Diamonds Unearthed

In the final installment of this three-part series, diamond expert Jeffrey Post discusses the histories behind the Smithsonian collection

Jeweler Harry Winston donated the famous Hope Diamond—the largest-known deep blue diamond in the world—to the Smithsonian Institution in 1958. It arrived in a plain brown package by registered mail, insured for one million dollars. Surrounded by 16 white pear-shaped and cushion-cut diamonds and hanging from a chain with 45 diamonds, the rare gem attracts 6 million visitors a year to the Natural History Museum. (Chip Clark)

Can you describe the diamond collection at Smithsonian's Natural History Museum?
There's probably no other place one could go and see on public display a more interesting collection of diamonds. The Hope gets a lot of attention, but we have some other really interesting diamonds in our collection.

Probably the diamond that would be our star, if not for the Hope, is another blue diamond called the Blue Heart. It is the world's second largest and finest dark-blue diamond and weighs 30.62 carats, about two-thirds the size of the Hope Diamond. It was found in the Premiere Mine in South Africa in November 1908. With the help of DeBeers, we went into the archives and we were able to find the record of when it was found. The rough diamond was about 102 carats or so. About a year after it was found, it was cut and eventually sold to an Argentinean family by the name of Unzue. It stayed in that family until the 1950s, then was bought and sold several times. Finally, it was set into a ring by Harry Winston who sold it to Marjorie Merriweather Post. She gave it to the Smithsonian in the 1960s. It's a beautiful heart-shaped stone and benefits from a more modern cut than the Hope. It's probably the world's prettiest blue diamond.

Where can visitors see the Blue Heart Diamond?

It's displayed with several other diamonds. There's no other place I know of in the world that you can see a large blue diamond on public display, much less see two. We happen to have the two largest, finest blue diamonds in the world.

Tell me about the Portuguese Diamond.

We also have the largest faceted diamond in our collection: 127.01 carats. At that size, that .01 becomes important. It is a stone that unfortunately has the name “The Portuguese Diamond.” That name was given to it by Harry Winston. We acquired that diamond from Harry Winston by exchanging a bunch of smaller cut diamonds for that one larger stone. He spun a story about this diamond having come out of Brazil and had been owned by the Portuguese royal family, hence the name Portuguese Diamond. Well, in fact, we know now that this diamond has never been to Portugal, has never been to Brazil, but in fact came out of South Africa, out of the Premiere Mine. It was mined about 1910.

Who owned the diamond?

It was sold to a woman named Peggy Hopkins Joyce, one of the Ziegfield Follies girls in the 1920s. One of the glamour girls. She wrote a fascinating autobiography. She claims to have been engaged to at least 50 different men in her life. Married several times. Of course, that's how you build a great gem collection: Marry well, marry often. She did that. She had this large diamond bought for her. We have a picture of her wearing it in a platinum choker.

As her star began to set and she became less of the glamour girl, she eventually sold the diamond to Harry Winston. I guess he either forgot or decided that having a diamond that once belonged to a washed-up Ziegfield Follies girl wasn't nearly as exciting as one that belonged to the Portuguese royal family. He created a new history for that diamond and that's how it became known.

Which is your favorite diamond?

Probably my favorite diamond in the collection, in some ways, is the Oppenheimer Diamond. It's 254 carats. It's a beautiful octahedron, the shape that most natural diamonds are found in the Earth. It's one of the great crystals. There may have been other crystals found, but they've been cut into diamond gemstones. So for the public to see this beautiful crystal this size is a unique opportunity. It has some interesting history too. The diamond was found in the Dutoitspan mine in Kimberly, South Africa, in the early 1960s. About that time, Harry Winston and DeBeers, which was run by Sir Earnest Oppenheimer and the Oppenheimer family, were having a bit of a falling out. Winston was trying to do a bit of an end run around DeBeers. He wanted to go out and buy his own diamonds and not to have to always do it through DeBeers and the rules they dictated. So they had a bit of a tiff, but finally were able to come to an agreement. Part of the making up process was Harry Winston buying this diamond crystal from DeBeers, donating it to the Smithsonian and naming it the Oppenheimer Diamond.

What about the Victoria-Transvaal Diamond?

It's a beautiful champagne-colored diamond that was found in the Transvaal area of South Africa in 1951. In 1952, it also starred in a Hollywood film. If you're a fan of the late-night Tarzan film festivals, you might run across the movie sometime. It's called Tarzan's Savage Fury. That movie starred Lex Barker as Tarzan and Dorothy Hart as Jane, and if you watch the entire movie to the very end, to the last minute of the movie, you'll see Dorothy Hart wearing that diamond. They were, of course, marketing the diamond even then. What better way to get the public to get to know a diamond than to get it in a Hollywood film. The diamond traveled around the country for a number of years as the Transvaal Diamond. It was purchased and then donated to us by Leonard and Victoria Wilkinson. He was a timber baron in the northwestern part of the United States. He added his wife's name, so the diamond came here as the Victoria-Transvaal Diamond.


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