Though diamonds are nothing more than carbon crystals, the sparkly rocks have been idolized as symbols of wealth and power for hundreds of years. Many of the largest gems have their own mythologies, often involving tales of death and deception.
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Those of us who are not famous actors, members of royalty or multi-millionaires can at least view—though not touch or wear—famous diamonds at several locations. Most of these are former castles or palaces that also offer glimpses of fine art work, fabulous gardens or the chambers of former royals. The exception, of course, is the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum, where the National Gem Collection that includes the legendary Hope Diamond sits humbly next to an exhibit on the Earth's geology, one floor above the dinosaurs.
Jewel House, Tower of London, London, England
The oldest parts of the complex called the Tower of London date back to 1100, the time of William the Conqueror. Since then, the tower has grown and evolved, at times serving as a fortress-stronghold, royal residence and prison, and as a site for executions, munitions storage, barracks, the royal mint and the royal menagerie (that is, a zoo).
Now a major tourist attraction, the tower also protects the British monarchy's Crown Jewels (in the Jewel House). Among the 23,578 diamonds that appear in the collection are some of the world's largest and most famous. The 105.6-carat Koh-i-Noor diamond from India is traditionally worn by the queen or queen consort (Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother was the last to wear it) as the gem is said to bring bad luck if worn by a man. Cullinan I, one of the world's largest cut diamonds at 530.2 carats, is found in the British Royal Sceptre, and the 317.4-carat Cullinan II is set into the Imperial State Crown along with 3,000 other gems.
Signs labeled "in use" may appear in place of some of the most famous jewels, a reminder that this is indeed a working collection. Queen Elizabeth II wears the Imperial State Crown each year, for example, at the State Opening of Parliament.
Galerie d'Apollon, Louvre, Paris, France
France tossed out its monarchs long ago, but many symbols of the monarchy remain on display. The Louvre—the famed art museum that houses the Mona Lisa—was once a royal palace and is now home to several former French Crown Jewels.
The Louvre's gems can be found in the Galerie d'Apollon, an elaborate space covered in gold leaf, tapestries and paintings. The gallery, which served as the model for the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, was built during the 16th century and has since undergone numerous renovations; the most recent was completed in 2004 and included an upgrade in security for the royal jewels.
Not many of the French Crown Jewels remain, though, as the Republic auctioned off most of them in 1887. Only those with historic or artistic interest were saved. The pink Hortensia, for example, survived a 1792 theft and was worn by Napoleon Bonaparte. The largest diamond of the collection, the 140.5-carat Regent, became part of the Crown Jewels during the time of King Louis XV and, like the Hortensia, was saved from auction. The pear-shaped 55.23-carat Sancy, however, had been sold earlier, during the French Revolution. The Astor family acquired the gem in 1906, and it once graced the tiara of Lady Astor, the first female member of the British House of Commons. The family sold the jewel back to France in 1978 for $1 million.