The Hope Diamond: A Curse Deconstructed
Find out how the obviously false story of a curse came to be associated with this famous diamond.
by Brian Dunning
December 29, 2015
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It doesn't take very much research to discover that the supposed "curse" of the Hope Diamond — one of the most famous and valuable jewels in the world — can't be reconciled with reality; its owners have generally all prospered. Nevertheless, almost every published mention of the famed gem is in the context of its notorious curse. Today we're going to turn back our calendars about 100 years to see if we can find the answer to this conundrum, and find out why smart people believe something so easily falsified.
The Hope Diamond is roughly squarish round, about 2.5cm (1 inch) across, and half as deep. It is a dark, greyish blue, but as you look at it, every facet flashes with a slightly different hue. But it is at its most stunning when you charge it with ultraviolet and then turn out the lights: the diamond is no longer blue, but a deep, angry red, shining in the dark like a fire coal. This phosphorescence is caused by boron, as much as eight parts per million, which also lends it its steely blue under normal lighting. It weights in at 45.5 carats, and its estimated value is up to a quarter of a billion dollars, a number which will probably never be realized, as it is owned by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.
We often associate heirloom jewelry with hauntings or other creepy elements, so it's not surprising that a diamond such as this would have a ghost story or a curse or something like that attached to it. To understand the genesis of the curse, let's start with the actual history of the diamond.
The earliest known record of the Hope Diamond comes from 1812, when it was offered for sale by a London diamond merchant named Daniel Eliason, and described, measured, and drawn by many jewelers and naturalists. It may have been owned or borrowed by Britain's King George IV after that, but we don't really know for sure, as there are simply gaps in the documentary record. We do know that it was in the possession of British banker William Philip Hope in 1839, because he published it in a catalog of his holdings, but no record survives of where or when he acquired it. When he died, his three sons fought over his estate, and one — Henry Thomas Hope — got this diamond plus seven others. It then passed to his grandson, Francis Hope, who blew everything on an extravagant lifestyle. It passed into the hands of brokers and finally to diamond merchant Simon Frankel who brought it to New York just as the diamond market tanked in 1907. Men such as Charles Schwab and J.P. Morgan considered it, but nobody bought. It then changed hands to other diamond merchants: first to Sergeant Habib on behalf of the Sultan of Turkey, then to Simon Rosenau, and finally to the day's rock stars of jewelry, the Cartier brothers. No private customer seemed to want it, but the Cartiers thought that if anyone could sell it, they could.
And they did. It took a while, but the stone was finally purchased in 1912 by the millionaire McLeans, Edward ("Ned") of the Washington Post fortune and Evalyn, daughter of Thomas Walsh, a gold miner who had struck it very, very rich in 1869 and built the most expensive mansion in Washington, DC. When she died in 1947, it passed through a trustee sale to jeweler Harry Winston, who finally donated it to the Smithsonian Institution in 1958, where it has remained ever since. Winston's donation is best remembered for having been simply shipped through the US Mail from New York.
But what about prior to 1812? A stone like the Hope didn't just appear by magic, and it's no coincidence that about the time it did appear, another huge blue diamond just happened to disappear. It was called the French Blue. This was a 67-carat blue diamond owned by King Louis XIV, which he created in 1678 by having it cut from an even larger stone. That one was a whopping 112- or 115-carat (accounts vary) diamond that had been brought from India by the French diamond merchant Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, during one of several trips to India he made in the mid 1600s. Exactly how he acquired a diamond that would have been so far out of his means to purchase is not recorded. But selling it to Louis XIV along with a very large (but also unknown) number of others made him an extremely wealthy man, and this diamond became known as the Tavernier Blue. Contemporary drawings were made of both the Tavernier Blue and its smaller offspring the French Blue.
But the French Revolution happened; the King was imprisoned, the royal jewels were plundered. The French Blue disappeared and dropped out of all knowledge. Various historians have theorized where it went and who acquired it; but whoever did it successfully managed to hide their tracks very well.
Where the stories of the French Blue and the Hope Diamond finally intersected for certain was a discovery made in 2009. Jewelers would often cast lead replicas of particularly large or valuable stones, so they could work with the replicas to craft things like mountings. François Farges is a professor of mineralogy at the National Natural History museum in Paris. One day while rummaging through a generic collection of lead replicas, he found a particularly large one that proved to be the French Blue. It was somewhat larger than the Hope, and cut into an odd, irregular shape.
With the replica in hand, Farges was able to make a digital 3D model of it which could be compared to that of the Hope. And, as many experts had suspected, it turned out that the 3D model of the Hope fit very nicely inside the 3D model of the French Blue. Beyond a reasonable doubt, we now had solid backup for the theory that the French Blue had been cut down to create the Hope Diamond. Further bolstering this theory is that 1812, the Hope's official debut in the hands of the London diamond merchant, was twenty years after the French Blue was stolen during the French Revolution. Twenty years was the statute of limitations for theft; thus only in 1812 did it become legally safe to offer it for sale. Stones of this size, with the exact same color, don't exactly disappear and reappear every day, so we can safely assume it's a fact that they are the same diamond, as many had already believed.
But notice that we haven't said much about a curse yet, and that's because the curse wasn't really a thing for most of the diamond's history. Many modern sources credit the Cartiers, Pierre in particular, with inventing the story in order to make the diamond more attractive to Evalyn McLean. And he did indeed have a big role in this, but his ability to do so was only thanks to something else that happened a few years earlier.
It was when Frankel brought the diamond from London, where he couldn't sell it, to New York, where he hoped to sell but found his luck just as bad; and he'd taken on considerable debt to add it to his inventory. Everywhere the Hope Diamond went it attracted media attention because of its great value and provenance. Frankel's white elephant even drew some parody. The New York Times poked fun at the plight faced by Frankel and other jewelers in 1908:
Every gem has its own power for good or evil and that this power never dies, though it may wax or wane under the circumstances, may lie dormant for centuries only to reappear with redoubled energy when terrestrial and celestial conditions combine to bring into play the mysterious forces hid beneath its glittering surface.
The next year, Frankel sold it to Habib, and reminded the media of the story. The London Times was first, running a wildly satirical (and very anonymous) article headlined "Sale of the Hope Diamond". Diverging at once from reality, the Times sold the diamond instead to a fictional Russian prince who gave it to a famous actress before shooting her on stage, and was then stabbed to death himself. The broker went insane and killed himself; a Greek owner and his family fell off a precipice to their deaths. Eventually the story curved closer to reality with a mention of the Sultan of Turkey, but added some revolutionaries who dramatically broke into the palace and assassinated a beautiful young woman wearing the jewel. And so on, and so on.
And a new fashion had been born. The next year, the New York Times reported that Habib and the diamond had been lost at sea when a French steamship sunk near Singapore, which actually prompted real-world salvage operations resulting in the recovery of the ship's (disappointingly empty) safe. It turns out that Selim Habib had been the name of a real man who did die in the shipwreck, but there was no relation to the Sultan's jeweler Sergeant Habib — his given name was Selim, but he went by the Anglicized version Sergeant.
Whew. Confused yet?
So this was the environment in which Pierre Cartier took up the job of gilding the Hope Diamond with an even more dramatic provenance in his efforts to sell it to Evalyn McLean. Inventing stories for gems was a fundamental of the trade; one New York jeweler even published monthly booklets telling stories about the various gems they sold. Pierre knew the McLeans were his best shot; on their honeymoon, he'd already sold them a 95-carat diamond (more than twice the size of the Hope) called the Star of the East. He had little work to do; the London Times had done most of it for him. Upon leaving it with them over a weekend, Evalyn decided that she wanted it. Pierre had added virtually nothing to the common-knowledge (and almost entirely bogus) version of the Hope's history, other than calling it a "curse"; which, so far as researchers have found, was the first time that term was used.
There was a footnote to Cartier's sale of the Hope to the McLeans that proved fortuitous for the legend. The sale was tied up in court for a time over some disputes regarding payment and some customs issues, but the newspapers gleefully reported that the McLeans tried to back out of the deal upon learning of the curse. One headline even read:
M'LEANS TO KEEP THE HOPE DIAMOND,
WEALTHY PURCHASERS OF FAMOUS STONE
TO RETAIN IT DESPITE SINISTER REPUTATION
That Evalyn remained a loyal, lifetime customer of the Cartiers, and that Pierre and his wife became frequent guests at the McLeans' extravagant parties for more than 20 years, shows that whatever animosity existed was confined to the newspaper version of the evil diamond that killed or doomed everyone who came into contact with it. But this should come as no surprise to regular Skeptoid listeners, who know that when you hear any tale of a "curse", you have very good reason to be skeptical.
By Brian Dunning
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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "The Hope Diamond: A Curse Deconstructed." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
29 Dec 2015. Web.
22 Oct 2016. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4499>
References & Further Reading
Anonymous. "Sale of the Hope Diamond." Times of London. 25 Jun. 1909, Newspaper: 5.
Brown, C. Gems, Magic, Mysteries, and Myths of Precious Stones. Madison: State Historical Museum, 1932.
Editors. "Hope Diamond in New York: Jeweler Bought It and Paid Regular Duty to Bring It In." The New York Times. 14 Dec. 1910, Newspaper: 1.
Farges, F. Two new discoveries concerning the French Blue diamond at the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle. Stanford: Stanford University, 2008.
Kurin, R. Hope Diamond: The Legendary History of a Cursed Gem. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2006. 190-215.
SI. "The Hope Diamond." National Museum of Natural History. Smithsonian Institution, 13 Oct. 2007. Web. 17 Dec. 2015. <http://mineralsciences.si.edu/hope.htm>
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