- The Washington Times - Friday, August 22, 2003

J. Lo’s is big and pink. Kobe Bryant’s wife has one the size of a candy jawbreaker. Will Smith has two of them, perfectly round, and they can be seen in practically every scene of “Bad Boys II.” Halle Berry had hers in her navel in the Bond movie “Die Another Day,” seductively dribbled across her enviable abs by Pierce Brosnan.

We’re talking about diamonds, the bling bling of the new millennium that have dazzled ever since ancient Greeks believed they were tears of the gods fallen from the sky.

Over the years, we’ve gotten more technical about diamonds, learning, for example, that this form of carbon comes from deep in the earth. Diamonds are made from pure carbon atoms exposed to intense heat and pressure over billions of years. The pressure builds up and forces the diamonds and rocks up toward the surface in a quasi-volcanic explosion. The explosion creates a deep, wide hole called a “kimberlite pipe” into which most of the diamonds settle. These “pipes” look like giant carrots encrusted with diamonds, and it can take years to completely excavate an entire pipe.

Historically, diamonds were first mined in India more than 4,000 years ago. They are now mined in about 25 countries, according to Greg Campbell’s book, “Blood Diamonds: Tracing the Deadly Path of the World’s Most Precious Stones,” which exposes the brutal underside of the glittering diamond trade. The main producers are South Africa, Sierra Leone, Russia, Botswana, Angola, Namibia, Australia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Canada.

No accumulation of prosaic details, however, will ever interfere with the hold that diamonds have had for millennia on the human, especially human female, imagination.

For ‘50s movie bombshells Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell, they were “a girl’s best friend.” Madonna did a diamond-encrusted tribute to La Monroe in the video for her ‘80s pop hit “Material Girl.” A large diamond’s glitter first defined, then outshone Elizabeth Taylor’s marriages to Richard Burton. And for the average consumer — to borrow the slogan of De Beers, the mighty international diamond cartel — “diamonds are forever.” This phrase, incidentally, was cooked up by De Beers in the 1930s as a way to entice the modern woman of average means to either buy diamonds for herself or to get the man (or men) in her life to purchase them for her.

This summer, Washingtonians of all economic strata are enjoying “The Splendor of Diamonds” at the National Museum of Natural History.

The show, which runs through Sept. 15, features seven rare and valuable diamonds that are displayed together for the first and only time.

The diamonds range from 5.11 to 203.04 carats in weight. One of the gems, the 5-carat Pumpkin Diamond, was worn in a ring by Halle Berry in 2002 when she received her best actress Oscar for “Monster’s Ball.” Other diamonds in the small-but-mighty exhibit include a triangular red diamond found by a Brazilian farmer in the 1990s, an internally flawless 59.60 carat pink diamond that is the largest and most vivid pink diamond known, a rare ocean-blue diamond (most gems of this blue-green shade are artificially colored), a blazing yellow diamond tipping the scales at 101.29 karats, and a heart-shaped blue diamond that would put Kate Winslett’s necklace from “Titanic” to shame.

Also on display is the De Beers Millennium Star, a flawless, pear-shaped gem of 203.04 carats that took diamond cutters three years to complete. “I am delighted to think that De Beers could mark the Millennium from the point of view of diamonds,” said the late Harry Oppenheimer, former chairman of De Beers.

According to literature published by the Museum of Natural History, the Millennium Star, on display in London, was too beautiful to resist. On Nov. 7, 2000, a robbery was attempted, a contemporary answer to the Great Train Robbery. Using a bulldozer, nail guns and smoke grenades, the felons plowed toward the exhibit. A boat stood by, on the Thames, for the getaway. Once inside the exhibit, the robbers were foiled by Scotland Yard’s Flying Squad, who had been tipped off and were posing as cleaners. The robbers are now serving time, and the Millennium Star, before going on display at the Smithsonian, was worn by the model Iman at the Cannes Film Festival in 2002.

The Millennium Star is, of course, a traditional white diamond. Not that a rock like that would ever be considered shabby, but Arnold Duke, vice president of the International Gem and Jewelry Show hitting Chantilly this weekend, says colored diamonds are hot.

“Yellows are the most popular, followed by blues, greens and pinks. Red is the rarest and most expensive,” Mr. Duke explains.

If the seven diamonds at the Smithsonian have whetted your appetite for ice, you might want to head over to the Dulles Expo Center for the show, which features 30 diamond dealers offering gems ranging in price from $100 to a cool million.

Part of the gem’s enduring appeal, Mr. Duke says, is that diamonds were long thought to bring love and luck.

“The Hope Diamond (also on display at the Smithsonian) has unlucky connotations, but that is rare. Diamonds have always been esteemed because they are valuable and portable. Unlike real estate, diamonds could be taken with royalty or the wealthy if they found themselves in the situation of having to flee.”

While diamonds may have been the platinum cards of their day for the rich and titled, they did not emerge as traditional engagement rings for the less privileged classes until centuries later.

“The first known diamond engagement ring was given in 1477 by the Archduke Maximillian of Hamburg to Mary of Burgundy,” says Mr. Duke, but it wasn’t until the De Beers “A Diamond Is Forever” ad campaign in 1939 that the gemstone became the consensus choice for engagement rings among all strata of society.

“You see, diamond [revenue] had declined since 1919 by 50 percent, and something had to be done to increase the demand for them,” says Rachel Sandfordlyn Shreckengast of WedFrugal.com. Diamonds had been popular in the Victorian era, but until the De Beers campaign, engagement and wedding rings were usually a gold band, she explains.

Diamond rings, of course, have long since become synonymous with matrimony, and since the mid-‘90s, regular folk are borrowing yet another tradition from the rich — the tiara.

Long associated with royalty, diamond tiaras in recent years have been seen slumming on the heads of mere pop royalty — stars such as Courtney Love, Madonna (sporting a $1.5 million “Medusa” number designed by the late Gianni Versace in 1996), Meg Ryan, Sharon Stone and Sir Elton John.

“People see all these celebrities wearing tiaras, and then they want them for their special day,” says area wedding planner Annmarie Kramer. “Diamond tiaras are the most popular headpiece now for brides.”

“Other gemstones come and go in popularity, but diamonds are always the king of all gems,” says Mr. Duke.

“There never was a time where they weren’t considered something special — even primitive peoples eons ago believed that diamonds were the tears of God or fragments of stars that fell to earth.”

If the deities shed tears to make the dang things, then a girl would be nothing less than impious to scorn them, and guys, if you’re wondering, my ring size is a 9.

WHAT: “The Splendor of Diamonds”

WHERE: The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (on the second floor at the Harry Winston Gallery)

WHEN: Through Sept. 15

INFORMATION: Call 202/357-4000, or visit the Web site at www.smithsonian.org

WHAT: The International Gem and Jewelry Show (Exhibitions of gems, minerals and jewelry, estate jewelry, one-of-a-kind pieces, and a “Fabulous Jewelry of the Stars” exhibit — some of the pieces are actually for sale)

WHERE: The Dulles Expo Center, 4320 Chantilly Shopping Center, Chantilly

WHEN: Until tomorrow. 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. today and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. tomorrow

TICKETS: Admission is $6.



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