diamonds, but none considered so vast and rich as the ones from the area of the Godavari basin, which collectively came to be called the Golconda region. Unfortunately, this meant too many forces both in the country and outside it would set their eyes on its natural treasures.
1.2 What Makes Golconda Diamonds Unique?
There are different grades of diamonds based on the amount and type of chemical impurities they contain. Golconda diamonds are graded type IIb, which make up only 0.1% of all the world’s natural diamonds, making them the rarest.
IIb diamonds lack nitrogen (which gives them a yellow tinge) and are exceptionally clear because they are formed from pure carbon. Their bluish tinge comes from boron.
The diamonds from Golconda, the Godavari basin, are known for their remarkable clarity and large size. They’re formed from fertile land between two ancient rivers and that gives them, according to Rahul Kadakia, “a softness that is unlike diamonds from anywhere else in the world.”
The mining activities in the Golconda region were at their peak in the 16th-18th centuries under the Mughal emperors and the Nizams of Hyderabad. Then the British took over and ran their monopoly on the diamond trade. By 1830, the mines of Golconda were depleted from such excessive mining that they had to be shut down.
2. Hope’s Journey
2.1 The Tavernier Blue
The Tavernier Blue was obtained by a French gem merchant named Jean-Baptiste Tavernier in 1666 (the 17th century). How he got hold of it is unclear; there is no direct mention of the diamond in his own book and historical sources suggest it could have been stolen.
The 1.1 billion year old diamond was first brought to Paris by Tavernier. This stone – large and uncut – was called the Tavernier Blue. It came to be called the Hope diamond after it was cut.
The Tavernier Blue weighed 115 carats, or 112.23, depending on the source. The Frenchman acquired it at some point during his five voyages to India from 1640 and 1667.
In 1669, Jean-Baptiste Tavernier sold the roughly cut diamond and around a thousand more to Louis XIV of France. The price was staggering – 220,000 livres equaling 147 kilograms of gold!
King Louis XIV then ordered the diamond to be recut which now made it 67.125 carats or 13.42 grams.
2.2 The Theft
On 11th September, 1792, thieves broke into the Royal Storehouse and stole most of the crown jewels. Their looting spree lasted five days while Louis XVI and his family were held prisoner during the French Revolution.
‘The Blue Diamond of the French Crown’ or the French Blue disappeared from history.
The exact same stone called the Tavernier Blue or the French Blue was never seen again – it wasn’t until 2005 that studies confirmed that the modern Hope Diamond (now weighing only 45.52 carats or 9.104 grams) was indeed a part of the French Blue.
Recutting stones was usually done to prevent their identification.
2.3 The Diamond Resurfaces
20 years later, in 1812, a stone of the same dimensions of today’s Hope diamond would be found with a diamond merchant named Daniel Eliason.
The diamond reemerged soon after the maximum time period for initiating legal proceedings had passed. This time period – called the statute of limitations – was of 20 years.
There are many conflicting stories about what happened to the Hope diamond in those 20 years, but it was said that George IV of the United Kingdom had acquired it.
It didn’t stay with him though. It was either stolen from him by a mistress or sold to pay off his enormous debts.
2.3.1 How It Came to Be Called ‘The Hope Diamond’
After Daniel Eliason, a London banker called Thomas Hope would be found to have it. It was added to his brother Henry Philip Hope’s gem collection.
It is said that Eliason was an agent Thomas Hope appointed to acquire the diamond. The name Hope was given to the diamond after falling into the hands of this Dutch banking family.
When Henry Philip Hope died in 1839, the eight most precious gems (the Hope included) went to his oldest nephew Henry Thomas Hope.
Henry Thomas Hope’s wife Adele inherited the Hope diamond after his death in 1862. She worried that her son-in-law would squander his wealth and sell the diamond to keep his extravagant lifestyle going so she passed it on to her only daughter’s son, Henry Francis Pelham-Clinton on the condition that he would add the ‘Hope’ surname to his when he became a major.
Henry Francis Pelham-Clinton Hope came to be known as Lord Francis Hope. Lord Francis Hope lived a lifestyle like that of his father (who Adele Hope feared would sell the diamond) and ended up being financially dependent on his wife May Yohé; he’d come to bankruptcy. He couldn’t sell the diamond without her permission and it took a long legal battle for him to sell it to pay his debts off. His wife, a singer by profession, claimed to have worn the diamond many times and even had a replica made but Lord Francis Hope had a different version.
So Lord Francis Hope sold it to a jewel merchant called Adolph Weil for 29,000 pounds. Weil sold it to a diamond dealer who was either from New York or went there later.
2.4 The Hope Diamond Reaches America
After being sold to diamond dealer Simon Frankel in 1901, we are again unsure of the Hope Diamond’s whereabouts during the next 5-6 years. Frankel’s business faced financial problems during the Depression in 1907.
In 1908, Simon Frankel sold the gem to Selim Habib, a Turkish diamond collector, who was probably doing it on behalf of the Sultan. It is unclear whether Habib had to sell it because of his own difficulties or the Sultan’s but in 1909, it changed hands again.
Parisian jewel merchant Simon Rousseau bought it and sold it to Pierre Cartier.
2.4.1 The Pierre Cartier Chapter
Pierre Cartier founded Cartier, a famous jewelry company dealing in jewels, watches and leather items. Cartier dealt in large jewels and luxury items. This meant that sales not going through would be a massive blow to his company in terms of cash flow, especially after he’d risked buying the Hope Diamond for $150,000, worth 4.6 million dollars in today’s terms.
By this time, word of it being cursed had come into the picture. It could be that Cartier himself had a role to play in this. Tales of curses would make the Hope diamond a popular sensation.
May Yohé, the singer wife of Lord Francis Hope used the cursed diamond story to fuel publicity for herself and her career. Her husband had divorced her, she’d run off with another man only to be married thrice. She tried to make a series and a film based on the curse of the Hope diamond, adding fictional characters to them.
It was this picture painted by May Yohé that supposedly put Cartier’s client for the Hope Diamond at unease. The client he had in mind was a young heiress called Evalyn Walsh McLean. Evalyn and her husband (aged 22 and 19, respectively) were said to be bred wealthy but didn’t have much sense.
Cartier could have tried to promote the story of the curse to win publicity points and lure Evalyn who’d already been his customer. The curse supposedly made the McLeans hesitant to buy.
They backed out, either because of the curse or because they ran out of money after lavish trips that year, but Cartier tried convincing them again. Evalyn had an admitted weakness for jewels, and Cartier was sure she would buy it sooner or later. He tried something: he proposed she have it for a few days.
The next day, Pierre Cartier received notice that they would buy it.
They took possession of the gem but didn’t pay him at all until he pressed for payment. She tried to return the gem but it was sent back to her with a demand for payment. Lawyers were hired and it turned into legal haggling. Evalyn Walsh McLean finally realized there was no way to back out of the deal and bought the famed diamond for $180,000.
All the legal fees turned the deal into a financial loss for Cartier, but the publicity he gained from this deal won him prominence. The cursed diamond, the jeweler and the famous heirs made it to gossip columns all over New York.
2.4.2 The McLeans
Evalyn McLean made sure to flaunt the highly prized gem, tying it around her dog’s neck and hiding it in her garden, making it her favorite game to entertain guests with: Find the Hope.
She got the diamond blessed by a priest at church and didn’t believe in the curse. Her husband ran off with another woman, their newspaper The Washington Post went bankrupt, one daughter died overdosing on drugs, and one son was killed in a car accident.
In 1947, Evalyn McLean passed away and had left her belongings to her seven grandchildren which they would have received when the eldest turned 25. Her four appointed trustees however, got the permission to sell her jewels to settle her debts and so in 1949, the Hope diamond found Harry Winston as its new owner.
2.5 Where The Hope Diamond Is Now
Harry Winston wasted no opportunity to show the stone off at various social events. George Switzer, a mineralogist at the Smithsonian Institution, persuaded Winston to donate the gem to the Museum of Natural History (a museum under the Smithsonian Institute).
The donation made by the diamond merchant ensured more such gifts coming in for the Smithsonian. A good amount of information about the Hope diamond today comes from research that was conducted at the Institute.
Check out the Smithsonian’s website for more information, articles and pictures.
3. A List of the Hope Diamond’s Owners
- Jean-Baptiste Tavernier
- Louis XIV
- Louis XV
- Louis XVI and Marie Antionette
- Daniel Eliason
- Thomas Hope
- Henry Philip Hope
- Henry Thomas Hope/Adele Hope
- Henry Pelham Clinton
- Lord Francis Hope
- May Yohé
- Adolph Weil
- Simon Frankel
- Salomon or Selim Habib
- Simon Rosenau
- Pierre Cartier
- Edward and Evalyn McLean
- Harry Winston
- The Smithsonian
4. The Myth of a Curse
Rumors spread that the legendary diamond was stolen by Tavernier from an idol of Hindu Goddess Sita which had two such matching stones for eyes. Some stories say it was her third eye that the diamond was embedded as.
This story does not seem very likely because Hindu idols don’t normally have stones for eyes – that might be a stereotype associated with Native American cultures. It is possible that it could have been stolen from the abundance of wealth that Indian temples were known to possess, or the ornaments decorating the idol.
Marketing efforts were made for Golconda diamonds. It was easy for those belonging to the British crown to loot their colonies and then sell what they stole at exorbitant prices, especially to the West. Stories of curses would add sensationalism and an exotic mystique to people belonging to a completely different culture – helping sell both the stone and the newspapers.
A lot of stories of mysterious deaths due to the curse are dubious. Like the tale of Tavernier being “ripped apart by wolves” – he lived a full life and died at the age of 84. Or the story of Princess Lamballe (noblewoman and friend to Marie Antoinette) being horribly mutilated. A lot of these tales have been distorted and the “bad luck”, you might notice, happened to hit these high-profile individuals amidst political drama or due to financial reasons.
The mishaps that did occur could just have been greedy sabotage – after all, who wouldn’t want a rare, widely coveted, Golconda diamond? Throughout history, intrigues and murders have always been commonplace when it came to power and money struggles. Where there’s a precious possession, there’s always someone to steal it!
The “curse” simply made it more mysterious. The more unattainable it was made to seem, the more people would vie for it and the more valuable it was. This was a brilliant marketing strategy – adding a thrill factor to the gem’s already rare beauty.
Nothing of the curse has been heard after the Smithsonian acquired the diamond. Harry Winston’s donation helped bring many more precious gems in for study thanks to which the institute now has a world class collection. To quote Jeff Post, curator at their national museum: it has obviously been a source of good luck!
5. Other Similar Diamonds
The Hope Diamond is but one among several famous Golconda Diamonds. Other famous ones include:
• The colorless Koh-I-Noor (Mountain of Light) which needs no introduction.
• Daria-I-Noor (Ocean of Light): considered a sister diamond to the Koh-I-Noor. Now part of the Iranian crown jewels.
• Noor-Ul-Ain: Taken along with Daria-i-Noor and said to be one of the largest pink diamonds in the world. Part of the Iranian crown jewels.
• The Regent diamond weighed a whopping 426 carats before being reduced to 140.6 carats. It adorned the crown of Louis XV, Louis XVI and the ceremonial sword of Napoleon Bonaparte. It is on display at the Louvre Museum now.
• The Hortensia Diamond bought by Louis XIV, currently on display in the Louvre.
• The Sancy is said to be a sibling of the Regent and Hortensia, also to be found in the Louvre, Paris.
• The Nassak Diamond was stolen from a Shiva temple in Nashik, Maharashtra, India. Acquired and recut by jeweler Harry Winston (the same diamond merchant who bought the Hope Diamond) who sold it to a millionaire, who gifted it to his wife.
• The Idol’s Eye that was used as ransom by the Sultan of Kashmir for his daughter.
• The Agra Diamond worn by Babur in his royal turban.
• Wittelsbach which was given as dowry for King Philip of Spain’s daughter.
• The Great Moghul Diamond, a 242-carat diamond whose current location is a mystery.
• The Orlov Diamond: How it was stolen is unclear, whether by a Frenchman or seized by the Mughals but it was owned by Iranian ruler Nadir Shah before ending up in the Kremlin Diamond Fund.
• The Shah Diamond, passed through the hands of Shah Jahaan, Jehangir then Nadir Shah before also becoming part of the collection at the Kremlin Diamond Fund.
Check out this Icy Tales article for more on famous diamonds and how to tell if a diamond is real or not.