Democratic America has no crown jewels. but we've got the next best thing, or maybe a better thing altogether, in the Smithsonian's National Gem Collection, on display in the National Museum of Natural History in a new setting that suits its splendor, the Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems and Minerals.
The gem collection dates back to 1884, when a curator in the Smithsonian's Division of Mineralogy assembled a modest array of American precious stones for display that year at the New Orleans Exhibition. In the ensuing 116 years, the collection has grown to a dazzling scale and beauty, thanks almost entirely to donors who wanted their jewels to be in the nation's museum.
The names of the great jewels in the collection — the Napoleon Diamond Necklace, the Marie-Louise Diadem, the Marie Antoinette Earrings, the Spanish Inquisition Necklace, the Portuguese Diamond, the Hooker Emerald — evoke both the grand realm of history and the dark world of the modern mystery novel. But the most famous of all the gems — not the biggest, but the one that burns so bright in the public's imagination that it's the most sought-out object in the Smithsonian — is the Hope Diamond. Is the diamond named after the emotion? Nothing so fanciful, I'm afraid. Henry Philip Hope, a London banker and gem collector, owned the stone in the 1830s.
The diamond weighs 45.52 carats and is not blindingly white, as we are accustomed to seeing diamonds, but deep blue. It's in a setting designed by Pierre Cartier — surrounded by 16 alternating pear-shaped and cushion-cut white diamonds, on a chain of 45 white diamonds. Deep-blue diamonds rarely exceed a few carats in size, and the Hope Diamond is, in fact, the largest such diamond known. It was formed a hundred miles beneath the surface of the earth and carried upward by a volcanic eruption more than a billion years ago.
Compared with its geologic history, the diamond's history as an object of human desire has lasted barely an instant. The stone was discovered in India sometime before 1668, the year King Louis XIV bought a blue diamond of 110.5 metric carats that was eventually recut several times to become the jewel we know today. The diamond disappeared with the monarchy during the French Revolution, reemerged in London in 1812, and subsequently became the possession of a British king, George IV. It was then purchased by the aforementioned Mr. Hope, whose family held it through the 19th century. In 1912 Pierre Cartier sold it to the American heiress Evalyn Walsh McLean, whose estate sold it to the jeweler Harry Winston, who donated it to the Smithsonian in 1958, where it has since been on more or less continuous exhibition — though never looking as good as it does today.
The diamond has the place of honor at the head of the gem collection. It rests on a small column that turns slowly to show the jewel in four directions. There's an eerily human aspect to this stately rotation, as if a wearer were showing off the gem, and viewers fall silent under its spell. It's one of the great Smithsonian experiences.
And it is the prelude to other unforgettable experiences that await a few steps away. In the past, when the Hope Diamond was kept at the end of the exhibition, visitors rushed to get to it, paying little attention to anything on the way. A wonderful thing has happened by putting it up front. Visitors see the diamond, and it gets them to wonder what's in the next room, and in the space beyond that. They seek out the other gems and the minerals so beautiful and strange they might have come from other galaxies rather than from our own earth.
Near the end of the display in the Hooker gallery there's a tiny vial of diamond crystals taken from a meteorite — diamonds from the heavens, part of the cosmic cloud that gave birth to our solar system. At one end of the exhibition then, the Hope Diamond, made miles below the earth's surface; at the other, the diamond dust of stars. An astonishing trajectory; an everyday marvel at the Smithsonian.
Once the property of kings, the legendary Hope Diamond has pride of place in the Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall at NMNH.