- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 31, 2002

By Marian Fowler
Ballantine, $26, 367 pages, illus.

Marian Fowler is enchanted with the Hope Diamond. In "Hope: The Adventures of a Diamond," she writes that although she does not possess any diamonds and has "no desire for any," the sight of the rare blue gem in its sealed case in the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History left her "bewitched … as if I had drunk a love potion."
The author labels her book a "biography," and the diamond a "protagonist," and it would not be unfair to say that she indulges throughout in an anthropomorphic feast. Her story begins with the gem's birth between one and three billion years ago after "what geologists call 'a special melting event'" in the southern part of India and ends with the stone behind glass facing "the million minds it sets alight."
Scieintists estimate that, at its earliest stages, the diamond weighed at least 110.5 metric carats and "was nature's absolute kernel of energy and beauty … However, until man came to its rescue and revealed its beauty, it would wear a disfiguring, slightly shiny greasy grey coal." Men did come to the rescue, and there followed a long history in which the diamond was worshiped, envied, coveted, stolen, cut, and cut again, flaunted and finally sheltered. And for extra measure, it was said to come with a curse. The author tracks all this with scholarship and verve, and if her prose is a little overwrought at times it is, more often than not, engaging and informative.
Until diamonds were discovered in Borneo in 600 A.D., India was the only source of supply, and the author speculates that in the area which is bounded on both seacoasts by ranges of hills and known as the Deccan plains, human touch and the diamond that would become the Hope met for the first time. The connection generated heat, added luster to the stone and ushered in "the era that would give it its great supernatural and spiritual power that would last as long as Indians owned it."
Sometime before 1660, the diamond was polished and cut, and for a time it served as an eye in the statue of a Hindu god. On holy days peasants came from miles around to see it until one day "a frantic hand had pried it loose." From that day forward the diamond would make its home in the West, moving from one determined owner to the next.
The first was a "short, plump, fifty-four-year-old Frenchman" named Jean Baptiste Tavernier, and although myths have attached to him claiming that it was he who stole the stone from a god and suffered a miserable death as a result, the truth is more prosaic. He was a businessman onto a good thing. Voltaire wrote that Tavernier "speaks the language of a merchant more than that of a philosopher, and knows nothing except how to recognize the great trade routes and diamonds." Tavernier died of natural causes after a long life.
In 1668, Tavernier sold the diamond to King Louis XIV of France along with a cache of smaller diamonds. "The Sun King then decided that his Blue Diamond would be cut to greater brilliance and to a form he could wear." The result was a 67 1/8 carat stone that was even more beautiful than when it was in its larger incarnation.
The section dealing with the Sun King's aspirations for the diamond's shape, his enchantment with its color and his fussing over how it should be worn (brooch or pendant) is one of the book's most lively and entertaining. For an added bonus, the depiction of Louis' flamboyant brother (known as "Monsieur") is a memorable one, revealing how absurd life was within a court of hubris and excess.
For the diamond, as everything else, things heated up during the French Revolution. When Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette attempted to flee a tumultuous France, their jewels came under the guardianship of the new government and then fell into the hands of yet another thief. Soon thereafter, the diamond known as the French Blue took up life in England, perhaps having been acquired by King George IV. The author notes that there is no conclusive evidence that the erratic Prinny actually bought the gem, which many have thought to be the case, but his appearance in the book's pages affords the author some fun with yet another colorful figure in the life of the stone.
Enter Henry Philip Hope (always called Philip). The author speculates that the diamond merchant who bought the gem from the French may have bypassed English royalty and sold it directly to Philip, a man "whose family had been blessed with wealth for three generations." Philip was not an attractive man. The author writes, "This particular family member had a short, inelegant figure, a low forehead, large ears, too long a nose, and too little a chin … and he was destined … to give a very famous Diamond its longest-lasting name."
By 1866, "diamonds moved down market." A 15-year-old discovered a diamond on his South African farm, and "in the next 15 years South African mines would be disgorging 3 million carats annually." But the Hope Diamond, with its unusual color and size still reigned supreme even as family squabbles, illness and bankruptcy strained relations. Before long, over the strenuous objections of family members and with the intervention of the House of Lords, Francis Hope was given permission to sell the diamond.
An American jeweler bought the stone, several other transactions moved it along, until it was sold to Pierre Cartier in 1909. In 1910 Cartier showed the diamond to Mrs. Evalyn Walsh McLean of Washington, D.C. but she did not like the setting. Cartier made adjustments and made a sale. McLean made a big show over the fact that things thought to be bad luck always turned out well for her. She wore the diamond constantly, even to bed, some say, and when her young child died, there was speculation that the curse was on. When her debts needed to be settled, once again the diamond changed owners. Harry Winston, the famous jeweler bought the diamond in 1948, and in 1958, he donated it to the Smithsonian.
For gem enthusiasts, the author opens up a world of how a unique stone came to be discovered, cared for and traded. For readers who simply enjoy the lavish dealings of the wealthy it is an enjoyable voyeuristic romp. At its chattiest it reads like something written by Dominick Dunne. The author is, in her own right, an experienced arbiter of people and things, rich and famous, and her book credits include "Blenheim: Biography of A Palace," and "Five Women of Style."
At the book's end one recalls a passage from its early pages: "Of course one no longer believes, at the beginning of the twenty-first century that diamonds possess the human touch ascribed to them in old lapidaries. 'They grow together, male and female, wrote the psuedo-traveler Sir John Mandeville, 'and are nourished by the dew of heaven; and they engender commonly and bring forth small children that multiply and grow all year.'"
Well, everyone knows that diamonds don't breed.But they do mesmerize. And in this fact-filled adventure we are pulled closer to the 45.53-carat gem that sits in ice-blue silence while tides of passersby gaze in awe.

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