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Hope Diamond: The Cultural History of a Legendary and Cursed Gem

Hope Diamond: The Cultural History of a Legendary and Cursed Gem

by Richard Kurin

The true story behind the most famous–and infamous–stone in the world.

The Hope diamond is not only exceptionally beautiful it has a long and incredibly colorful history. That history – spread over three continents – features diamond mining in India, the French Revolution, the machinations of British King George IV, the Gilded Age in


The true story behind the most famous–and infamous–stone in the world.

The Hope diamond is not only exceptionally beautiful it has a long and incredibly colorful history. That history – spread over three continents – features diamond mining in India, the French Revolution, the machinations of British King George IV, the Gilded Age in America and a number of very clever jewelers including Pierre Cartier and Harry Winston. In the 20th century, the myth of the Hope diamond curse made the diamond more notorious and famous than ever before, but it is only one small piece of a long and lustrous history.

Dr. Kurin, who is a cultural anthropologist, has spent over a decade on the trail of the Hope, from India, to France, Germany, Russia, Switzerland, and England. His narrative is filled with fascinating places and people – from the fabled diamond city of Golconda to the fabulously rich heiress Evalyn McLean to Jackie Kennedy and her pivotal role in one of the Hope's few 20th century trips abroad.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this authoritative history of the Hope Diamond (also known as the French Blue), Kurin describes how the 112-carat deep blue diamond came into the hands of Louis XIV through diamond trader Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, who in turn had bought it from an Indian mine. (Although rumors persist that Tavernier took the gem from the eye of a Hindu idol, Kurin says there's no evidence to support this action-Tavernier was a respected dealer.) The diamond was recut (reducing its size by half) and kept by the French monarchy until it was stolen during the revolution. It resurfaced, unrecognizable after being cut again, in the possession of London merchant Daniel Eliason in 1812. Some years later, it came into the hands of Henry Phillip Hope, was inherited by his wife and sold to several other owners, before being donated in 1958 to the Smithsonian Institution. There its mystique is grounded by "scientific discourse" and study. During his chronicle, the author, director of the Smithsonian's national programs, describes the history of the diamond trade, how precious stones were classified, the long-circulating myth that a curse was attached to the Hope diamond and royal politics of the times, for a serious but fascinating look at cultural and gemological history. B&w photos. (May) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Rife with romance, violence, power, and betrayal, the legend of the Hope Diamond reads like a sensational pulp novel. And as Kurin (director, national programs, Smithsonian Inst.) points out, the legend bears another similarity to the pulp genre in that it is, for the most part, guiltily entertaining fiction. Though the history of this diamond has been written before, Kurin succeeds in separating the facts from the fiction of the legendary curse, which, as it turns out, is largely a 20th-century invention. By following the diamond's travels through history, readers will learn about its relationship with the religion, politics, fashion, and social mores of the times. Kurin's style may be a bit academic at points, but his is still an engaging narrative that illuminates the centuries of the gem's history and proves them every bit as colorful and dramatic as the famous curse. Based on more than a decade of research, this title is both a fine reference tool and an enjoyable leisure read. Recommended for all libraries.-Tessa L.H. Minchew, Georgia Perimeter Coll., Clarkston Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A rich cultural history of the Hope diamond, neither the most precious nor the largest gem in the world, but arguably the most storied. For a traveling exhibit marking the 150th anniversary of the Smithsonian, curators were free to choose from any of the 140 million items owned by the Institute except for three: the too fragile "Star-Spangled Banner" and Wright Brothers flyer, and the too-valuable Hope diamond. The gem merchant Jean-Baptiste Tavernier first acquired the large, rough-cut, heart-shaped blue stone in 17th-century Golconda, the center of India's diamond trade. Sold to Louis XIV and re-cut and reshaped by the court jeweler, the gem became known as the French Blue. Stolen along with other Crown Jewels in the wake of the French Revolution, a cut-down version of the Blue later emerged in the possession of George IV of Great Britain. At the profligate King's death, banking heir Henry Philip Hope purchased it. It was twice sold before the Cartier Brothers acquired the diamond in 1910, and, in an inspired piece of salesmanship, created the legend of the "cursed" Hope diamond. Just the thing for credulous and incredibly wealthy Washington socialites Ned and Evalyn McLean, the new owners who do indeed suffer some unusual ill fortune, thereby perpetuating the Cartier concocted fiction. Nearly 40 years later, Harry Winston bought the stone and donated it in 1958 to the Smithsonian. Kurin, an Institution director, meticulously traces the diamond's provenance and weaves in fascinating stories about celebrated satellite figures-Marie Antoinette, Georges-Jacques Danton, the Duke of Brunswick, Napoleon, Queen Caroline of England, Wilkie Collins, Jackie Kennedy, Nancy Reagan-who were touchedby or contributed to the jewel's legend. The author also discusses the geological processes that create diamonds, the methods by which they've been mined, cleaved, cut, fashioned, weighed and rated, and their shifting cultural significance through the ages. Kurin has fashioned a well-written "biography" of a rock more interesting than most people.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.25(d)

Read an Excerpt

Hope Diamond

The Legendary History of a Cursed Gem
By Richard Kurin

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Richard Kurin
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060873515

Chapter One

Gift to the Nation

On Monday morning, November 10, 1958, public faith in the U.S. government was literally wrapped up in the performance of James Todd, a 34-year-old postman -- and he was late!

Three days before, Paul Haase, a former policeman working in a Fifth Avenue shipping department, had carried a plainly wrapped package on the subway to New York City's general post office. The package was addressed simply, "Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., Attention: Dr. Leonard Carmichael." It weighed 61 ounces. Insured for $1 million, the postage came to $145.29.1

From Washington's city post office, Todd, a Navy veteran with a somewhat troubled past, was entrusted to make the delivery. Un-accompanied, and with no weapon, it was just Todd and the Hope diamond.

The method was typical of the no-nonsense "King of Diamonds" Harry Winston, the famed jewelry merchant. By sending the diamond by mail he had the whole U.S. government protecting it. "It's the safest way to mail gems," he confidently declared.2

Mindful of the potential publicity bonanza -- or nightmare if the delivery was not consummated -- U.S.Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield awaited the arrival of the package with its intended recipient, Leonard Carmichael, the Secretary of the Smithsonian. They had assembled in the recently reconstructed Gem Room of the National Museum (now the National Museum of Natural History) along with distinguished guests for an 11:30 ceremony.

Foremost among the guests was the good-natured Edna Winston representing her husband and his company, Harry Winston, Inc. -- the donor and still legally the owner of the diamond, accompanied by her 17-year-old son Ronald. Others included society mavens Gwen Cafritz, Polly Guggenheim, and Nan Chase, the latter being the personal assistant of the deceased Evalyn Walsh McLean, who had owned the Hope diamond prior to Winston. George Switzer, the museum's curator of mineralogy who had pursued the donation, was ready to take possession of the famed gem. A retinue of Smithsonian guards, local police, and postal inspectors also milled expectantly.

Postman Todd put the package in his sedan and drove to the museum at 10th Street and Constitution, barely a mile away. The Hope diamond had, after a long period of negotiation and uncertainty, arrived at the Smithsonian.

At 11:45 a.m. Todd handed over the package to Carmichael who duly signed a receipt. Carmichael passed the package to Switzer, who carefully unwrapped the brown paper to reveal a simple but elegant rectangular jewelry case, much to the relief of the Postmaster General and the other guests. Todd later admitted that the television cameras and all the "hoopla" had made him a "little shaky."3

Edna Winston held up the opened case, with the Hope diamond, mounted on a necklace, inset into a fine satin cushion. Edna's brief remarks followed the theme of her husband's official statement that the Hope diamond was a gift to the American people. "We have hopes that this will be the nucleus of a great collection to view with the wonderful works of art in our museums," she said.4 Switzer then put the diamond into its new home in the Gem Room -- a small safe that when opened could be seen by the public through a glass display window. It looked somewhat like a ship's portal, surrounded by an oversized rectangular art frame.

The Hope diamond was displayed in its setting, on its necklace, against a satin background. An accompanying sign read,

Hope Diamond, 44 1/2 carats
The world's largest blue diamond
Acquired from the estate of Evalyn Walsh McLean, 1949
Gift of Harry Winston, Inc. 1958

The sign, as it turned out, was wrong. In fact, much of what the Smithsonian had to say about the history of the Hope diamond that morning was wrong.5

But it really wasn't history or science that interested either the museum or the public. Americans were fascinated by the famed curse of the Hope diamond. Just days before, the Associated Press widely circulated a syndicated story leading with "The fabulous Hope Diamond, a stone of beauty and ill fortune, is about to pass from a New York gem merchant to the Nation." The story went on to recount the legend:

The diamond is believed to have been torn from the forehead of a Hindu idol and smuggled out of India by a Frenchman named Tavernier in 1642. Tavernier was bitten to death by a pack of dogs. Among subsequent owners: Nicholas Fouquet, a French official was executed. Princess de Lamballe was beaten fatally by a French mob. King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were beheaded.

Henry Thomas Hope, an Irish banker, gave the stone its name and as far as is known, came to a normal end. Hope's grandson, Lord Francis Pelham Clinton, died penniless. The grandson's music hall bride from America, May Yohe, left the diamond behind her as she went off in divorce. She ended up scrubbing floors. Simon Montharides was killed with his wife and child when they rode over a precipice. Sultan Abdul Hamid of Turkey lost his throne. Subaya, the Sultan's favorite, wore the diamond and was slain. The diamond was placed on the market after the revolt of Young Turks.

Mrs. McLean, wife of a former owner of the Washington Post and one of the capital's best-known hostesses, acquired the Hope in 1911 for a reported $154,000. Her husband, Ned McLean, died in a mental institution. Her oldest son lost his life in a car accident and her daughter died of an overdose of sleeping pills . . . Winston bought it from the estate of Evalyn Walsh McLean. Winston has escaped the misfortunes which befell many of the diamond's earlier possessors . . .6

Edna Winston discounted the curse. "Not a bit of bad luck had it brought us. Instead it has been good luck for a great many people as it has traveled hundreds of thousands of miles raising money for charity," she said, referring to Hope's inclusion in Harry Winston's famed touring Court of Jewels fund-raisers.7


Excerpted from Hope Diamond by Richard Kurin Copyright © 2006 by Richard Kurin. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Dr. Richard Kurin is the director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage where he oversees the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, and other cultural heritage programs. A former Fulbright fellow with a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, he is the author of Reflections of a Culture Broker: A View from the Smithsonian. Dr. Kurin has been awarded the Smithsonian Secretary's Gold Medal for Exceptional Service and the American Folklore Society's Botkin Prize for lifetime achievement.

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