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.
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.
National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian, Washington, D.C.
The Smithsonian has its own Castle, but the institution's diamonds aren't there—instead, they sit across the Mall in the Natural History Museum. The prize of the exhibit is, of course, the Hope Diamond, the 45.52-carat dark blue stone that the gem's last owner, Harry Winston, donated to the museum in 1958 with the hope of starting a national collection. Although it is nicknamed the "Diamond of Disaster," most of the previous owners of the "cursed" gem did not meet an untimely death.
However, the same cannot be said for the owner of another pair of famous gems at the museum: Marie-Antoinette's earrings comprise two large diamonds weighing in at 14 and 20 carats, along with several other smaller stones. Another Frenchwoman—Marie-Louise, the second wife of Napoleon Bonaparte—once wore an elaborate diamond necklace now on display. It consists of 172 white diamonds weighing a total of 263 carats.
The museum also owns several colored diamonds, including one of the largest diamonds to remain uncut—the 1.5-inch-tall, yellow Oppenheimer Diamond. The DeYoung Red Diamond, though only 5.03 carats, is the largest of that color and had once been mistaken for a garnet. And the 67.89-carat champagne-colored Victoria-Transvaal diamond, which is set into a necklace with more than 100 smaller stones, was worn in the 1952 movie, Tarzan's Savage Fury.
Armoury Chamber, Kremlin, Moscow, Russia
According to one tale, the Orlov diamond was once set as the eye of an idol at a shrine to the Hindu god Vishnu in southern India, but was stolen by a French deserter. Some have theorized that the Orlov may be the Great Mogul diamond from India, stolen by the Persian invader Nadir Shah in 1739.
Whatever its origin, the Orlov is named for Count Grigori Orlov, who bought the diamond in 1775 in Amsterdam and then gave it to Catherine the Great of Russia, his former lover, in an attempt to win back his position as her favorite. He never did, but the empress had his gift placed in the top of the Imperial Sceptre, where it remains today.
The scepter and other jewels—including the Shah, one of the few historic diamonds with an engraved inscription—can be found in the Russian Diamond Fund, on display in the Armoury Chamber in Moscow's Kremlin. The museum building serves as a treasure house for the state, also displaying gold and silverware, weapons, textiles and royal carriages. Elsewhere in the complex, visitors can tour cathedrals and the Patriarch's Palace.
Treasury, Topkapi Palace Museum, Istanbul, Turkey
After the city of Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453, its conqueror, Sultan Mehmed II, renamed the city "Istanbul" and later built the majestic Topkapi Palace. Growing to cover 173 acres, the palace served as the official residence of the Ottoman sultans and a site for government administration for 380 years before it was turned into a museum in the early 20th century.
Many of the 300 rooms that once housed the sultans' concubines and families are now open to the public, as are the imperial wardrobe, the palace library, several mosques and other chambers. The Imperial Treasury can be found inside one of the oldest buildings, the Conqueror's Pavilion. The treasury's rooms are filled with the riches of the sultans, gold and jeweled objects that had once been created by palace artisans, received as gifts or taken as the spoils of war.
The 86-carat pear-shaped Spoonmaker's Diamond, which is surrounded by 49 smaller diamonds and also known as the Kasikci, sits in the third room of the treasury. Legend says that a poor man found the gem in a garbage heap in Istanbul in 1669 and sold it for three wooden spoons to a spoonmaker, who then sold it to a jeweler for 10 silver coins. The diamond is said to have passed through the hands of several jewelers before coming to the attention of Sultan Mehmed IV, who claimed it as his own.
Green Vault, Dresden Royal Palace, Dresden, Germany
Diamonds can be made green through exposure to radiation. As this can happen naturally, green diamonds are fairly common, though large ones are not. The most famous of these is the Dresden Green, which is on display in the Green Vault at the Dresden Royal Palace along with other treasures of the former rulers of Saxony.
The diamond became part of the Crown Jewels of Saxony when Frederick Augustus II purchased it around 1742. The Green Vault, however, is not named after the diamond. The vault had already been established as a museum, between 1723 and 1730, by Frederick Augustus I, who, in addition to being king of Saxony, had also been elected king of Poland and had the regalia (and jewels) for both positions.
Three of the Green Vault's eight chambers were destroyed in the 1945 bombing of the city. The treasures had already been moved to safekeeping, but they were seized by the Soviets after the war. Upon their 1958 return, the Dresden Green and other items in the collection were displayed in the Albertinum Museum as the palace was too damaged to display them there. The collection has since been restored to its former home—a New Green Vault opened in 2004 and the Historic Green Vault's restoration was completed in 2006.
Condé Museum, Château de Chantilly, Chantilly, France
Though it was not part of the royal jewels of France, the Condé diamond nonetheless has royalty in its history. The 9.01-carat pink pear-shaped diamond was a gift from the French king Louis XIII to Louis II, Prince de Condé—"Le Grande Condé," head of the French branch of the House of Bourbon—sometime around 1643. The diamond stayed in the family until 1884 when the Duc d'Aumale, an heirless descendent of Le Grande Condé, bequeathed the family home, the Château de Chantilly, to the Institut de France. His terms: The chateau's collections had to be opened to the public as a museum and could never be loaned out.
The Condé diamond is on public display in the museum's Gem Room (Le cabinet des Gemmes). Despite the wishes of the Duc d'Aumale, though, the pink diamond left the chateau once, taking an unscheduled trip to Paris in October 1926 when two thieves stole it. The gem was recovered in Paris days later, hidden in an apple left behind by the thieves in a hotel room.
In addition to the diamond, visitors to Château de Chantilly can tour the grand rooms of the chateau, view the second-largest collection of pre-1850 paintings in France, and examine the contents of the library (Cabinet des Livres). The grounds cover nearly 300 acres and include gardens in the French and English styles.