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)

(Continued from page 1)

I should mention a couple others. We have a beautiful pink diamond from the Williamson mine in Tanzania that is just under three carats. Not a big diamond, but a really intense pink. That was the stone given to us by Sidney de Young, a jeweler in Boston. In fact, he also gave us another colored diamond, about a five-carat red diamond. It's sort of a garnet-red color, a very deep color. Interestingly, it's a stone that he kept for many years because it came into his establishment as part of an estate sale. It was labeled as a garnet hat pin. He noticed that the so-called garnet just didn't look quite like a garnet. For an old stone, it was remarkably clean and wasn't scratched up. When he had it checked, it turned out it was a diamond. It's a very unusual color for a diamond and certainly one of that size. So that was a gift that he gave to us. We have the pink and the red diamond sitting side by side in our exhibition.

We also have a couple of other diamonds that came from Marjorie Merriweather Post, including a nice large marquis, about a 27-carat stone. We also have a large 37-carat cognac-colored diamond that came as a bequest from Libbie Moody Thompson.

And then we have a nice suite of beautiful yellow diamonds that were given to us by Janet Annenberg Hooker and go by the interesting name of the Hooker Diamonds. These were set by Cartier in the late 1980s, so they represent a more modern piece of jewelry. The necklace alone has about 240 carats of yellow diamonds. Each earring has a 25-carat yellow diamond, and then there's a ring with a 61-carat yellow diamond. It's a really impressive display of beautiful stones.

Can you discuss the Napoleon Diamond Necklace?

Napoleon gave the necklace to the Empress Marie-Louise to celebrate the birth of their son. You may recall that Napoleon divorced Josephine, the love of his life, because she couldn't provide him with an heir. He then married Marie-Louise from the Hapsburg family in Austria and within a year after their wedding she provided him with a son. He was so excited about that he had this great diamond necklace commissioned.

At the time it was made—about 1811, 1812—diamonds had not yet been discovered in South Africa. The major source of diamonds was still somewhat in India, but mostly Brazil and Venezuela. So there just weren't that many large diamonds coming out at that point. There are a total of about 260 carats worth of diamonds in this necklace. The larger stones are about 11 or 12 carats in size. To have a necklace with that many large diamonds would just wow the public at that time. It's something that only a person that was very wealthy and very powerful could have made for them. So, of course, that's exactly why he would do it. To show the world how important, how wealthy, how powerful a man he was. So he had this beautiful necklace given to her. In fact, there's a painting that hangs in Versailles in France showing her wearing this necklace. It's a very well-documented, very beautiful historic necklace. One of the great pieces of that time period. It has these wonderful, old mine-cut diamonds. They hadn't started cutting diamonds according to the modern proportions yet. In many ways, there's a certain attractiveness about those stones you can see in that piece of jewelry that you just don't see in modern stones.

What happened to the Napoleon Diamond Necklace?

Marie-Louise went back to Austria and the necklace was passed on in her family. One of her cousins wore it to the wedding of Catharine the Great in Russia. It was such a hit that all the people in the court requested that the necklace be put on display in the palace so everyone could see it close up. It stayed in the family. Then in the early part of the 1900s there was this interesting intrigue where the royal family was having financial problems. One of the members of the royal family brought the necklace to the U.S. to sell it and was taken in by a huckster here and ended up getting virtually nothing for the necklace. The necklace ended up with one of the jewelers in New York through some behind-the-scenes methods. This became a huge scandal. The duke that had brought the necklace to the U.S. was on trial. It made the front page of the New York Times for weeks.

Eventually the necklace was returned to the family in Austria and it stayed in the family until after World War II. It was eventually purchased by Harry Winston, who sold it to Marjorie Merriweather Post.

How did Harry Winston get the necklace?

In the 1950s, it was common for people like Harry Winston to buy old pieces of jewelry in Europe. People in Europe had lost everything during the war. To survive and recover, families had to sell some of their jewelry. So you had Winston and Cartier and Van Cleef and others traveling through Europe buying up all these old pieces of jewelry. They were buying them just to get the gemstones. The '50s were a very forward-looking time. Everything was modern. People wanted new things. They weren't interested in old jewelry. Winston would buy up all these old pieces of jewelry and pop the diamonds out. They'd pop out the emeralds, the rubies, the sapphires. They'd take them to cutters. The cutters would recut them into modern cuts to make them more attractive and a more modern piece of jewelry. In this case, Harry Winston knew it was more profitable for him to sell it to Marjorie Merriweather Post as a historic piece of jewelry than to take all the diamonds out and recut them. So some of these pieces were preserved only because of Marjorie Merriweather Post. Over time, she donated a number of them to the Smithsonian.

What are the Marie-Antoinette Diamonds?

We also have two diamonds that were cut in the late 1700s that are called the Marie Antoinette diamonds. They are set in earrings. There's a legend that they belonged to Marie Antoinette, that she wore them as earrings. There's pretty good evidence to associate the diamonds with Marie Antoinette, but whether she actually wore them as earrings or not, I'm not convinced.

There's another really interesting story about a necklace that was called the Marie Antoinette diamond necklace. She never actually owned it, but there was such a scandal associated with that necklace, it washed over on her. In fact, it was part of what caused the downfall of the King and Queen of France. In this necklace were several large pear-shaped diamonds and a couple that were similar to the stones that we have here. It may be that the diamonds we have originated from that necklace, which would make them even more interesting in some ways.

What is the history behind the Spanish Inquisition Necklace?


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus