Two hundred and twenty-three years ago today, on September 11, 1792, a wild mob stormed the Royal Storehouse of the French royal family and over the next five days systematically looted its contents. The most spectacular piece that was stolen was known as the Blue Diamond of the Crown of France, a stunning egg-sized stone that had been brought to France by a French gem merchant in the middle of the previous century. The robbery of the Royal Storehouse was one of numerous crimes that were occurring during a violent and chaotic phase of the French Revolution which had deposed the Blue Diamond’s owner, King Louis XVI, from the throne of France. At the time of the theft Louis was imprisoned at the Tuilieries Palace as an enemy of the state. Within five months of the looting he was dead, executed by the guillotine in January 1793. His wife Marie Antoinette, who may have once worn the Blue Diamond, joined him in death in October of the same year. By then, however, the diamond itself had disappeared. It was impossible to tell what happened to it in the chaos that was then sweeping France.
Almost exactly 20 years later, a spectacular blue diamond appeared in the holdings of one Daniel Eliason, a noted diamond merchant in London, England. When I say it “appeared” I mean that it was officially recorded in his records. No one knows exactly when or under what circumstances Eliason acquired the diamond, but it certainly was distinctive, especially its deep blue color that reminded people in the know of the Blue Diamond of the Crown. However, this diamond was smaller and was cut differently. Exactly what happened to this diamond is also somewhat mysterious. It may have become property of the British royal family, though it was never officially recorded as being in their inventory and did not, for instance, end up as part of the Crown Jewels. What we know did happen is that by the year 1839 the stone was in the possession of Henry Philip Hope, member of a powerful banking family, whose father might have acquired it. Hope himself died in 1839 and his heirs promptly set about squabbling with each other over his inheritance, including the diamond. The stone remained in the Hope family until they were forced to sell it to pay off debts in 1902. Then it came to the United States, and by then was widely known as the Hope Diamond.
Louis XVI, the last French king to own the Blue Diamond, was executed in January 1793, only a few months after the jewel was stolen from his storehouse.
But were the two jewels–the Blue Diamond of the Crown stolen from the Royal Storehouse in 1792, and the Hope Diamond that came to the U.S., and eventually the Smithsonian Institution, in the 20th century–the same stone? Many experts thought so. We have no way of knowing for sure what happened to the Blue Diamond of the Crown after 1792, but it’s at least possible that it was recut into pieces, most likely a larger one, which is now the Hope Diamond, and a smaller piece which has evidently been lost. It would have been difficult to sell such a recognizable jewel without trying to disguise it somehow, especially since whoever obtained it in 1792 obviously stole it. Legally a thief cannot pass good title, even if stolen goods come into the possession of an innocent buyer who isn’t aware that it’s stolen. But with as famous as the Blue Diamond of the Crown was, it strains credulity to believe that anyone in Europe in the 1790s knowledgeable enough about diamonds to set a price for it wouldn’t have heard of the famous French jewel, and be suspicious of one that looked very much like it.
In 2005, the mystery–to the extent there was one–was finally solved. In that year an archivist discovered, in the archives of France’s Natural History Museum in Paris, a lead model of the Blue Diamond of the Crown. The three-dimensional model, evidently forgotten by scholars, probably dated from the mid-18th century and was much better than the previous records of the Blue Diamond, which were two-dimensional sketches. Using computers, French researchers proved not only that the Hope Diamond could fit inside the Blue Diamond of the Crown, but that other forensic evidence proves with 99% certainty that they were the same. Whatever happened to the piece(s) of the Blue Diamond sheared off in the rush cutting job after 1792 no one knows, but the Smithsonian, who now owns the stone, is satisfied that this is the Hope Diamond’s true provenance.
The “Heart of the Ocean” is a fictional diamond that plays a key part in the plot of the 1997 film Titanic, but its story is based closely on the real Hope Diamond.
Curiously, this mystery is only part of the very long story of the Hope Diamond/Blue Diamond, which in its entirety is much too involved to present here. How the stone was found in India in the middle of the 17th century, and eventually sold by a French adventurer to King Louis XIV in exchange for a noble title, is itself a pretty interesting account, as is the travail of how the Hope Diamond wound up around the neck of glittering Washington, D.C. socialite Evalyn Walsh McLean at lavish parties in the 1910s and 1920s. McLean and her husband were the last private owners of the gem. There is also a rather annoying legend of a “curse” of the Hope Diamond, which is kind of silly, like the “Curse of King Tut’s Tomb” a Rorschach-like attempt to string together a series of essentially random deaths over 200 years. But what does strike me is how long-lived the Hope Diamond has been, and how it keeps popping up in history in country after country, in the hands of owner after owner. Its story, if told from beginning to end, would be something not unlike the movie The Red Violin. The Hope Diamond has in fact spawned its own cinematic legacy: the fictional “Heart of the Ocean” jewel, which is the MacGuffin in the plot of the 1997 James Cameron film Titanic, is described in the film with a history quite similar to that of the deal Blue Diamond, including its loss by the French royal family during the Revolution.
What else can I say? Diamonds really are forever.