The Curse of The Hope Diamond

Transcript From a Lecture Series Produced in Partnership With Smithsonian

There had been, over the years—even decades—numerous stories about how the Hope Diamond carried an ancient curse. Several commentators questioned the wisdom of accepting the diamond. If the Smithsonian was the national museum of the United States and it acquired the Hope Diamond, then the country would own it. Would the American people then be cursed?

Image of the Hope Diamond

The Cursed Origin Story

Now remember, this was during the Cold War, and public anxiety was high. Turn down the diamond; don’t accept the Hope, many letter writers wrote the Smithsonian and even President Eisenhower. Cartoonists parodied the idea of the United States and Uncle Sam being cursed.

Image of Jeweler Pierre Cartier
Pierre Cartier, Jeweler, (1878-1964)

Of course, many discounted the idea of a curse. And then, in the months that followed, James Todd, that postman who delivered that package, suffered a series of misfortunes. His wife died; his leg was crushed; his dog was strangled; and his house burned down. All of a sudden a lot of people became more interested in the possibility the cursed Hope Diamond. Well, as we’ve done the research over the years at the Smithsonian, we’ve found that the curse story was made up, a modern folktale elaborated by French jeweler Pierre Cartier in Paris in 1910 in order to entice Evalyn Walsh McLean to buy the gem. Cartier wove together a number of different strains from historical accounts, a British novel, stories from the New York Times and the London Times, and with that he concocted his tale. He attributed deaths, revolutions, bankruptcy, and divorce to the stone’s malevolent curse.

Image of Jean Baptiste Tavernier
Jean-Baptiste Tavernier in oriental costume, 1679

Now, while the curse story is made up, it also reveals the diamond’s history, which, really, is fascinating. The basic story goes like this. The blue diamond had originally been a roughly cut gem of about 112 carats when French diamond merchant Jean Baptiste Tavernier first acquired it in the Golconda region of India in the mid-1600s. At that time, India was the only known source of diamonds in the world; they hadn’t yet been discovered in Brazil or South Africa. There were all sorts of stories told about how diamonds were obtained, stories that went back to ancient times and were retold by the likes of people like Marco Polo. But it was Tavernier who actually went to see the diamond mines first hand and who came back with the fullest descriptions of them. He also bought hundreds of diamonds, often trading them for pearls he acquired in the Middle East on the way.

The Indians had very elaborate ideas about gemstones. They believed that gemstones had protective powers. They did not cut gemstones the way we do. 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 their ability to protect one from evil influences. Basically, the idea was that gems absorbed negative influences and contained them in the stone, kind of like a Pandora’s box. Rulers wore lots of diamonds and other gems—the bigger the better. And that would provide them the most protection. Other Indians wore smaller talismans with smaller gems and different gems for the same purpose.

Portuguese, French, Dutch, German, and English dealers, and merchant traders flocked to India to procure diamonds, but no one acquired more gems or made better deals than Tavernier. He made six trips to India between about 1630 and 1670. Returning to France after one of those trips in 1668, he met with King Louis XIV of France at the newly built Versailles palace. Tavernier sold the king the 112 carat blue diamond, along with about 200 other diamonds. A big, blue diamond like this was incredibly rare, and the king’s artist drew a diagram of the diamond to record the acquisition.

Image of More details Tavernier's original sketch of the Tavernier Blue
Tavernier’s original sketch of the Tavernier Blue

The Diamond Takes Shape

Now, recall, Louis XIV was called the Sun King, and if you have been to Versailles, you know why. He viewed his reign as one of enlightenment, of letting in the light of divine kingship, of letting knowledge, and beauty, and the arts shine. At Versailles, you see the glass of chandeliers exquisitely cut to reflect and refract the light. You see mirrors and windows and the dazzling use of light in the architecture and the décor.

Image of Louis XIV by Hyacinthe Rigaud
Louis XIV by Hyacinthe Rigaud (1701)

Well, for diamonds, it was the same thing. Louis XIV accumulated the greatest collection of crown jewels on the continent. European gem cutters, influenced by Renaissance ideas of using optics and geometry to manipulate light, had learned how to cut diamonds predictably, and they would alter the stone’s reflective and refractive properties, basically, to let the light out of the diamond and let it shine. They used diamond dust and a very “secret ingredient”, olive oil put on a wheel, to cut diamonds.

Louis XIV had Tavernier’s blue diamond cut down from a roughly shaped 112 carats into a symmetrical, beautiful gem of 67 carats—and it sparkled, and shined. It was recorded in the royal inventory and renamed the French Blue. It was valued at about 3.6 million dollars in today’s currency. Louis XIV wore it simply from a ribbon hanging from his neck or in a brooch.

The diamond passed down as part of the French crown jewels to kings Louis XV and Louis XVI. These two kings wore the diamond as part of their knightly decoration, something called the Order of the Golden Fleece.

There are apocryphal stories that the diamond, this blue diamond, was worn by Queen Marie Antoinette, but there is absolutely no evidence of that. When she and her husband were imprisoned after the outbreak of the French Revolution, the crown jewels were put in a warehouse, publicly exhibited, and then, in September 1792, stolen. When Napoleon later became emperor of France, he swore to recover all the French crown jewels, including the blue diamond. But he failed. He could not find the French Blue.

When Napoleon later became emperor of France, he swore to recover all the French crown jewels, including the blue diamond. But he failed. He could not find the French Blue.

The Missing Diamond—Found?

The French Blue diamond went missing for some 20 years until a smaller 45-carat blue diamond turned up in London in 1812 in the possession of an English diamond merchant named Daniel Eliason. Eliason didn’t say where it came from, but there was speculation that it was cut down from the French Blue. This 45 carat blue diamond, as drawn in a document of the time, is the same one that is in the Smithsonian today.

Eliason sold the blue diamond to British King George IV, and some called it the George Blue Diamond. George IV celebrated the diamond as a trophy for defeating his enemy Napoleon. He wore the blue diamond in a new golden fleece decoration. The British king, though, was a spendthrift who almost bankrupted the throne. So after the king’s death in 1830, his executor, the Duke of Wellington, had to sell the blue diamond to pay off his debts. He sold it to Henry Philip Hope, a great diamond collector.

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Hope set the diamond in a medallion with a hanging pearl. He simply called the blue diamond “number 1.” But after some years, it became known as the Hope Diamond. The Hope family was among England’s wealthiest. They’d aided American colonial commerce and helped finance the Louisiana Purchase. They accumulated land, castles, Dutch and Flemish paintings, and other riches. But in the course of a few generations, they squandered that great wealth.

In 1887 the diamond was inherited by Lord Francis Hope, Henry Philip Hope’s great-grandnephew. Francis bet badly on horses, business enterprises, and an American showgirl wife, May Yohé. He lost his fortune and his wife, and after a series of court cases was allowed to sell the Hope Diamond. It was purchased by New York jeweler Joseph Frankel’s Sons & Company in 1901. Frankel’s hoped to make a quick sale and a big profit, as they’d put up much of their business capital to buy the Hope Diamond. Instead, the over-valued diamond sat in their vault. In the 1907 Bankers’ Panic, basically a recession, took its toll on the company. Frankel’s was diamond rich but cash poor and going bankrupt.

Image of Marie Antoinette before her execution
Marie Antoinette before her public execution by guillotine on Place de la Révolution, on 16 October 1793

The first stories about the Hope Diamond being unlucky came in the financial pages of the New York Times in 1908; the chronicle noted that the gem was responsible for Frankel’s failure. Other newspapers in Washington and London picked up the story and made it increasingly elaborate, speaking of the baleful influences and power of the mysterious rays that emanated below the glittering surface of the diamond that unleashed evil upon those who possessed it. These stories blamed the executions of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, Hope’s bankruptcy and divorce, and Frankel’s collapse on the malevolent influence of the blue diamond.

The Curse Continues

The Hope Diamond was finally sold, at a bargain price, to other diamond dealers, finally coming to the Cartier brothers in Paris. Pierre Cartier was enchanted with the novel The Moonstone, written decades earlier by English author Wilkie Collins. In Collins’ story, a large, yellow diamond had formed the eye of an idol of a Hindu deity in a temple in India. The diamond literally embodied the power of the god. There it rested until it was looted by a Muslim conqueror and taken to his treasury. Then years later, British colonial soldiers looted the treasury in battle, taking the diamond back to England. There, tragedy, murder, kidnapping, insanity followed the possession of the ill-gotten gem. The god had cursed the stone; an evil force would emanate rays from the stone and strike misfortune upon all who owned it until the gem was properly returned to the deity back in India. Finally, Indian Hindu priests retrieved the diamond and brought it back home. Now, this story by Collins was basically a cautionary tale about divine or supernatural payback for the immorality of colonialism.

Image of Edward Beale McLean and his wife Evalyn Walsh McLean, in 1912
Edward Beale McLean and his wife Evalyn Walsh McLean, in 1912

These were the historical and fictional elements that Cartier combined when he approached Evalyn and Ned McLean in 1910. Cartier already had a relationship with the immensely wealthy couple; he had sold them a large diamond when they vacationed in Paris after their marriage. Cartier applied The Moonstone story to the Hope Diamond, telling the couple it was cursed by a Hindu god, and embellished a bit more, blaming the French the Turkish and other revolutions on its baleful influence.

Evalyn was entranced by Cartier’s story, and she decided, later, to buy the diamond. The McLeans were among the richest families in the United States, owning banks, real estate, and the Washington Post. McLean, Virginia is named after the family. They owned some of Washington’s most luxurious and valuable real estate, in addition to homes in Newport Rhode Island, Bar Harbor, Maine and Palm Beach, Florida. They exemplified the later years of the Gilded Age, using, flaunting, and even, some would say, wasting their gigantic fortune on over-the-top conspicuous consumption.

Evalyn wore the diamond at extravagant parties, paraded the diamond around Washington, and made much of it publicly, until 1919. It was then that her 10-year-old son, Vinson, was struck down and killed by a car near their Washington DC estate. Newspapers proclaimed, well, maybe that the Hope Diamond really was cursed, and they wondered who would next be struck by the diamond’s malignant light rays. It was as if all the negative energy that was locked up in the uncut diamond had now been unleashed upon its possessors because of the cutting. Pandora’s box, so to speak, had been opened. The story of the curse appealed to the public and resonated with other curse stories of the era about the Titanic and Egyptian mummies. The idea was that somehow the wealthy, who had flaunted their wealth by obtaining the treasurers of others, were now getting their comeuppance from higher supernatural powers.

The curse story was only amplified by ensuing events. Ned McLean went insane, and the family lost the Washington Post in bankruptcy, despite Evalyn trying to use the Hope Diamond as collateral for a loan.

The curse story was only amplified by ensuing events. Ned McLean went insane, and the family lost the Washington Post in bankruptcy, despite Evalyn trying to use the Hope Diamond as collateral for a loan. Evalyn actually pawned the Hope Diamond in 1932 in order to hire an investigator to track down the kidnappers of Charles Lindbergh’s baby. The remaining money was to be used for a possible ransom. The money wasn’t needed, however, and she got the diamond back.

Over the years, Evalyn used the diamond for charitable purposes as Washington’s grand social maven. Seeing or holding it was the prize for buying a raffle ticket or attending a benefit. She lent the diamond to brides as “something blue.” She even had her great dane, Mike, wear the diamond around his neck. In Evalyn’s autobiography, she expressed her ambivalence about the Hope Diamond, sometimes pooh-poohing the curse and other times wondering if the curse was payback for money and time misspent and frittered away. In 1946, another tragedy struck. Evalyn’s daughter Evie committed suicide. Evalyn died in 1947, and the estate sold the Hope Diamond to Harry Winston.

The Hope Diamond’s New Home

Image of The Hope DiamondA decade later, the diamond came to the Smithsonian. When it did, it was given an acquisition number, just like every other Smithsonian object. The Hope Diamond is #217868.  It came with the setting crafted by Cartier and 16 one- to one-and-a-half-carat diamonds surrounding the main blue stone, and a necklace of 42 diamonds, set in platinum. The Hope Diamond itself weighs 45.52 carats.

Since that time, curators at the Smithsonian, chiefly my colleague Jeff Post, have conducted numerous scientific studies of the diamond. In essence, the gem is a biopsy of the earth. It formed as crystallized carbon about 90 miles below the earth’s surface about a billion years ago. It rose to the surface relatively slowly up through a volcanic vent on India’s Deccan plateau and then was carried by rivers and streams to the alluvial field where it was eventually mined.

And the curse? Well, as curator Jeff Post says, “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.” Great generosity has flowed from Winston’s philanthropic interest. Following Winston, Mrs. John Logan donated the 423 carat Logan Sapphire. Marjorie Merriweather Post donated the Napoleon necklace and the 31-carat Blue Heart Diamond. Leonard and Victoria Wilkinson gave the 68 carat Victoria Transvaal diamond; Janet Annenberg Hooker gave a large emerald and suite of yellow diamonds, and so on.

The Hope Diamond is now enshrined in the redesigned Harry Winston Gallery at the Smithsonian, delighting and intriguing millions annually. And that brown paper box it came in? Well, that’s long been a treasured item in our National Postal Museum, illustrating the trust the famous jeweler placed in the U.S. postal service to deliver the mail.

Image of The Registered Mail package used to deliver the Hope Diamond to the National Museum of Natural History
The Registered Mail package used to deliver the Hope Diamond to the National Museum of Natural History
From the Lecture Series Experiencing America: A Smithsonian Tour through American History
Taught by Professor Richard Kurin, Ph.D.
By Mbalotia (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Richard W. Wise (image taken by Richard W. Wise) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Bain News Service photograph. Forms part of: George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress). REPOSITORY: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA DIGITAL ID: (b&w film copy neg.) cph 3c24396 http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c24396 CARD #: 99472340 (PPOC[1]) [Copyrighted free use], via Wikimedia Commons

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