August 15th, 1999
© Akhilesh Mithal

The Saga of the Hope Diamond


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What qualifies an object to be classified as "precious" or having "jewel" quality? First and foremost, beauty. To become an ornament for wearing on the person an object has to be beautiful. It has to attract and hold attention The beauty has to survive the wear and tear of use. This means the jewel has to be hard. A soft surface soon gets scratched or marked to become opaque or unattractive and loses its freshness and beauty. Another, less lasting and yet most important quality, is the desirability factor determined by contemporary fashion.
Few people have the self confidence to rely on their own judgement about what is beautiful. They are influenced by "public opinion" created and conditioned by advertising and designers. The "done thing" prevails as against individual taste because it has the right credentials of popular taste and contemporary fashion.
In earlier times, rubies, emeralds, sapphires and pearls held equal and often higher ranking than diamonds. How and why things changed is another story for a future column.

The gemstone diamond, called Heeraa, Almaas, Manee and "adamant" has exercised a fascination over mankind from very early times. Especially in India. Perhaps because Indians have had the longest acquaintance with diamonds. They mined, cut, and wore diamonds before they became known to the rest of the world. Their familiarity with the gemstone was such that they even used diamonds for committing suicide. Heeraa Chaatnaa Hindustaanee for "Swallowing a diamond" means "committing suicide." 

The diamond figured in the life of India as an embodiment of the astral body Shukra (Mercury). It was one of the nine jewels or Nauratan worn to propitiate the powers of the firmament. The central position in this earthly representation of heavenly bodies was occupied by a ruby because the red stone represents the sun.

The Indian familiarity with diamonds arose from the fact that India enjoyed a monopoly of world diamond production until 1725, when some deposits were noticed in Brazil. The other mines, those of South Africa and Australia were discovered even later, in the second half of the 19th century, 1851 in Australia and 1867 in South Africa.
The important fact to remember is that any diamond which was known before 1728 when the first Brazilian diamonds came on the world market is of Indian origin.

This means that the fabled diamonds of the world, the Koh-i-noor, the Orloff, the Great Mogul, the Shah, the Moon of the Mountains, the Polar Star, the Akbar Shah, the Nizam, the Darya-I-Noor, the Taj-I-Mah, the Regent, the Pitt, the Florentine, the Sancy, the Nassak, the Empress Eugenie, the Piggott, the White Saxon Brilliant, the Pasha of Egypt, the Star of Este, the Hope Blue and the Dresden Green, are all of Indian origin.

The best known and most often seen diamond in the world is the Blue Diamond called "Hope" on display in the Smithsonian at Washington D.C. For the many millions who visit the National Museum of Natural History there each year, this stone heads the list of things to be seen. A few of the milestones in its history should help put diamonds in perspective.

Diamonds have been around for something like three billion years. The earth was still in the turmoil of cooling down long after diamonds came into being deep down in its bowels. The instability was caused by the core being lava hot and the surface cooling fast. A crust formed into what we call land and fractured, reassembled and split again and again until the temperatures within and without the earth came into some kind of precarious balance. Earthquakes occur and volcanoes erupt to remind us that the earth is still a dynamic entity.

A stone like the fabled blue "Hope" diamond came into being some three billion years ago. This was in a crucible like formation deep in the earth’s core nearly a 100 miles below the surface. The carbon particles trapped in temperatures of around 1,200 degrees Celsius and subjected to the extreme pressures built up by granite hard rocks impelled by volcanic gases got cleansed of all impurity except some particles of boron and fused into a peerless blue brilliant.

A billion years ago, volcanic action thrust the diamond bearing rock up to the surface of the earth. The restlessness of the earth persisted. When the huge and massive tectonic plate, called Gondwana by geologists, fractured to give the world Australia, South Africa, South America and the triangular shaped peninsula, which is the oldest recognisable part of India in geological maps the diamond bearing earth appears to have been divided amongst these land masses.

India being the earliest to be inhabited exploited the shallow mines and enjoyed the monopoly of diamond production from the earliest times until 1725, when the Brazilian diamonds were discovered.

According to legend the "Hope" blue is a cursed stone. It was an ornament in a shrine in India and was stolen by a French sailor. The deity who owned it cast a spell and all those who have been in possession of these "stolen" goods are struck by misfortune.

Jean Baptiste Tavernier, the French adventurer who took the stone to Europe had great misfortunes visit him. Some versions of the "Hope" diamond story narrate that he lost the fortune he made by selling the stone to the ruler of France Louis XIV. The records show that the deal covered the sale of 44 large and 1,122 small brilliants. The price was 897,831 livres (nearly $2,00 000) of which 220,000 livres were paid for the Blue alone.

There is a picture of 20 of the most important stones drawn by Tavernier himself included in his Memoirs. This illustration shows the Blue from three angles and describes the color as "a faire violet."

The transaction took place in 1668. Tavernier was created a "noble." He purchased the barony of Aubonne with the proceeds. At this point, the stone was 112.1/2 carats.

It was "Indian cut." According to Tavernier, diamonds were cut at the pithead of the mine. The taste of Europeans requires an immediate impact in a jewel. The brilliance has to be obvious. The Indian taste depends upon the knowledge and the sensitivity of the viewer. The 17th century Indians knew gemstones intimately because they had been rich for centuries. Their astrological beliefs endowed the different gems with the power of the astral body, which they represented on earth. Thus the ruby as representing the sun would be the centre of a navarattan or nine stone cluster representing the astral bodies, which affect the fate of all life.

The stone is cut only to remove blemishes which diminish its power. Louis XIV was the first monarch of Europe to display his wealth in the form of diamonds. The understated Indian cut of the Blue was not bright and brilliant enough to impress the nobles and the ladies of his court. He therefore, had it cut afresh in 1673, five years after its acquisition by a diamond cutter named Sieur Pitau.

The size came down to 67.1/8 9 carats. The "Hope" Blue is only 45.52 carats. How are these two not only linked but the same?

We shall provide the available information in the next column.


© Akhilesh Mithal, 1991-1999. All rights reserved.
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