Podcast rockstar, Jennifer Sieverling, takes a break from Tea & Gemstones to discuss the history of the most famous blue diamond in the world with Jordan on this episode of Jewels of the Trade.
Jennifer is a professional historian who discusses a variety of jewelry-related topics on her podcast, Tea & Gemstones, including famous jewels of history, modern trends and royal jewelry, history of metals and more!
Resources Mentioned: UV Penlight | Book: The Smithsonian National Gem Collection — Unearthed |
Jordan: Every gemstone has a story, and just like the people who wear them, the tales of some of these magical nature nuggets are crazier than others. I’m here with historian Jennifer Sieverling, known for her gemology podcast “Tea & Gemstones” which focuses on diamonds, metals, gemstones and jewelry in history as well as in the modern spotlight.
Thanks for joining us, Jennifer!
Jennifer: Hi, I am so happy to be here! Um… are you calling me a little crazier than others? Haha, but I can’t dispute that I guess… Usually I just talking away to myself, it is so lovely to have someone else here on the microphone with me.
Jordan: Hahaha! You can’t be crazier than me, although you are CRAZY smart when it comes to gemstones which is why I’m thrilled to have you here sharing your wisdom. Jennifer and I will be talking today about the Hope Diamond.
Jennifer: Okay, I want to ask… do you think you are in charge of your destiny?
Jordan: Are you trying to sell me something? We already have a vacuum! hahaha
Jennifer: If you have a vacuum that changes your destiny, let me know about that haha- Okay, let me ask this question: What about the concept that an inanimate object can enact change to people’s circumstances?
Jordan: I actually get this question a lot from retail customers when I’m selling jade at trunk shows. I don’t believe jade has any mysticism or power, but other people have for literally thousands of years, and some of that superstition (or whatever you want to call it) has carried on.
Jennifer: Yes! Just that sort of vibe! It sounds like a high-minded philosophical discussion until you realize it’s a concept we’ve been familiar with since childhood. On the benevolent side we have things like a rabbit’s foot on a keychain. Looking for four leaf clovers in the playground grass or picking up a penny. A necklace or charm bracelet featuring a horseshoe. On the darker side, there’s avoiding walking under a ladder, opening an umbrella indoors, breaking a mirror or anything with the number thirteen. But where do gemstones play into this? Well, across time and cultures, humans have been obsessed with gemstones. How could we not be? These amazing stones come in every known color, with wonderful properties not shared by anything else in the world. It’s no wonder many cultures have attached divine or mystical properties to gemstones. Yes, science explains how gemstones are formed with heat and pressure and chemical reactions… but take a long deep look into the swirling colors of an opal, crack open an oyster to reveal a black pearl, see how alexandrite changes from red to green depending on the light source or consider how there is no substance harder than a diamond and try to tell me there isn’t something otherworldly about gemstones. So it isn’t a surprise that throughout history, mankind has attributed magical powers to gemstones, including an influence on luck, fate, destiny… or a curse…
Jordan: Today, Jennifer is going to tell us about the history of the Hope Diamond, one of the most famous, or maybe infamous, diamonds in the world. Jennifer is actually a historian with her own incredible podcast of which I am a fan, Tea & Gemstones.
Overview of the Hope Diamond
Jennifer: I think a lot of times, we as people care about jewelry because of the history attached to it, more than the price tag value of the piece… We love who the jewelry was owned by, where the piece has been. Like you hang onto your granddad’s favorite signet ring because he wore it everyday and you felt it when he patted your shoulder as a child, or you love the silver necklace you got back in college and wore on your first date with your now husband… it’s the memories and the association with the past that make the love… and it works both ways! If memories can be the basis of love, um… If your boyfriend cheats on you, the diamond earrings he gave you can have the worst juju and it doesn’t matter that they’re a full carat, you dont. Want. Them. Anymore!! hahaha
Jordan I saw that all the time when I worked in retail! I think that’s how divorce rings came to be; people want to remount their diamond to get rid of the bad juju. It’s interesting the way we associate memories and emotions with tangible things.
Jennifer: That’s a really interesting idea; like a stone has bad juju, but we can take control of that juju somehow and alter or control it… But, Okay, so what do you do when you’re presented with one of the most epic gemstones… this magnificent blue diamond, one of the most gorgeous ever found on this planet… but man… this thing has some baaaaaddddd juju. Some awful memories and history associated with it. Is that the gemstone’s fault? Does the Hope Diamond have the power to influence the lives of those it comes into contact with? What if the curse is fiction? Can you take the risk if it’s… not?
The history of the Hope Diamond can be traced back to 1653 Tavernier supposedly acquired the rough in India in 1653 (if it’s the same stone), I believe his record of sale to King Louis XIV was in 1666 (which is of course predicated on the belief that the French Blue was in fact the Hope Diamond, which I think it was.)
Jennifer:So nowadays gemstone companies try to be very transparent about stone origins, but we don’t actually really know where and when the Hope Diamond was discovered, which I guess is the downside to your origin story taking place in the 15th century. If an enormous blue diamond was discovered in more modern times it probably would instantly have it’s own hashtag and a circulating meme.
Ooh and an autotuned theme song! Do people still do that? I’m not very hip…
But in 1666 you’ve gotta settle for a small mention in a London newspaper that a merchant had acquired the blue diamond. “Acquired”…we know the Hope Diamond came from India. But where exactly in India is swathed in mystery. It gets very Indiana Jones, one rumor is the diamond was plucked from the eye of a statue of a Hindu god, who then put the curse on the diamond as retaliation. But odds are it came from the Kollur mine in Golconda, India. Fun fact, our first records of the Hope Diamond describe it as a 112 carat “lumpy triangle”. But there was a reason for this unattractive lumpy triangle shape… and it has to do with what I mentioned earlier with people believing gemstones have power and influence over the world around them. The Indians who mined the diamond… they did not cut gemstones for maximum sparkle. Instead, they tended to preserve as much of the stone as they could, only cutting out cracks and other imperfections. This, it was believed, maximized the gemstone’s ability to protect one from evil influence. Um… so maybe the Hope Diamond curse was unleashed because people recut the diamond so much and lessened it’s evil fighting power. Because it was recut multiple times through the centuries- we know of at least three cuttings- until it arrived in its final form weighing in at 45.52 carats. It went from original lumpy triangle to now it is in kind of a ‘walnut’ cushion cut shape. But back when it was a triangle, it was sold to the King of France in 1668. He called it “the French Blue” and he is the one who ordered it’s first recutting in 1673. He liked to wear the diamond on a ribbon around his neck for quote “special occasions” unquote. But owning the world’s first blue diamond didn’t mean good luck for the French Royal family, they were overthrown and beheaded in the French Revolution and all the French royal jewels- including the French Blue, aka the Hope Diamond, were stolen by a mob in a week long riot in 1792. We have no idea where the diamond went. Napoleon when he was emperor of France swore he would find it… but I mean, he said he would conquer Russia too, and look how that turned out haha
A magical stone like the Hope Diamond isn’t going to vanish from history. Twenty years after it was snatched by looters, it resurfaces in the hands of a diamond merchant named Daniel Eliason… only it’s… smaller. When it was the “French Blue” it was about 67 carats. Now it’s about 45 carats. So the speculation is the French blue diamond from the looters was recut. So somewhere out there is 22 missing carats of this blue diamond. Wonder where they are.
Jordan: I like to believe the mysterious Brunswick Blue, which has it’s own crazy story, was cut from the French Blue, and I hope it’s still out there somewhere in one piece…Although it was probably recut into a bunch of smaller stones. Interesting fact about the Hope Diamond: It fluoresces red, and I believe it is the only blue diamond known to fluoresce red. So it’s said that if the Brunswick Blue were ever found, should it fluoresce red, it’s very likely that it came from the French Blue.
I love that the Hope Diamond has like, “a tell”- this giveaway characteristic that can’t be faked or imitated, it just adds to the mystik. Well, this one big piece we know of, the 45 carat piece, it gets sold to a new King, King George IV of England. And his bad luck is that he spent all of his country’s money… and if you think about the size of England’s empire, that is quite the feat. When King George died in 1830 the diamond was sold to pay off some of the king’s debts… and it ended up in the hands of a guy named Henry Phillip Hope…. A world famous diamond collector. This guy’s name is the pronoun that would stick to the tricky blue diamond for forever.
That was very interesting to me when I found out because I always thought it was called “Hope” because of the feeling of hope, I didn’t realize it was someones name. Super fun (albeit random!) fact about Henry Hope. He actually helped the US finance the Louisiana Purchase. This guy was stupid rich.
I did not know that! Yes, Henry Hope was indeed rich. But his descendants didn’t make such smart choices with the family funds. Hope’s family would make a lot of bad business decisions, and ultimately his great-grandnephew got into a bad deal about like, betting on horses and his showgirl wife, and he actually lost the Hope Diamond by court litigation to pay debts. It was purchased by a jeweler company called Joseph Frankel’s Sons & Company… and they, hey-… let’s play “guess the bad luck”. For $500 what will you take?
Jordan: For $500, I’ll take “Death and Destruction,” Alex.
Jennifer: Haha- Well it’s bankruptcy! Three for three of the last Hope Diamond owners lose all their money and subsequently the gemstone. And people are starting to notice… in 1908 the New York Times ran an article about the diamond’s woeful history… and I mean, salacious gossip sells- hey- there’s something that’s no different than modern times. Other newspapers, perhaps less constrained by facts and sources than the reputable New York Times ran their own versions of the history of the Hope Diamond and they… spiced it up. They said things like it played a role in Marie Antoniette and her husband the king being executed at the guillotine, talked about the origin of being yanked from an ancient statue’s eye socket… I mean, that sure makes for an interesting story… rather than the facts that a bunch of old dudes who cannot manage their finances have lost the stone. Is that the stone’s fault?
Well, the Hope Diamond makes its way into some pretty famous hands… the Cartier brothers in Paris. So there was a famous novel called “The Moonstone” written by a British author named Wilkie Collins.
Jordan: If I’m not mistaken, I think that book is where the “opals are cursed” myth comes from…Right? Did I make that up?
He wrote the novel in 1868… let me give you the ClifNotes of the plot… there’s a huge cursed yellow diamond, plucked from the eye of a Hindu deity statue in a temple by foreign conquerors and the stone proceeds to cause murder, kidnapping, insanity and death all over the world until it’s returned home to the eye socket from wench it came. Sound familiar? So one of the Cartier brothers named Pierre, he’s a savvy salesman…. He has both a friendship and business relationship with a woman named Evalyn McLean. Evalyn was pretty wild… Pierre Cartier compared the newspaper stories about the Hope Diamond to the cursed diamond in the novel, and Evalyn was enamoured with the drama of the diamond. She purchased it from Pierre for about $5 million dollars in today’s money.
Jordan: Evalyn McLean was kinda…odd….wasn’t she?
Evalyn did some kooky things with this world class stone… She took it to a church in 1911 to have it blessed to remove any lingering curse-y-ness… and apparently as the diamond sat on it’s cushion awaiting it’s blessing, a bolt of lighting crashed across the sky and thunder shook the building. Everyone at the blessing was really freaked out but apparently Evalyn laughed and declared, “I’ve worn my diamond as a charm!”. She wore it everywhere. Get this… She used to let her Great Dane, his name was Mike, she used to let her dog Mike wear the diamond around his neck on his walks.
Jordan: Can we take a second to note that she named her dog Mike? That’s like naming your cat Karen. So great!
She used to deliberately “lose” the stone at parties and make all the children there look for it as a game. She lent the diamond out to brides to wear as their “something blue”, can you imagine?
Jordan: Bless her heart…
She even pawned the stone once to raise money for an investigation into the kidnapping of the Charles Lindburgh baby. But it was all mischief and humor… it is unshakable… the bad luck that seems to follow the Hope Diamond, I mean- I can’t help but feel so intrigued as I lay all the history out, it’s a compelling case for just… man, is this stone cursed?
Jordan: My best friend once called and said “I think my house is haunted!” and I was like “Don’t be ridiculous, your house isn’t haunted. Houses aren’t haunted. People are.” hahaha…I think everyone has bad things that happen to them…And more than that, I think people cause bad things to happen to themselves because they’re complacent, self-obsessed, or just…stupid. I guarantee that in every circumstance where misfortune befalls the people in this story, poor choices were made! hahaha
Jennifer: So poor vivacious Evalyn, life starts taking a darker turn for her. Her 9 year old son was hit by a car and died. Her husband divorced her in 1932 and then went insane and was committed to a psychiatric hospital the next year. He ultimately died there 8 years later. Evalyn actually wrote an autobiography and she speaks of the Hope Diamond and ponders the possible curse. Here’s a direct quote from her book, “Father Struck It Rich”, quote, “For hours, that jewel stared at me, and at some time during the night I began to really want the thing. Then I put the chain around my neck and hooked my life to its destiny for good or evil. What tragedies have befallen me might have occurred had I never seen or touched the Hope Diamond. My observations have persuaded me that tragedies for anyone who lives, are not escapable.” end quote.
Jordan: I know this podcast isn’t about jade…and I do talk about jade a lot, maybe a little too much (haha)…But that doesn’t sound unlike Emperor Qianlong’s view of jade during the Qing dynasty. He was crazier than her for sure, but he felt very connected to his jade to the point of extreme obsession.
Evalyn at the time of writing her book in 1936 may have thought perhaps it was all just sad random happenings, but when her only daughter accidentally died of a sleeping pill overdose in 1946, Evalyn finally might have felt truly cursed. We don’t know any more of Evalyn’s thoughts about this, I wish we had more of her writings, but she died of pneumonia 7 months after her daughter passed. Some people think that Evalyn always believed in the curse, but she made light of it in public so not to concern others, and she wore the diamond as much as possible on her own person to protect others from being exposed to bad luck. Like, she was the “keeper” of the doom, keeping the diamond’s curse contained to only poison her life. I mean… Evalyn is the longest known owner of the Diamond. She certainly could have gotten rid of it. But she never did. After she died… the Hope Diamond was found in a shoebox under her bed, along with $4 million in other gemstones.
After Evalyn’s death, her estate sold the Hope Diamond to a Mr Harry Winston, one of the most famous high jewelers ever. And in 1958 Winston decided to donate it to the National Museum of Natural History- now the Smithsonian… and he sent the Hope Diamond in the mail. I mean, it was technically registered mail, but still.
Jordan: I’m pretty sure they walked it down the street…right? It was like a HUGE deal.
Just through the postal service. He insured the box for $1 million dollars which cost Mr. Winston $2.44 postage at the post office. Today the diamond is insured for $250 million.
Have you been to the Smithsonian? I’ve never been.
Jennifer replies, natural conversation occurs.
I’d love to go, specifically to see the Hope diamond. I’d touch it if they let me, really test the curse theory haha. When the Smithsonian received the Hope Diamond, they actually received letters from the American people begging them not to accept it as it would bring a curse upon the nation.
I wish we had some of those letters around.
I wonder if the Smithsonian has them! There were people who would photograph the Hope diamond at the Smithsonian and then something bad would happen to them so they would write letters to the Smithsonian blaming them. Not sure if society was quite as litigious then, but that would have been a hilarious lawsuit.
The original brown paper packaging from the mailing box Harry Winston used is actually on display at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum. Hey- do you think this is why the USPS has gone so downhill and has such a bad reputation now? Because the Hope Diamond went through the mail?
Jordan: Hahaha! I would love to deny their accountability, but the Postman Todd who delivered the Hope to the Smithsonian lived to be 68 and as far as we know lived a normal un-cursed life, and the Smithsonian since has certainly not seemed cursed.
Hmm, that would’ve been nice to pinpoint as their downfall haha Well, maybe Evalyn succeeded in her goal of keeping the curse within herself, because yes, you’re so right Jordan, the Smithsonian Museum certainly hasn’t seemed on a downward spiral since taking ownership of the Hope Diamond. It’s one of the most popular exhibits and Harry Winston’s donation inspired others to contribute amazing gemstones to the museum. Curator Jeff Post says, quote, “Since the arrival of the Hope Diamond, the National Gem Collection has grown steadily in size and stature and is today considered by many to be the finest public display of gems in the world. For the Smithsonian, the Hope Diamond has obviously been a source of good luck.” end quote.
And the diamond being in the museum means gemologists have gotten a chance to study it like never before, and the Hope Diamond can do some really cool tricks, can’t it?
Like glowing red? I wish I had a party trick as impressive as that!
I admire that the Smithsonian promotes the positivity of the Hope Diamond. The “curse” mythology really began with Pierre Cartier in a sales pitch to Evalyn McLean, who was pretty much the Paris Hilton of the 1910s. Cartier’s exciting tale was recording by McLean in her diary, excerpts of which made their way into the newspapers when talks began about donating the gem to the Smithsonian • Richard Kurin of the Smithsonian actually published an incredible book on the Hope Diamond where he broke down 3 categories of people who had interacted with the stone: Definite owners, Possible owners, and close family members associated with the diamond will all of their ages of death. The average life span of owners of the Hope Diamond is a bit more than 68 years old. The average life span of possible owners and stewards was 72 years old. So. Premature death, overall, is actually not associated with the Hope Diamond which is a hilarious fact to know; I love that he actually sat down and did the math. I think the real story of the Hope Diamond is much more interesting than the fantastical story of Cartier’s sales pitch, and I think there’s ample evidence that it isn’t cursed which lends credibility to the anthropological observations surrounding the Hope Diamonds. I think people want to believe in the Curse, I think they love it. I think it’s the reason it’s the most famous diamond in the world. There are diamonds that are bigger, more valuable, but I don’t believe any diamond is more well known. They say any other blue diamond of this size and color would be valued around $40 million or so, but the Hope diamond’s current estimate stands at $350 million. It’s because it has a story.
Jennifer: After everything the Hope Diamond has been through, I like to think it is enjoying retirement at the Smithsonian. It must be a great relief after being stolen, looted, worn by everyone from kings to dogs, pawned, shut up in vaults, sold, sold, sold, and sold… to just sit nicely on a blue velvet pillow all day long, not being bothered. And on the subject of bad juju… The Hope Diamond is displayed behind bulletproof glass… that should be enough to contain any curse. No bad vibes can escape. It can only bring joy and pleasure now, to those who come to gaze at it.
Jordan: I like to believe the Hope Diamond is not cursed. I think the “curse” made it very sellable, and isn’t it human nature to blame our mistakes on things other than ourselves?
Correlation is not causation, although truthfully, plenty of people came into contact with the Hope Diamond and went on to live perfectly regular lives as documented by the Smithsonian. I’ve always looked at the Hope Diamond as a perfect example of the power of media…There’s no record of anyone believing that Tavernier stole the diamond from a Hindu God…Until Cartier allegedly said that to Evalyn McLean, who wrote it in her diary, which was later published in the newspaper – branding the Hope as cursed to the American public. Much of Pierre’s wild story to Evalyn McLean was unfounded in truth, and according to her diary he admitted to knowing beforehand that she considered bad luck objects “lucky for her,” implying he knew it would make for a good sales pitch.
Jennifer: That is so interesting to me, she considered bad luck objects “lucky for her.” I mean, objectively she had some rough circumstances come her way after she took ownership of the Hope Diamond… but maybe it did protect her in some way. Maybe things could have been a lot worse. Hows that for a way to end. Congratulations, it could’ve been worse hahaJordan: Life is funny. Well Jennifer, thank you so much for sharing that incredible story! Jennifer, please tell our listeners how they can reach you and where they can find YOUR podcast which is full of history, fashion, and incredible stories of jewelry, gemstones and metals.