The Legends, Histories, and Superstitions of the World's Most Famous Gems

Updated on November 6, 2019
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I've been running an e-commerce store for jewelry for quite a while, so I know my way around gemstones.

Gemstones and History

Gemstones have captured the imagination of people since ancient times. They have been used as declarations of love, the spoils of war, gifts to show reverence, and especially as symbols of wealth and royal power. The most renowned, impressive, and sizable gems are famous around the world for their singular beauty, their royal owners, and their intriguing folklore. These are the histories, legends, and superstitions surrounding some of the world's most famous gems.

The Hope Diamond

Hope diamond-C. Smithtonian Institution
Hope diamond-C. Smithtonian Institution

The World's Most Famous Diamond

The most famous diamond in the world is undoubtedly the Hope Diamond. It has passed through the hands of generations of royalty, the best-known jewelers, and Gilded Age society members before landing in its present home, The Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. The Hope Diamond is perhaps equally famous for its enormous size (44 ¼ carats, in its current incarnation), its astonishing rare dark grayish-blue color, and the superstitions and curse that have been said to haunt its past owners.

The Origins of a Curse

The story of the Hope Diamond dates back to the 15th Century when a French merchant named Jean Baptiste Tavernier bought a 112 3/16 carat diamond from the Kollur Mine in Golconda, India. At the time that Monsieur Tavernier came to possess the stone, it was roughly cut into a triangular form, and was a very unique color that he called a "beautiful violet." Part of the tale of the Hope Diamond's curse holds that Tavernier, in fact, stole the gem from a Hindu statue, but there is no evidence to support this claim.

Marie Antoinette Learns of the Curse Too Late

The rare blue diamond was sold to the Sun King, Louis XIV of France, who had it recut several years later by his court jeweler to 67 1/8 carat gem that became known as the "Blue Diamond of the Crown," or simply, the "French Blue." The Sun King had the spectacular diamond set in gold, and he wore it around his neck on a ribbon for ceremonial occasions. The French Blue was reset by the next king, Louis XV into ceremonial jewelry called the Toison D'Or (the Order of the Golden Fleece).

The history of the French Blue takes an interesting turn during the French Revolution. When Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette attempted to escape France and their eventual fate, the crown jewels were turned over to the government in 1791. They were held in a poorly guarded location, which was robbed in September of 1792. The Queen was beheaded a little over a year later, and the legendary French Blue was to vanish for two decades.

The Diamond Gets Its Name

In 1812 a 44 ¼ carat blue diamond appeared in London, which is widely believed to be the French Blue diamond. There is speculation that the gem was recut to help conceal its origins. At any rate, dealer Daniel Eliason is thought to have sold it to King George IV of England, marking the second European royal family to possess this extraordinary gem. Following the king's death in 1830, it was sold to settle his debts, and the next time the diamond surfaced, it was owned by Henry Philip Hope, after whom the gem was named.

A Diamond Is a Debtor's Best Friend

After making its way through several generations of Hopes, the diamond was once again re-sold to cover debts, this time the gambling debts of Lord Francis Hope. The stone passed through a few more sets of hands before being purchased by legendary Parisian jeweler Pierre Cartier in 1909. There is some speculation that Cartier himself may have had a hand in expanding and promoting the fable of the curse of the Hope Diamond, as part of an attempt to sell it to Mrs. Evalyn Walsh McLean of Washington, D.C. Mrs. McLean was known to believe that bad luck could turn to good luck in her hands, a claim that might be disputed by the early deaths of two of her children and the eventual commitment of her husband to an asylum. Nonetheless, Cartier prevailed after resetting the Hope Diamond into a style more to Mrs. McLean's liking, and the stunning gem went home with its proud new owner in 1911.

Mrs. McLean and the Hope Diamond

The Lady Flaunts It

Never shy about wearing her extravagant gems, Mrs. McLean wore the Hope Diamond regularly. She had the blue diamond reset into the current mounting that we can see today, a pendant encircled by sixteen white pear and cushion-shaped diamonds that drops from a chain featuring another 45 white diamonds. In case this was not enough, Mrs. McLean also had a bale on the pendant, so that she could suspend another one of her eye-popping diamonds on the bottom of the Hope Diamond.

The Hope Diamond Is Safe At Last

Upon Mrs. McLean's death in 1947, the Hope Diamond was sold to another famous jeweler, Harry Winston of New York. He put the well-known stone on a circuit of charitable exhibitions until he donated it to the Smithsonian Institute in 1958, where it remains today, safely housed in a case of bulletproof glass that is three inches thick. Although the supposed curse of the Hope Diamond is a fascinating part of its legacy, it is largely believed to be fabricated, and certainly no trouble has come to the Smithsonian due to its ownership of the remarkable gem, while its presence has drawn countless visitors to the museum.

The Star of India

A Star Is Born and Disappears

The Hope Diamond is not the only extraordinary gemstone that the public can visit in the United States. The Star of India, weighing in at an amazing 563.35 carats, is a golf ball sized blue star sapphire believed to be the largest in the world. The name "Star of India" is actually a misnomer, as the extraordinary corundum was actually discovered in Sri Lanka (or Ceylon, as it was previously known) over three hundred years ago.

After being found in Sri Lanka, the Star of India made its way to India, where Moor traders sold it to an unnamed European dealer (which is probably why the star sapphire never ended up in the British Crown Jewels). The gem was likely cut in Sri Lanka, which was a very delicate operation; if the cutter misjudged his mark, the signature asterism (star effect) would have ended up off to one side instead of in the center of the sapphire.

The Star of India may not have passed through European royal hands like so many of the world's other best-known gems, but it did have one very famous owner: American J.P. Morgan. Morgan was a co-founder of the Museum of Natural History in New York, and he donated the exquisite sapphire to the museum in 1900, where it remained until it was stolen in 1964. The theft was one of the largest gem heists in American history, involving not only the Star of India, but several other precious gemstones.

Don't Forget to Check the Burglar Alarm Batteries

The story is like something out of a movie. Thieves discovered that the valuable gems in the Museum of Natural History were very poorly guarded, and they unlocked a bathroom window during the museum hours. When they returned after the institution was closed for the night, sure enough, the window was still open, and they climbed right in. The Star of India was the only gem that had an alarm, and as luck would have it, the battery on the alarm was dead. The thieves made off with their loot, which they later ransomed off. Believe it or not, the world-famous Star of India was retrieved from a locker in a bus station in Miami! The gem was returned to the Museum of Natural History, where it is presumably kept under tighter security today.

The Orlov Diamond

Orlov diamond Shown Upside-Down
Orlov diamond Shown Upside-Down

The Orlov Diamond

One of the other most impressive gems in the world is the Orlov diamond, which is named after Count Grigory Orlov, one of the former lovers of Russian Empress Catherine the Great. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Orlov diamond is its shape, which is like a large oval egg cut in half. Another unique attribute of the approximately 189.62 carat diamond is that unlike most of the world's best-known diamonds, it was never recut to modern proportions, instead of remaining in its original Indian rose cut form. The history of the Orlov diamond is a rich one, involving theft, unrequited love, and the great treasures of the world.

The most common theory of the history of the Orlov dates back to a sacred Hindu temple in Mysore, India. The Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple was fortified with seven enclosures, ensuring the safety of its priceless gems within. The diamond now believed to be the Orlov was one of the eyes of the statue contained within the temple. Legend has it that a French deserter from the Carnatic wars heard about the indescribably precious diamonds within the temple and converted to Hinduism to gain access to the inner sanctum (which took several years). Eventually, the Frenchman stole the enormous white diamond with a greenish-blue tinge, and took it to Madras around 1750, where it passed through the hands of several buyers.

There is an alternate theory, which holds that the Orlov diamond came to Russia after being stolen not from a Hindu temple, but from Nadar Shah, the King of Persia. The Shah owned a diamond known as the Great Mogul, which was stolen after his assassination in the mid-18th Century.

Some believe that the Great Mogul diamond is the one now known as the Orlov, although the very unusual half-egg shape of the Orlov tends to make this scenario less likely, as it does not entirely jibe with accounts of the shape of the Great Mogul.

Empress Gets What She Wants

Alexei Petrovich Antropov's portrait of Catherine the Great.
Alexei Petrovich Antropov's portrait of Catherine the Great.

A Diamond For The Royal Sceptre

An Empress, a Diamond, and a Count

Regardless of from whom the diamond was stolen, it is known that it was purchased by Count Orlov in 1774 , in an effort to win back the love of Catherine the Great, his former lover who had cast him aside for Grigory Potemkin. Catherine the Great was said to covet the unique diamond, and she was indeed pleased when Count Orlov presented it to her, and she went on to name it after him. (There was no romantic reconciliation between Catherine the Great and Count Orlov, however.)

The stunning diamond called the Orlov was set into a scepter that the Empress had designed to hold it. The Imperial Sceptre, which was made in 1784, showcased the Orlov, which was set with its dome side facing forward. Above the Orlov diamond was a large double-headed eagle with the Arms of Russia on its breast in fine enamel. The Imperial Sceptre is now housed in the Diamond Fund, which is held in the Kremlin in Moscow. Visitors are now able to view the extraordinary Imperial Sceptre with the Orlov diamond as part of guided tours of the tsarist regalia, which are available by appointment.

We Can See All of Them

Although most of us can never hope to wear an enormous blue diamond in a pendant, own a sapphire the size of a golf ball, or carry a scepter featuring a diamond as large as an egg, extraordinary gemstones still have the power to fascinate us. Their captivating beauty, fascinating origins, and intriguing legends only heighten the appeal of these utterly unique wonders. The excellent news for any gem aficionado is that many of the most legendary jewels in the world are now on public display for anyone to enjoy viewing.

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