In 2018, it seems ridiculous to put any stock in the validity of magical curses—and yet, nearly every significant and historic diamond or gemstone has some element of the occult associated with it. Why does there persist within the collective consciousness of humanity the idea that these natural gifts from the earth might be cursed?
Google the “Hope Diamond” and the autofill search bar comes up with “curse” first and foremost. As the most ubiquitously known diamond around, it’s fair to say the “curse” associated with it is just as famous.
What’s interesting to note, rather than a widely accepted or alleged curse, is the scientific and cultural or historical facts that could have perpetuated the idea that any gemstone is inherently demonic.
About a third of diamonds these days have an molecular attribute that is known as fluorescence. This means that when ultraviolet light is shone on the stone, it glows, like when a black light is turned on at a mini-golf course. However, with a diamond that has phosphorescence, they will be “charged” by the ultraviolet light and release the emission of light slowly over time, appearing to glow even after the removal of the UV light. This is the case with the Hope Diamond, which has been seen to phosphoresce a bright, and presumably “evil” red. The attribute of fluorescence is usually seen as a defect in diamonds sold today, and this lowers prices, as these diamonds can be seen as ‘milky’ to the naked eye.
Current market trends aside, it leaves one wondering, how many ancient people may have witnessed a gemstone glowing ominously, and before the scientific explanation was widely known, assumed the presence of evil spirits were to blame? Take the Dresden Green Diamond, for instance. Its green color is caused by radiation, and while no curse is widely associated with it, if people were to begin to fall ill around it, might there be one? (Irradiated diamonds do not cause illness, but it would be interesting if they did…)
To that end, science isn’t to blame for many of the most “cursed” gemstones, but rather history or culture. When someone is in possession of a gemstone that is valued at little more than a small country, bad things are bound to happen to the owner. A significant diamond is a magnet for misfortune, especially in harsher periods of history when things that were desired could be taken by brute force. And amid colonization, what other recourse would the plundered people have against colonizers but to curse them?
In Wilkie Collin’s 1868 novel, The Moonstone, the plot largely mirrors the real-life history of the Koh-i-Noor and Orlov diamonds. The Moonstone was published as a serialized story and basically created the form of the modern-day detective novel, but when it came out, it was a spooky cautionary tale of colonialism and the hauntings that can come of it. A rare Indian diamond called The Moonstone is inherited by an English girl named Rachel on her 18th birthday, and the story is told of the subsequent theft and eerie goings-on that surround the stone. In the end, the stone is repatriated and set back in the forehead of a statue of a Hindu God.
This idea of cursed diamonds from the East persist in many forms, and it’s no wonder that these sorts of tales swirled around these stones. Recently, a book on the Koh-i-Noor diamond was written by Anita Anand and William Dalrymple entitled Koh-i-Noor: The History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond. Anand is of Indian descent, and her goal for this retelling of history around the stone is to alleviate some of the pain surrounding the forcible taking of the famous diamond.
The Koh-i-Noor is now a part of the British Crown Jewels, but it was originally an alluvial stone found in India. Alluvial refers to gemstones that were not mined, but washed up in river beds and naturally sifted from the earth. It was found perhaps in the Golconda region of India where the best quality, clearest, and whitest diamonds typically come from. One record of the Koh-i-Noor from 1628 tells of a gigantic peacock throne that was commissioned by Mughal ruler Shah Jahan, with the stone set into the head of one of the gem-encrusted birds. Sadly a century or so later in 1739, it was looted by Persian ruler Nader Shah.
Nader Shah wore the Koh-i-Noor on an armband along with the famous Timur Ruby, and it stayed out of India for 100 more years. In their book, Anand and Dalrymple draw conclusions that this tremendous gemstone has started to attract attention not just for its beauty, but for its aura of power and potency. The diamond is a symbol of might from the East, and of course, that drew the attention of the British once the stone had made its way back to India in the 19th century.
In 1849, the British force Duleep Singh, a 10-year-old boy and heir to the throne, to sign an amendment to the Treaty of Lahore, and give up sovereignty and the Koh-i-Noor diamond. By 1851, the stone is in the possession of Queen Victoria and on view at the Crystal Palace Great Exposition in London, where apparently Londoners thought the rough-cut diamond was a “piece of common glass,” so the stone was recut by Prince Albert in 1852, and reduced by half in order to make it sparkle that much more.
After Queen Victoria’s death, it was set in several British Royal Crown jewels, but as of 1937, has remained in the Crown of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. Aside from being on public display in the Tower of London, the crown was last seen upon the Queen Mother’s coffin in 2002 at her funeral and official lying-in-state.
What’s interesting to note is that the curse associated with the Koh-i-Noor states that great power will come to whoever owns it, but also great death and destruction. Another bit of lore states that only women can safely wear the stone to be unscathed, and indeed, it has moved down the royal family female lines from Queen Victoria, to Queen Alexandra in 1901, to Queen Mary in 1911, and was last associated with the Queen Mother starting in 1937.
There is a history of monarchs having superstitions about gemstones, and cultural historian Dr. Benjamin Wild takes us back in time to the era of King Henry III, who reigned from 1216-1272. “The King’s jewel accounts reveal that Henry removed from his stores ‘a topaz mounted in gold weighing 2 s[hillings] 11 [pence]’. The topaz was reputed to ease the troubled mind of its owner and this may be why Henry was keen to have it with him: between 1261 and 1264, when the stone was removed from the royal stores, the King was fighting for his crown and political survival—definitely something to get stressed about!”
Dr. Wild goes on to explain how someone living in the 13th century would have known about these preconceived notions of gemstones: “Much of the medieval commentary on stones’ properties came from Book 37 of Pliny’s Natural History. Henry’s father, King John, who reigned from 1199-1216, possessed a copy, so it is reasonable to assume Henry was familiar with at least some of its content.”
Other gemstones are commonly thought of as cursed, such as opals. Dr. George F. Kunz, famed gemologist and mineralogist from Tiffany & Co., writes that a bad reading of a popular novel by Sir Walter Scott had tarnished the reputation of the stone, which features prominently in the plot. He put into words in 1913 in his book, The Curious Lore of Precious Stones the thoughts behind opal’s bad reputation: “Very widespread superstitions have no better foundation than this, for the original cause, sometimes a quite rational one, is soon lost sight of and popular fantasy suggests something entirely different and better calculated to appeal to the imagination.”
From the Black Star of Queensland, once worn by Cher and reported to “talk back” to anyone who looked directly into its depths, to the Black Orlov Diamond that left a few people jumping to their deaths from tall buildings, many of these purported curses are merely circumstantial. As Dr. Kunz writes, “ While a prize-winning cockerel was being fondled by his proud owner, it spied a flashing diamond set in a ring on his hand, and immediately pecked out the stone and swallowed it. Not long after, the fowl died—not, however, because it was poisoned by the diamond, but because it was chloroformed to insure the speedy recovery of the stone.” This tale drives home the fact that these curses often associated with historic diamonds and gemstones of note all usually befall those people who are in the eye of the storm, regardless. Curses sell newspapers and tickets, but rarely do they actually befall gemstones and diamonds.