Well, good afternoon and welcome to the Library of Congress [the Library]. I’m John Cole. I’m the director of the Library’s Center for the Book. And we’re pleased to have you here for another one of our “Books and Beyond” author talks. The center was created in 1977 to stimulate public interest in books and reading. It was a project of the late Daniel Boorstin. It was one of his passions, reading, and he created the center to get the Library of Congress more involved in reading and book promotion.
The Center for the Book is private-public partnership. Our salaries are paid by the Library of Congress, but we have public sector partners that help us with our programming and help fund all of the Center’s activities. We have a network around the country with state centers in each state that help us at the local level, largely by honoring local authors and writers. We also are heavily involved in the National Book Festival. And I hope that some of you have been to the Book Festival and are looking forward to the next one. We don’t quite have a date but it will be sometime, we think, in late September or in September of 2008. Of course, with Mrs. Laura Bush as our honorary chair, this will not occur after this year. So we’re looking to, we hope, a transition period and a continuation of the National Book Festival under the Library of Congress’s auspices.
Today’s talk by Richard Kurin is about a wonderful book and project that he’s going to tell you all about. It’s about the Hope Diamond indeed. And he takes the view of a cultural anthropologist. And you will hear all kinds of wonderful stories. We also are filming today’s presentation for later cybercast on the Center for the Book’s Web site. For that reason I’d like to remind you to turn off all things electronic. If you have anything you’re wearing or that’s on electronically -- off it goes. Secondly, there will be a chance for questions and answers following. If you do ask a question, which we hope you do, because Richard has lots of answers, I know that, that also is your permission -- you are giving us your permission to be part of our cybercast. Today’s program is co-sponsored by the Smithsonian Library System. We are very pleased to have the Director here to introduce a fellow Smithsonian employee.
Nancy E. Gwinn has been the director of the Smithsonian Library since 1997. It’s my pleasure to introduce Nancy to get us started. Nancy? Give Nancy a hand.
Nancy E. Gwinn:
Thank you John. As a Smithsonian employee, I am frequently out on the street or on the [National] Mall in the vicinity of our museums. More than once a visitor has stopped to ask me, “Where is the Hope Diamond?” Well, that’s right after the first ladies’ gowns and the red ruby slippers. It’s certainly one of the most famous of the Smithsonian’s objects. I would guess that most of the over seven million visitors to the Natural History Museum, where my office is also located, go to see it. So much mystery and legend surrounds the diamond. Even though they say that diamonds are a girl’s best friend, this one has seemed more foe than friend to those it has touched, allegedly cursing some of them to their demise. From its discovery in 17th century India through its donation to the Smithsonian in 1958 by the jewelry firm of Harry Winston, the Hope Diamond has been shrouded in mystery and steeped in intrigue.
Who better than our speaker today, my colleague and cultural anthropologist Richard Kurin, to pierce the shroud in an entertaining yet solidly factual way? A former Fulbright fellow with a doctorate from the University of Chicago, Richard has worn many hats with the Smithsonian, some of them concurrently. For two decades he’s been the director of the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, the organizer of the annual Folklife Festival, and operator of Smithsonian Folkways. He has been so successful that he was asked to also assume the position of Director of Smithsonian’s National Programs, which includes oversight of the central educational programs, the traveling exhibitions service, the affiliations program, and the Smithsonian Associates.
Now clearly the Smithsonian thought that this just wasn’t enough. So he’s also become acting Undersecretary for History and Culture, overseeing five museums and heritage programs as well as himself, I guess, in his other roles. And back along, he managed to research and write “Hope Diamond: The Legendary History of a Cursed Gem,” which was published last year. Richard’s groundbreaking work moves between ancient religion and modern magic, royal power and class rivalry, revenge and greed, to uncover the mystery and the true story of the world’s most infamous bauble, and to bring the story up to the present. So please join me in welcoming Richard Kurin.
Got to hit that button. Okay.
Thanks a lot. I usually move around a lot in this talk because I get a little excited about the subject matter. But, because we’re filming, so I’ll be more stationary. It’s usually not my style. Also, born in the South Bronx, coming from New York, I tend to talk really fast and swallow a lot of syllables. But if I do that and you need a translation, just put up your hand and slow me down a bit.
Let’s see, is that moving forward?
Yeah, that’s what the Hope Diamond looks like today, if you see it in the Smithsonian. 45 ½ carats. It came to the Smithsonian as Nancy said in 1958. Package: [laughter] brown paper bag. A guy who was an ex-police officer in New York City, worked for Harry Winston, he packages up a brown paper bag, put the diamond in it. Got on the New York subway to go to the central post office. Addressed it to Smithsonian Institution -- at least he said Institution, not Institute -- Washington, D.C. That was it. $2.66.
You want me to slow down?
No, no. [inaudible] perfect, I’m from New York. I need to know, do you mean the post office on 8th Avenue and 34th Street?
[laughter] The famous one -- that’s the office where -- no, what is it, the saying on --
Right, yeah, that’s the one, the one about the snow and the --
That’s the one, that’s the one --
My grandfather worked there.
That’s the one -- two dollars and 66 cents. The post -- I made a mistake, actually. It wasn’t your grandfather I’m sure -- about the postage. Okay, came to the Smithsonian that Monday. Arrived at the postal museum down here next to Union Station, where we now have the Postal Museum, interestingly enough, where the package is now gone. What a great story. The guy that -- that’s [inaudible] -- it was installed in the new Gem Hall in Natural History. I call this the “ship’s portal” installation. Pretty ugly. But I remember as a kid in junior high school visiting -- but you know, it was pretty simple, and stayed that way for a long time.
Okay, newspapers. What are you crazy? Art Buchwald wrote a column. “Who in Washington is responsible for this? This is a cursed gem. Once we get this, and it’s acquired by the National Museum of the United States, the U.S. will be cursed.” And here was a cartoon in an Oklahoma paper: “Bad Luck Hope Diamond Given to the U.S.” There’s Uncle Sam, inflation, debt, other problems. The idea was that the gem was cursed by a Hindu deity and the curse of the diamond would harm the United States, and the Smithsonian had committed a terrible faux pas.
The guy that delivered the diamond was this guy James Todd. He actually drove it alone from the post office down here to the museum. No SWAT team, no guns, no hire, nobody riding shotgun. He delivered it. He figured it was all hoopla. In February -- delivered in November -- in February his wife died of a heart attack. His dog got run over. He got hit by a car and broke both legs. And finally his house burned down. And people in Washington said, “Well maybe there’s something to this curse.”
Now, the curse story was first told in this place, a fancy hotel, Hotel Bristol in Paris, in 1910 by Pierre Cartier. Everybody knows Cartier, right? And Cartier came into the suite of an American couple, this couple, Evalyn and Ned McLean. You know McLean, Virginia? Named after the McLeans. Know Riggs Bank? McLean Gardens here in town, Riggs Bank, a few other things. Cartier walked into their suite. Ned was a little drunk. Evalyn was always ready for something. She had bought other things from Cartier in the past. Cartier took out a package. And he started telling her the story of a blue diamond. And Evalyn was very intrigued.
You’re with the Smithsonian, right? You want to hold on to that? Don’t let anybody get that. John, you want to watch her and --
Okay, you know. Basically Cartier said, Jean Baptiste Tavernier, the first guy up here on the left, who had acquired the diamond, stole it from a Hindu idol and he was eaten by dogs. Then it went to the French Louis XIV. By the time it got to Marie Antoinette over there and Louis XVI, they owned the diamond and they were guillotined. It went to the Hope family later and Hope went bankrupt. It then went to the Turkish Sultan who was undone by the Young Turks in the revolution. And it was worn by his concubine who had her throat slit. This is a pretty heavy tale by Cartier.
Now Cartier was right about some things. It was acquired by this guy Jean Baptiste Tavernier who made 16 voyages to India in the 17th century -- Nancy, you’re cheating.
But I knew what was in there.
[laughter] In that time India was the only known source of diamonds in the world. So all the diamonds known to the Romans, known through antiquity, the Middle Ages, all came from India, prior to the discovery of diamonds in Brazil in the 1720s and South Africa much later. So India was the source of diamonds. Tavernier loved diamonds. He visited a region of India called Golconda, which was famous for its thing. Some people know Golconda. There’s even American towns named Golconda. Golconda was kind of like the El Dorado of Asia because of its reputation.
This is -- start later. Remind me not to hit this now.
And there Tavernier visited the mines. And he was the first European person to really report on how diamonds were got. A lot of the stories were Marco Polo stories that were traced back to Sinbad stories, that were traced back to Alexander the Great stories of how diamonds were mythically got. Tavernier wrote about the actual diamond techniques.
And these diamonds are alluvial diamonds. It’s not the big pit diamonds which you have in South Africa. These diamonds are found in alluvial streams. They come up from volcanoes, they’re carried by rivers. They end up resting someplace. They’re covered by other sludge and other stuff. And so you only have to dig about eight to 14 feet to get them. But it takes a lot of labor. In this mine where Tavernier actually acquired the Hope Diamond, the blue diamond -- it was later, we noted, renamed the Hope -- there were about 100,000 people working to find literally a handful of diamonds a year. Very hard work. That’s what a diamond looks like in the rough. It doesn’t sparkle or shine like many of your diamonds out in the audience. It looks pretty rough. In the Kollur Mine in 1653, Tavernier acquired this roughly cut diamond of 112 carats. Somebody in our audience must have a diamond that size that they’re wearing. Just to give you a perspective, usual engagement rings are what -- one carat if the guy really loves you. A little more -- [inaudible]. 112 is a lot of carats.
Indians had their own conceptions of diamonds, they called diamonds “vajra”, which means “thunderbolt.” The idea is that diamonds encapsulate energy. They’re very powerful. It’s like Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Batman” or one of those things where he uses the diamond for the death ray or James Bond uses the diamond for the death ray, or Dr. No or somebody. The idea is diamonds contain great energy and the only people who can open up the energy of the diamond and use it are gods or supernatural beings. That becomes the thunder, the lightning. That’s the diamond at work. That’s in India.
For Indians also there’s an idea of diamonds coming from different planets and stars, having astral powers. Not unlike our own notion of birthstones, which are derived from Indian sources. Indians basically believe -- you see the sun, the [inaudible] -- the seven major gems. If you look at the slide on the left, the sun -- the ruby -- is in the middle. And then the other major gems around. And the idea is that you have to pick the gem that suits you, your birth, your character. You wear a lot of that gem and it protects you from the black tongue, the evil eye, the bad visions of other people wanting to do good. That is, what are gems do? Like that vajra, like that diamond, they [sound effect] suck in energy. So you don’t cut them up to let the energy out. They’re there to suck in stuff and hold it in and to protect you.
And so Indians would only cut diamonds and other gems to remove the imperfections, not to make them sparkle and shine, because the bigger the gem, the more power they have to protect you. And rulers were bedecked by gems. If you wanted to see diamond use -- it’s not the Grammy Awards or anything, it’s the -- or the Academy Awards, it was in Golconda, in Hyderabad, with rulers really bedecked with diamonds and other gems. Blue diamonds particularly in one of the conceptual systems in India are associated with Yama, the god of death. It’s not that they’re bad. It’s just that the god of death destroys evil.
Tavernier returned to France, selling hundreds of diamonds to Louis XIV. He was made a baron, got some good property in Switzerland. You can actually go to Aubonne, Switzerland. And you can go on Tavernier Street and still visit that old house. It still stands. Beautiful; look out on the lake. Tavernier sold that 112 carat diamond. It was called the Tavernier Violet. Not that it was a different color. Violet in that time in French meant “intense blue.” He sold that diamond to Louis XVI. It was recorded in the court’s sales. That’s what it looked like, up in the upper left. And he got the equivalent of 1.8 million dollars for the diamond. Very roughly cut -- you can see the three views of that diamond. Remember, 112, 112 blue, 112 blue.
Tavernier wrote this in his journal. When Tavernier came back and reported on his travels to India, his book was a best seller. Published in, I think, 1676. Everybody was reading Tavernier. And it, six or seven volumes -- in one paragraph or two paragraphs he had this story about -- that he’d heard, it had nothing to do with the violet or the blue diamond he acquired. It was just a story he heard in passing one night traveling around India, about a temple where there was a great idol that had two diamonds for his eyes. There was a 40 carat diamond. A jeweler wanted to steal the diamond, took the diamond, got shut up in the temple at night. They opened the doors of the temple in the morning and the guy was dead. It was the wrath of the god. That story, that snippet, became the basis of every cursed diamond story in the West for the next 400 years. Okay, had nothing to do with the blue diamond. But Tavernier writes in his journal.
Okay, if you think about at this time, Indian cuts -- in Tavernier’s time, you have these Indian cuts and again it was just to, not really symmetrical to make the diamond shine, but just to get rid of deficiencies. In Europe you started having after the Renaissance the application of geometry, optics, thinking about and theorizing light. You started getting Europeans figuring out how to cut glass, how to make glasses, how to make telescopes, and how to cut diamonds. So, you can make stuff sparkle and shine and manipulate light. And so you started getting the development of European cuts, from the simple table cut here to the rose cut, to what most people today wear, is the brilliant cut.
The secret to cutting diamonds is olive oil. [laughs] Who would’ve known? You take some diamond -- only a diamond can cut diamond. You take some diamond, you rub the diamonds together. Now if you rub a diamond together with a diamond, you get a lot of heat. You can’t really cut or mold diamonds that way. The way you do it is you add olive oil to the thing and it lubricates the thing.
So, that was the great innovation that allowed for diamond cutting in Europe. This is the cut that most of you, if you do, ladies, if you do have diamond rings, or if any of you guys have diamond rings, this is usually what your diamond looks like. Those are the parts of the diamond, and it’s really constructed in that way, very mathematical so that you manipulate light. So, if it’s not cut right, you will not get the sparkle and shine that a diamond does. The whole issue is -- here were Europeans, here were Indians so concerned about keeping the power of the gem in, as a protective force, and here were Europeans so intent on cutting the diamond to let the stuff out. That’s basically the truth. And if you go to Versailles - people here have been to Versailles, right? Yeah? It’s all cut glass, mirrors, it’s all about light. What was that guy’s name, Louis XIV, yeah, what’d he call himself?
Let it shine. And so Louis XIV ordered this diamond, this 112 carat diamond to be cut down to 67 carats so it could sparkle and shine. That is, that cutting of the diamond was part of the particular ethno-aesthetic moment in Europe in terms of, you know, the Renaissance and manipulation of light. But it doubled in value, because it’s better to have something sparkly, shiny, and manipulated by human kind. It became -- a new name -- I mean, Louis wasn’t going to continue Tavernier’s name. It became the French Blue. So, 112 Tavernier, 67 French Blue. That’s how we think it was refasteded. So the original diamond, the outer thing, and the French Blue the inner. Kind of cut out of that block.
Louis XIV wore it sometimes suspended from his neck, sometimes on a broach. His successor Louis XV was made a knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece. Now this wasn’t an order of knights that went out and protected damsels in distress or jousted or did anything like that. This was an order that kings gave other kings, and nobles gave other nobles around Europe, to point out how honorable they were. And, when Louis XV was made a knight of the Order of Golden Fleece, the Order of the Golden Fleece was basically kind of a hanging fleece. And it told the story of the Jason legend. And it was basically a fleece hanging from a ribbon. But if you became a knight, you were able to embellish the insignia, the knightly order, however you wanted.
And because there were actually two orders of this -- one a kind of Hapsburg order and one a Bourbon order at this time, and Louis XV united both those royal houses, he invested a lot in making this a very fancy decoration. This was the design for it. Here’s the French Blue there -- that’s 67 carats. See this big diamond over here? That’s about 40 carats. This thing had hundreds and hundreds of diamonds, about six inches long, and very, very valuable. Probably the most elaborate and valuable jewel ever assembled by humankind. This was the Portuguese Golden Fleece, assembled about 40 years later. That’s what it looks like. You can’t even count the number of diamonds in there. That’s not a diamond in the middle, that’s a sapphire.
Okay, so Louis XV wore the French Blue in the Golden Fleece. Louis XVI wore the French Blue in a Golden Fleece. Marie Antoinette never wore the blue diamond. It was a knightly decoration, a kingly decoration. The only time we know that it was taken out was for scientific experiment because, in a book, a rare book in the Library of Congress, there’s a record of a French scientist who was doing experiments on specific gravity, and took the blue diamond out because he was looking at the specific gravity of different diamonds. “Did orange diamonds and pink diamonds and red diamonds have different specific gravities than blue diamonds?” Gives you an indication of the French collection.
In 1792, French Revolution, the French crown jewels which had been taken away by the royal family were stolen out of the royal warehouse and disappear from history. Most of the French jewels, 95 percent of the French jewels, taken and stolen. Sixty-seven carat, taken and stolen. Now if you read the book, you’ll find out about the missing chapters of the Hope Diamond and how the Hope Diamond, this blue diamond, was used as a conspiracy in the French Revolution, orchestrated by Danton and others. But I’ll leave that aside. [laughter] In any case, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette faced the guillotine and lost their heads.
In the early 1800s, with Napoleon’s rise to power, Napoleon wanted to restore the French crown jewels. He thought this was -- besides eating up all of Europe, he wanted the French crown jewels because he thought it was a matter of French standing. And he wanted the Golden Fleece, he wanted that French Blue. He wanted it badly. He thought he knew who had it. I know who had it -- it’s in the book. But Napoleon wanted that and he couldn’t get it, and so he commissioned his own Golden Fleece. Only, being Napoleon, it couldn’t be like the regular Golden Fleece, it had to be the Triple Golden Fleece.
So that’s what Napoleon commissioned. We actually have this in the Smithsonian. He’s the only one that got it by the way. He awarded it to himself.
Okay, 1812. So the French Blue, 67 carats, disappears, 1792, September, stolen. 1812, a 44 carat blue diamond without provenance is documented in London in the possession of this guy Daniel Eliason. Here’s a memorandum, here’s the actual thing. This actually is over in the Geological Survey Library out in Herndon or Reston or somewhere like there. And this drawing, that drawing of that diamond, that’s exactly what the Hope Diamond looks like today. So this just emerges.
George IV purchases that blue diamond from Eliason and it looks like he wore it during his coronation. He may have been using it -- now he put it in a Golden Fleece. I mean, coincidental. [laughter] He makes his own Golden Fleece for his coronation. He’s of course -- England is fighting France in a war. They’ve won, they’ve defeated. I think it’s a trophy against Napoleon. “Napoleon, you wanted this. Blank you. In your eye, it’s around my neck.” [laughter] I actually think it was also a trophy more in his victory over his wife which was his greater enemy than Napoleon. But that’s another chapter.
Okay, we know George IV sits in this 1822 portrait. He’s wearing the Golden Fleece here, you see, and that blue diamond is exactly what the Hope Diamond looks like today. We know that because in the Wallace Gallery in London, I got up on a ladder, took a facsimile of the Hope Diamond, took it there, took pictures, measured -- it’s exactly the Hope Diamond, like the Hope Diamond. But it’s not called the Hope Diamond. It’s called the George IV Blue, because George IV owns it.
When he died in 1830, his last mistress tried to steal a lot of his treasures. The Duke of Wellington was the executor of the estate. He told Lady Cunningham, “Give me back the diamonds and the gems, or off with your head.” She complied. And Wellington was friends with this guy, Thomas Hope, a wealthy banker family. The Hopes actually made possible the Louisiana Purchase. They’re the ones that loaned the U.S. the money for the deal. And the Hopes, this guy was a good friend of Wellington. George IV had so many debts. They don’t want to make them public because they would’ve bankrupted England. So they try to sell off the non -- kind of family, nonroyal property. Thomas Hope was a good friend of Wellington. They made a secret sale because Thomas Hope’s brother, Henry Philip Hope was a great diamond collector. And so this is why it goes to the Hope family to settle George’s debts.
Hope published a catalogue of his collection again in a rare book in this library, 1838. He did not call it the Hope Diamond. He calls it “Number One.” His diamond was inherited by Henry Thomas Hope, his nephew. It was displayed at the Crystal Palace in the great London Exposition and in Paris. And it became known as one of the world’s great diamonds. And when you read the catalogues, also -- I can’t remember whether it’s in the Library of Congress or the New York Public Library -- but when you read the catalogues of the exposition, it’s “Mister Hope’s Blue Diamond,” “Hope’s Blue Diamond,” “Hope Diamond,” -- yeah, it gets to be the Hope Diamond that way.
Now, introducing another character, this guy Charles Duke of Brunswick who also had a great diamond collection. His diamond collection actually was superior to that of Mr. Hope. He lived in Germany in Braunschweig, then in Geneva. And when he died in 1873, he had a 13 carat blue diamond of similar color to the Hope. And so people started speculating. Gemologists of the time speculated that if you take the original Tavernier diamond -- 112 carats, right? Everybody --math here with me? If you take these three diamonds together, 67 carats -- the Hope was the bigger piece of what had been cut from the French Blue, and the Brunswick Blue was this other 13 carat blue diamond. And then maybe there was another little, little piece of about a carat and a half that was also floating out there that gemologists speculated might be part of the same diamond. So if you put all three of these together, you got the French Blue cut from that Tavernier. A lot of speculation about this.
Okay. Around the same time, 1858, the British government took control of India. Now, [unintelligible] curse. Have I mentioned curse at all? Nothing about no ancient curse of the Hope Diamond. Right?
No, no curse, nobody is getting -- okay, where’d that come from? Queen Victoria becomes Empress of India in the 1860s. And you had in 1868 a guy named Wilkie Collins. Everybody knows Wilkie Collins, right? This is a library -- I’m so glad to see everybody’s heads nodding. These days, you know, you talk to audiences -- I’ve done about 60 of these talks around the country. You say Wilkie Collins and “The Moonstone” -- nobody knows what you’re -- I mean three people will in an audience of 100 -- it’s sad. It’s a great, great book, and you know kicked off -- and I have to say “Oh yeah, Wilkie Collins” and “he ran around with somebody named Charlie Dickens,” and, you know, you kind of...
Anyway, Wilkie Collins wrote “The Moonstone” -- people have read “The Moonstone,” or enough people, okay -- it’s about a cursed diamond. It’s yellow. It’s stolen from the eye of an idol. It comes to the British countryside. It wrecks havoc on the family. And finally it’s returned and its goes back to India. It’s kind of an anticolonial -- it can be read as an anticolonialist tale. Wilkie Collins was doing it at the same time that the Koh-I-nur, the great diamond of India, was coming to Queen Victoria. And the whole notion was that the -- he writes basically that here’s a cursed diamond.
Now, Wilkie Collins, when you go through his notes on writing the book, he’s using what as his source material? Tavernier and that paragraph. And he uses the characters that he talks about in the preface that are all the characters that Tavernier dealt with in his time. So Wilkie Collins is taking it on a snippet that Tavernier had heard in the Indian countryside and now writing a book about a cursed diamond. Has nothing to do with the blue Hope Diamond, it’s about a yellow diamond, it’s a fictional diamond.
Anybody know what those are? See all those lines? Bad picture, scratchy picture. Those are ropes. This is the great pit in South Africa. Very different than the Indian diamond pits. In South Africa you had to be down at the bottom, and those are ropes. You’d have one buddy at the top of the cliff, another buddy at the bottom. Your share, your stake was three feet by three feet. That’s what you dug in to find diamonds. You dig stuff out, you get some rocks, you put it in a bucket, your buddy hauls the bucket up, dumps it out at the top, sends the bucket down, you dig out some more.
What Cecil Rhodes did was he unified all those little claims so you didn’t have the ropes anymore. And it made diamond mining much more efficient. But diamond mining gets started -- first diamonds discovered 1868. And all of a sudden in South Africa you have a great new explosion of the availability of diamonds. If you look at the United States before then, literally a few hundred carats being imported to the United States. After the discovery of diamonds in South Africa, it’s huge. The biggest, biggest seller of diamonds in the world after the discovery in South Africa is?
DeBeers? No. Retailer.
Tiffany. Sears Roebuck. [laughs]. Sears Roebuck. You want a diamond? One carat diamond? $17.95. You don’t like that? 11 dollars. We’ll sell you two for $25. You want a three carat diamond? 38 dollars. Five carats? 70 dollars. I’m not kidding. Look in the library here in the Sears Roebuck catalogs from the 1880s. Diamonds are very cheap and they’re trying to sell it to everybody. And Tiffany invents the solitary setting in, what, 1886. They had to invent uses for the diamond because there’s too many diamonds around.
And so Tiffany and others started saying, “Well, if you love somebody, you’ll give them a diamond.” They try an investment strategy first -- “Buy a diamond as an investment.” That doesn’t work so well. “Buy a diamond as love.” Works real well. So now they’re selling diamond in diamond rings, diamond engagement rings, diamond necklaces, diamond watches, diamond in everything. Before that there was no sustained tradition of diamond engagement rings. None. Zero. None.
Again, you do have a few isolated cases through history of people giving all sorts of gem rings, but no, you know, diamond ring for marriage, done I think three times before that. No sustained tradition. Certainly no popular tradition. In the United States, the wealthy used diamonds for big, conspicuous display. “I am more powerful than you.” “My wife will wear more diamonds than yours.” And this gets to be a thing. In New York, it’s called the “Diamond Circle,” in the Metropolitan Opera. And the idea is that diamonds start becoming a standard. If everybody can have diamonds, how do you isolate or show your particular power or wealth other than having bigger diamonds? So big diamonds becomes a thing in America in the late 1800s.
Meanwhile the Hope Diamond passes to this guy, Lord Francis Hope, in England, who has a fortune, owns, what is it, 63 Flemish paintings including Rembrandts -- has Rembrandts and others, huge collections, estates, and everything. And proceeds to squander everything. He marries May Yohe, born in Bethlehem, Pa. Stage actress known as “Madcap May”. Runs away. I’ve traced at least five husbands to May Yohe at this time. The gay 90s were, well, were not gay for May. But she appeared in musicals. Francis Hope, Lord Hope, met her and loved her. Here’s an American show gal. So here’s an English aristocrat, tremendously wealthy, meets a show gal in New York, born, bred, in Bethlehem, Pa. They fall in love, they get married. May loves it -- this is a rags to riches story. Now, she can wear the Hope Diamond. And all that status and position that she would be normally denied, now here she is being able to wear one of the great diamonds in the world.
However, her husband, Lord Francis, spent and gambled away the family fortune. At one time -- I tried to do a calculation -- I think somewhere between $450 and $600 million gambled away. That’s a lot of money. And so she had to go back to work. She performed in the theater and so on. And the marriage did not go very well. He was driven into debt, and he had to sell the diamond. And following several court cases, he was allowed finally to sell the diamond. The family didn’t want him to sell the diamond, they regard it as now family inheritance. But after a number of cases, he succeeded in selling it to Joseph Frankel’s and Sons in New York for the equivalent of $2.9 million. And May Yohe ran away with actually the son of the ex-mayor of New York. He was husband, I think, number three.
Frankel’s faced an economic slowdown in the early 1900s. That is, they’d invested a lot in the Hope Diamond, and the Hope Diamond sat in their safe. And it started driving the company into ruin. Now we’re here in the early 1900s, okay? The first story of the diamond being cursed or having a problem, not even cursed, a problem, a bad influence, grows out of the pages of the “New York Times” in the economics and financial section because the Hope Diamond is sitting in Frankel’s safe. It is absorbing all their capital. It’s threatening their company.
And so the first story of any infamy or bad luck associated with the Hope Diamond is actually bad financial luck for the company that owns it. First story. Then you start seeing these things coming out again, those great purveyors of folklore, modern contemporary folklore in a mass society, the “Washington Post,” “New York Herald,” and other newspapers, saying, “The remarkable gem is a hoodoo. It’s brought trouble to all who’ve owned it.” Totally fabricated, made up by the press. Based again -- influenced by the story of the diamond being bad luck in Frankel’s safe. The idea was, it was sitting in the safe, emanating its powers, overcoming the company.
Cartier acquires the diamond in 1909 after a series of sales. And Cartier specialized in orientalist themes for jewels. These were the Cartier father and the brothers, and they also read Tavernier’s journal, quite avidly. And Cartier traveled to India and other places, learning languages, acquiring, adopting, and exploiting various orientalist themes in jewelry styles. You know Worth, Charles Worth, like Worth gowns? That’s the Cartier brother-in-law -- this is Worth. [laughter] Dressed up in oriental style. Orientalism becomes a theme, okay, a way of decoration, a way of amusement.
Cartier in Paris had -- so Nancy, you still have that box? Yeah, okay, that’s the box that Cartier came into the hotel in 1910. And Cartier, what I think Cartier did is he applied “The Moonstone” story to the Hope Diamond, lock, stock, and barrel. That is, there’d been stories about the Hope Diamond possibly being bad luck. What he did is that he elaborated that story and he said, “Aha, this diamond was stolen from the eye of the idol. It was taken to the West. It caused all this misfortune and bad luck. It’s really cursed and it’s going to bite you.” And so it was very clear that Cartier was taking Collin’s story, a fictional story based on Tavernier’s account, and then applying it to this diamond. Now Evalyn didn’t mind that, because Evalyn Walsh McLean said what was bad luck for other people was good luck for her.
Her dad was a miner. She was pure at heart and poor at heart. He struck it rich when she was about ten years old -- she said, “All this stuff, Marie Antoinette, these kings, won’t apply to me. I’m a, you know, a salt of the earth gal. I’m not a king or queen, I wasn’t born rich. All this stuff isn’t going to get to me.” She was fine with the diamond’s curse. She didn’t like the setting. She thought it was a little old fashioned -- and that’s what we think it looks like. We don’t have a good picture of that.
Cartier persisted. He brought the Hope Diamond to Washington, here in town, and sold it to them. He came on a boat, a ship, called the Lusi -- what’s that ship?
Lusitania, that’s the one. Okay. So he came on that ship. He tracked them down at their Washington home, the old office of the “Washington Post,” and he sold them the diamond for $180,000, which is $3.9 million today. The curse made front-page headlines in the “New York Times,” “Post” and other places. It made stories around the world. “Un Unglücklich Diamant” in the German papers and they connect it to the Brunswick Blue. And Evalyn wore the diamond in this oriental style. She either wore it on her head, over here very much in Indian style, or around her neck. But you can see the kind of orientalism in the style.
Vinson McLean, their older son -- and again this is actually a picture that comes out of, I think, one of the Library of Congress’s collections it oversees with the Martin Luther King Washingtonian Collection. The McLeans -- Vinson McLean, the eldest son. He was dubbed the “100 million dollar baby” when he was born in 1910. And that’s when 100 million dollars was a lot of money. Florence Harding, at that time the senator’s wife, later becomes first lady, was very superstitious. She actually worried about the curse of the Hope Diamond. She said, “Evalyn, give it back. It’s cursed, it’s not good. Bad stuff is going to happen.” Her and Evalyn would go around Washington to astrologers and palm readers. Some would even come into the White House. And so the Hope Diamond was kind of there as like this funny thing that was lurking.
In 1919 during the Kentucky Derby, the McLeans were in Kentucky for the Kentucky Derby. Their son -- they lived up where McLean Gardens is today. That used to be Friendship, their estate. He was running across the street. A car, a Model T Ford going eight miles an hour hit him. He was knocked to the ground, suffered a concussion, and died.
Ancient history or modern folklore? All of a sudden,”Washington Post,” other papers -- “Another tragedy in the wake of the Hope Diamond. Who will next own this death gem? The malignant rays, the gem of disaster.” Right? “Disa-star.” Bad star. It’s malignant rays. Ooooh. All that Indian stuff in the gem. All that bad stuff. All those evil eyes. All the power that’s only supposed to be released by the gods, opened up by foolish people in the West. Now bathing them in its curse.
The curse shared a lot of commonality with themes around the Titanic and with Tutankhamun. Heavyweight champion of the world Jack Johnson refused berth on the Titanic. A lot of toasting songs, drinking songs, and sermons in the United States about that injustice, and how God’s hand had moved on the waters to turn over the Titanic because of the injustice done. People had a very, very expensive tomb. Those Nashes and Asters and others. Okay. That is, when you can’t get the rich or the powerful by regular means, you rely on other sources to do the work for you. And indeed there’s a lot of songs in the archives here, in this library, those songs about the Titanic, the sources are pointing to the curse.
And, what’s his name -- James Cameron -- used that in the movie itself, that’s the blue diamond that goes over and he says “This was stolen in 1792 during the French Revolution.” Tutankhamun curse, spread by Arthur Conan Doyle among others. Discovery of the Tutankhamun tomb. Take it back to England. “You’re messing with other people’s culture. You’re taking what doesn’t belong to you. You’re messing around with other people’s gods and goddesses and beliefs, and they’re going to come back and get you.” Cautionary tale. Straight folklore. I don’t know, it’s -- You had people like John D. Rockefeller who said, “God gave me my money.” I think people thought, “Wow, wouldn’t it be neat if somebody else’s god took it away?”
That’s the curse. So the curse was meeting, I think, a need both within American society, given the vast disparities of wealth as a means of kind of class revenge. And particularly the resonance in Europe, particularly in England, was to their colonization of other places and their exploitation of other people’s resources.
Ned McLean fulfilled that curse very well. Close associate of Harding, as I said. He owned the “Post”. He was the fall guy in the Teapot Dome Scandal. He’s the guy whose name is on the checks. He became an alcoholic. He lost the “Post,” went insane, served the last few years of his life out at Towson, Md., in an old age home, a recovery home, and it was -- he went by the name of Mr. Orlow. A little -- he’s a strange character.
Evalyn McLean here in her jazz outfit, wearing the Hope Diamond, great Washington hostess. Supported GIs, charities, opened her home to GIs. She actually went to Walter Reed once a week. And she let GIs play with the Hope Diamond. She used it for charity. She opened her home. Her home still exists. It’s now called the Indonesian Embassy, 2020 Massachusetts Ave. Lovely place.
She even pawned the Hope Diamond -- here’s her pawn ticket -- for ransom in the Lindbergh kidnapping. Didn’t work.
Her daughter Evie committed suicide. Was married to a senator. Committed suicide. And so Evalyn was quite ambivalent about the curse. Sometimes she believed it, sometimes she was very playful about it. She thought the curse was great wealth misspent. The diamond represented that. She did her best not to do that.
When she died, the estate was -- didn’t have much money in it. Harry Winston acquired the Hope from the estate. And he used the Hope to interest Americans in buying diamonds after World War II. He’s a pretty chauvinistic guy. He believed that the U.S. diamond collection down in the Smithsonian was kind of a third-rate collection, putting it somewhere behind, you know, like Bulgaria or Croatia somewhere. Here was the U.S., a superpower, and it really needed a big, massive, national collection to mirror its political and economic and military role after World War II. And so he created something called the “Court of Jewels”. We didn’t have a court in this country. Harry created his own. And he had women around the U.S. wear the diamonds for fashion shows to raise money for charity. This was the first, the Court of Jewels.
This is a shrine in Lynchburg, Va., I mean, for when the Hope Diamond came to town in, you know, 1953. And I’ve had many people around the country come back to me and say, “I wore the diamond at the Pecan Festival or Texas State Fair in 1954” or whatever, and they have pictures. These are the diamonds that Harry had in this Court of Jewels. This lady’s probably wearing about a billion dollars worth of them. And so you have different models, regular people modeling these around the country, and the idea was to create interest in gems, but also to make them historical and biographical at a time when synthetic diamonds were coming on the market and Harry wanted to stem that, because he was worried that he’d lose business.
Oop, ooh, I don’t want to do that. What’d I do? Okay.
The Smithsonian, we originally planned -- very great federal program -- we did a thing with the whatever it is, General Services Administration this time or something to use diamonds that had been confiscated by smugglers coming into the U.S., to use those diamonds to acquire the Hope Diamond and pay for our stuff in our collection. We would love to do that today as I’m sure you would as colleagues in the Library. Now to many people it was the Hope Diamond, for us at the Smithsonian, it’s just, you know, 217868, it’s just another item in the Smithsonian, another specimen.
France requested to get the Hope Diamond in 1962. Charles DeGaulle, appropriately tried to do what Napoleon could not, bring back the French crown jewels. He said, “You guys at the Smithsonian have that blue diamond, that Hope Diamond is really our French Blue. We want it back to display. Temporarily.” Well, you guys, I mean, curate stuff here and hold stuff here. What would you say? “No.” [laughs] You know, first word out of our mouths at the Smithsonian, for any curator or conservator was “No, no, no way.” [laughter] We said no. We kept saying no. The Secretary of the Smithsonian said no.
Finally he got a call from some lady who lived in a white house down the block --
-- by the name of Jackie Kennedy, who said, “You have to say yes.” And so we said yes. But, not being stupid, we’re just as good as you, all here, not being stupid, we said at the Smithsonian, “Okay, if we’re going to give up the Hope Diamond to the French, we need a hostage.” And that hostage was --
The Mona Lisa.
-- Mona Lisa. So Jackie Kennedy says, “Do it,” and the Mona Lisa later comes to the National Gallery of Art.
I got involved with the Hope Diamond in ’85. I was doing Festival of India. And my boss, well, Dillon Ripley wanted to hold the dinner, the luncheon for the opening of Festival of India in the Gem Hall. And he said “Let’s do it in front of the Hope Diamond in the Gem Hall.” I said – I told Ralph Rinzler, my immediate boss, I said, “Ralph, tell him he’s crazy. What if Rajiv Gandhi asks for it back?” Rajiv was too polite, but Nancy Reagan, who’s a little superstitious, was a little shocked finding herself sitting under the Hope Diamond.
This of course what it looks like today. We’ve designed it that way, not so it looks cool -- it just looks cool, but it’s actually an icon of the museum. The architecture of the gallery actually mirrors the dome and the architecture of the building itself. So, it really is an icon of the museum as a whole. About five million of the people coming in the building see it. It’s still a popular icon in culture. Michelle Pfeiffer here wearing it for her “Life Magazine” article promoting the curse story and trying to raise money for us actually. When she did the photo shoot, we put her in the case. Jeff Posted, who’s the curator of the diamond, to do it and actually he noticed, I don’t know, about 4 o’ clock in the morning during the shoot that some of the diamonds were missing. He had the guts to do it -- he asked Michelle Pfeiffer to like stand up and move around in a certain way to see if a diamond fell. Anyway, well, you get the point.
Since coming to the Smithsonian, it’s been inspected, detected by, you know, standard gemological stuff. Scientists have explored its structure. We think it’s one atom of boron per million of carbon that makes the dark blue. A little much and it’s too dark, a little less and it’s light blue, as so many other diamonds are. Interestingly enough, shortwave phosphorous x-rays -- if you put ultraviolet radiation on the Hope Diamond and turn out the lights, it glows that color. The curse. The emanations within.
Finding out how it was cut the way it is has been a major work for a few decades for our folks over at Natural History. How did it go from, you know, the Tavernier to the French Blue to the Hope, figuring it out. We did some simulations about two years ago. There’s a documentary on TV about it, to figure out whether other gems could have been cut from it. And this is how we think they were cut from it. And it looks pretty certain that all three of these gems were the same. Whoa. Oh.
Some people have said that there’s pieces of the Hope still around. An 11 year-old visiting the Taft Museum in Cincinnati said, “Mom look, there, it’s a piece of the Hope Diamond.” That happened in 1951 and that story still is around. The Russians -- if you remember when they came around, the Russian crown jewels, a few years ago in Washington. They had that exhibit at the Hirshhorn? The Russian curator said this six carat blue diamond was a piece off the old rock. We said at the Smithsonian, “Hey, you’re just down the block. Why don’t you come over, bring your diamond over. We’ll put it under ultraviolet light, test it out, see if it glows red. That way we’ll know if it really is a piece of the old rock, if it glows just like the Hope Diamond does.” What do you think the Russians said?
“Nyet.” It was better, more publicity, not to know and to claim it than to know definitively that it wasn’t.
What I did is I said, “Okay, let me look at all the life spans of those people who’ve been associated with the Hope Diamond and see what age they lived to.” My hypothesis being that if you owned the Hope Diamond or stewarded the Hope Diamond or did something with the Hope Diamond, you would die younger than normal. It’s not true. Curse doesn’t seem to affect that whatsoever. Although there’s a few people I kind of -- well, never mind.
It’s still an icon, a national treasure. A last credible estimate of it’s value -- 200 million dollars by Ronald Winston. Still mysteries to be solved. If you get to the back of the book, there’s 21 questions I ask. If you can help solve them, maybe you’ll help me prove that the French Revolution was thrown for a diamond.
And I’ve loved working with the Hope Diamond. It’s been absolutely great. And it’s also had various kind of side benefits I have to tell you. Because -- why is this not working? Oh.
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