The Tainted Blue

The Tainted Blue

The phrase "A diamond is forever" is not far from actual fact. Of all substances that occur naturally, a diamond is the hardest, although it is atomically identical with coal and graphite, two of the softest minerals. It is pure crystalline carbon, forged deep in the earth by the most tremendous heat and pressure.

The geometric, very closely packed arrangement of the atoms and molecules that make up the diamond's internal crystal structure is what makes this mineral so hard. Indeed it is 90 times harder than corundum, the mineral of emeralds and the second—hardest naturally occurring substance on earth. The diamond will resist acids of all types and will burn only in the hottest of fires (above 1,400 degrees Celsius). But despite tales to the contrary, it can be smashed with a hammer.

Diamonds are valuable in industry because of their hardness, but their brilliance makes them valuable as gems. A diamond's brilliance is the result of its high refractive powers: much of the light reaching a diamond is reflected back into the stone rather than through it. Although the best diamonds are transparent and colorless, the presence of an impurity may give the crystal a most desirable color. Such is the phenomenon of the unique, awe—inspiring—and infamous—blue Hope Diamond.

According to legend this extraordinary diamond once served as an eye in the statue of the Hindu goddess Rama—Sita but was stolen by a Brahman priest. The irate goddess decreed that bad luck would befall anyone who should wear her eye as jewelry. The fate of the dishonest priest is unknown, but in 1642 pioneer gem trader Jean Baptiste Tavernier brought the diamond to France. He had returned from India with enough jewels to win a barony from grateful King Louis XIV, to whom he sold the 112.5—carat, round, nonfaceted blue diamond. Louis XIV admired it greatly, naming it "The Blue Diamond of the Crown," although it became better known as the "French Blue." He had it recut into a teardrop shape of 67.5 carats.

How Tavernier acquired the blue gem is not known, but reports suggest that the legendary curse followed the smuggler/jewel merchant. He was, according to some accounts, devoured by wolves on the steppes of Russia. Tavernier did die during a trip to Russia, and he may even have been chased by wolves. But since wolves are no longer certified as human—hungry beasts, the legend has a flimsy foundation. More likely, since Tavernier was 84 years old during his last winter in Russia, he may have died of a bad cold.

King Louis, although awed by the French Blue, feared its relentless legend of ill fortune. He is said to have worn it only once, whereupon he contracted a fatal case of smallpox. His successor, Louis XV, completely refrained from touching it and seemed to have escaped its curse. But Louis XVI didn't. Both he and his queen, Marie Antoinette, used the diamond frequently, wearing it at almost all royal functions. The fate of Louis XVI and his queen is well known: they both lost their heads at the hands of revolutionaries.

After the revolution the French Blue, along with other crown jewels, was placed in a loosely guarded glass case. In a famous robbery in 1792, the robbers—if indeed the robbers and the guards were different people—had little trouble carrying it off. The diamond was not seen again for nearly 40 years.

In all probability it was sold in Spain, where it was recut to avoid detection. The Goya portrait of Queen Marie Louise shows her wearing a deep blue diamond cut very much like the one offered for sale in London in 1830. A rounded oval of 44.5 carats, it was later identified as the missing blue. Henry Thomas Hope, a rich British banker and gem collector, purchased it for the sum of $90,000. The gem has been known ever since as the Hope Diamond.

The Hope family added to the bad—luck stories. When Henry Hope died without marrying, a condition considered most unfortunate in those days, his contemporaries blamed it on the curse of the diamond. The blue was willed to his nephew, for whom Henry was said to have very little regard. The nephew, whose wife ran away with another man, eventually became destitute and was forced to sell the diamond in an unsuccessful attempt to stave off bankruptcy. He died cursing his uncle who had forced the deadly blue on him.

By the time the diamond passed out of the Hope family in 1906, the stories that it brought bad luck had become widely known. The gemstone itself almost seemed to be trying to keep up its malevolent reputation. Its next owner was a Parisian gem dealer, Jacques Celot, who committed suicide in 1907. His estate then sold the jewel to Prince Kanitovski, a Russian playboy who was conducting an affaire with a beautiful French actress. He gave her the fateful diamond to wear during one of her performances. In a fit of jealous rage over several men admiring the diamond, he shot her dead in the middle of her act. Two days later he was assassinated, and his killer or killers were never apprehended. It was said the murder was committed by other admirers of the dead actress.

Tragedies continued to haunt successive owners with an almost monotonous regularity until, in 1911, the diamond was purchased for $154,000 by Evelyn Walsh McLean, whose father had struck it rich in the Colorado gold mines. She scoffed at the diamond's curse, had it mounted in a necklace surrounded by white diamonds, and wore it almost constantly. But she lived to see a son killed in an automobile accident, a daughter die of an overdose of sleeping pills, and her husband confined to a mental institution. She died in 1947, lonely and slightly deranged, at age 61. The Hope was purchased from her estate by the New York gem dealer Henry Winston for $180,000. He freely displayed it in a number of shows with no ill effects and finally, in November 1958, donated it to the Smithsonian Institution under somewhat comical circumstances. Winston mailed it parcel post! The postage was only $2.44, but for $145 he insured the package for $1 million dollars.

The Hope Diamond remains at the Smithsonian, a favorite sight for visitors. In a case of bullet—proof glass the blue Hope rests quietly in colorful splendor where all can marvel at it but none can touch it. Not even the guards are permitted contact. And seemingly, since the blue Hope is completely protected from mere mortals who might wish to adorn themselves with Sita's eye, her curse has become powerless. Or is this only temporary?

From the book: 
Petrified Lightning