Ever since the Hope Diamond, one of the largest and most famous colored diamonds in the world, appeared on the market in the 1830s, it has become notorious for allegedly spreading a deadly curse to those who dare to possess it.
Greek jewel broker Simon Moancharides gained custody of the glittering gem in the early days of the 20th century. Soon after selling it, he pulled an unintentional "Thelma and Louise"… with his wife and child in the horse-drawn carriage beside him.
Heiress and D.C. socialite Evalyn Walsh McLean enjoyed the latest bauble in her collection for many years, often allowing her Great Dane to share in the pleasure of wearing it, before she lost her son, her daughter, her mother-in-law, her husband, and her fortune.
Even the mailman who transported the diamond to the Smithsonian after it was donated to the museum by Harry Winston in 1958 suffered a crushed leg injury soon after delivery.
The cause of the tragedies that have piled up in the Hope Diamond’s wake can be debated—it has been suggested that Cartier created the curse in order to entice McLean to buy the diamond, though he couldn’t manufacture the accidents and disasters that thread through its history.
Whether bad luck, personal foibles, or a sinister gleam of blue was the source of the misfortunes, what is clear is that the most famous blue diamond in the world has a much grander, though no less dicey, history that began well before it was baptized “Hope.”
What is often forgotten in the allure of telling tales of the Hope Diamond’s curse is the fact that the most famous blue diamond in the world is just a fragment of the glittering rock that it once was.
In the 17th century, a massive blue diamond was discovered in a mine in India, a diamond that was over 60 carats bigger than the Hope. But over 300 years, two continents, and several royal hands, the Tavernier Blue was cut down and refashioned time and again until it morphed into the much smaller, though still brilliant, Hope Diamond.
But the gem we celebrate today is just a piece of the stone it once was, the stone known as the “Tavernier Blue.”
The Tavernier Blue was discovered in India (its name in its homeland, if it had one, has been lost to time). While experts had always suspected that the Hope Diamond was cut from a piece of this massive, 112-carat gem, in 2005, it was proven that the cursed jewel was indeed a descendant of the Tavernier Blue’s royal lineage.
In 1631, Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, a French gem merchant, made the first of six trips to India. Through the fortune he amassed as a trader, he earned a place in the Nouveau Riche class of 17th-century France, which enabled him to buy his way into the title Baron d’Aubonne.
Tavernier consorted with Mughal emperors, sold his glittering wares to French kings, and became something of a trailblazing explorer of the East.
He was one of the first Europeans to visit central and northern India, and he eventually wrote a two-volume book detailing his experiences on the road, which reportedly earned him a bit of fame as well as the jealousy of his peers including the French literary don, Voltaire.
“None of his contemporaries could probably have boasted, like himself, of having had an intimate inspection of the Great Mogul’s priceless collection of jewels,” wrote Swedish scholar Jarl Charpentier in 1927.
From its very emergence out of the earth, the history of the massive blue diamond that Tavernier got his hands on and that would eventually become the Hope is built on legends and lore.
It is believed that the blue diamond was discovered at the Kollur mine in Golconda in southern India.
The tale goes that the diamond was initially embedded in the head (perhaps as an eye) of a statue of a Hindu goddess. Some stories say it was Tavernier himself who plucked the stone out of the deity, others say it was someone else who committed the original sin before selling the spoils to the Frenchman.
But all who tell this tale—whose validity, as with all great legends, has been contested—agree that it was this act of theft that caused a curse to be placed on the stone.
While the truth of the diamond’s origins may be up for debate, what is known is that Tavernier took his massive treasure that soon became known as the “Tavernier Blue” back to France, where he sold it to none other than the Sun King himself—King Louis XIV—in 1668 along with 44 other large diamonds and 1,122 smaller stones.
While Baroque France couldn’t yet have known the extent of their treasure, we know now that blue diamonds are formed at incredibly deep depths and are the rarest diamonds found on Earth.
Five years after he bought the gem, King Louis gave the stone its second life when he had it cut down to 67 1/8 carats. The stone had originally been cut to maximize its size, but Louis wanted show off its best facets—its glittering brilliance. This iteration of the blue diamond was called the “French Blue,” and it gallivanted around French society on a long ribbon hung around Louis’s neck.
In 1749, his successor Louis XV once again altered the diamond’s appearance, though he left its shape alone, by requesting that his jeweler Andre Jacquemin set it with an impressive red spinel to make a decorative symbol for the Order of the Golden Fleece.
For the next 43 years, the French monarchs continued to enjoy their rare gem. It is whispered that even Marie Antoinette was known to don the French Blue from time to time, though no evidence exists as to its role in her impressive wardrobe.
Whether she did in fact show off her family’s blue bling or whether it was solely an accessory for her husband, history has proven that owning the cursed gem surely didn’t do the Bourbons any favors.
When the French Revolution began, the royal family jewels were confiscated by the revolutionary citizens and were housed in the Garde-Meuble of the Tuileries for safekeeping.
But the revolutionaries were busy chopping off heads and forgot to safeguard their loot. In 1792, a large portion of the French crown jewels were stolen, including the French Blue. A year later, Marie Antoinette had a date with the guillotine.
For a long time, it was believed that Louis XVI was the last to enjoy the cursed stone. Despite being one of the largest blue diamonds in the world, and despite the recovery of other jewels involved in the theft, the French Blue disappeared without a trace.
For a little while at least. In the early 19th century, a gorgeous blue diamond popped up in England clocking in at 45.52 carats. Sure, it was smaller than the French Blue, but it had the same violet hue that Tavernier had described in his original find, and it had appeared on the market seemingly out of thin air, devoid of history or provenance.
Later it was determined that the French Blue had most likely been smuggled to England where it fell into the possession of King George IV for a time. But it would take nearly 200 more years for scientists to rule with almost certainty that the Hope Diamond had been carved out of the original stolen stone to usher in its third act.
For nearly 300 years and across two continents, the Tavernier Blue and its descendants were the prized possession of kings, aristocrats, and merchants. During its glittering reign, empires fell, lives were lost to disease and violence, mistresses were disgraced by scandal, and misfortune came to many who dared to wear it.
Sure, these misfortunes can be explained away, blamed on other causes. As Smithsonian curator Jeffrey Post told PBS, “The curse is a fascinating part of the story of the Hope Diamond that has helped to make the diamond as famous as it is. But as a scientist, as a curator, I don't believe in curses.”
But given its history, when it comes to the most famous blue diamond in the world, it may be best to be wary. Just ask Tavernier.