The Infamous Hope Diamond – Cursed or Coincidence?

Hope Diamond in current setting
Hope Diamond in current setting

Without a doubt, one of the most spectacular gems in the entire world is the so-called Hope Diamond, a haunting blue stone weighing 45.52 carats. About the size of a walnut, the Hope is estimated to be worth a quarter of a billion dollars.  Today, it sits on display in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC.  However, there are many who claim it also carries an ancient Hindu curse, leaving many of its owners tragically ruined or dead.  How did the infamous blue gemstone get from India to America? And is the curse real or imagined?

The history of the famous diamond begins in 1666 when the French merchant, Jean Baptiste Tavernier, obtains a 112 carat blue diamond from the Kollur mines in Golconda (now Guntur), India. At the time, the stone was still rough in shape and rather crudely cut.  In his catalog, Tavernier described its color as a “beautiful violet.”

The Hindus at the time believed that certain gemstones had powers that protected you from evil influences. The idea being that gems absorbed negative energy and kept them within the stone, like a Pandora’s Box.  Indian Nawabs wore the biggest gems of all to provide the most protection. But what if you removed it from its native home?

Tavernier made multiple trips to India and brought hundreds of diamonds back for sale to European nobility.  In 1668, he met with French King Louis XIV at the Versailles palace outside Paris. Louis XIV called himself The Sun King and during his reign, Versailles grew in size and grandeur to the reflect it.  Louis had the greatest collection of crown jewels in all of Europe. Tavernier sold the king the 112-carat blue diamond, along with about 200 others.  And what was the merchant’s fate, if you believe in the curse? 

Tavernier was supposedly later torn apart by a pack of wild dogs in Constantinople.

In 1673, the diamond was recut by the French court jeweler, resulting in a 67 carat stone. In the royal inventory, the Tavernier Blue became known as “le bleu de France.” It was set in gold and suspended on a silk neck ribbon, which the king wore at fetes and ceremonial occasions. The French Blue was valued at about 3.6 million (in today’s dollars). 

What was the supposed effect of the cursed diamond on the powerful and vane Sun King?  Well, Louis lived a long life, but all his legitimate children with the Queen died of illness before he did, including his grandson, leaving his great-grandson (Louis XV) as his successor.  Coincidence?  Perhaps.

The blue diamond eventually passed to his ill-fated heir, Louis XVI and his Queen Marie Antoinette.  Both supposedly wore the French Blue as a pendant on numerous occasions at various ceremonies and festivities at Versailles. During the bloody French Revolution, Louis and Marie attempted to flee Paris, but were arrested and imprisoned.  The jewels of the French Royal Treasury were seized by the rebels and turned over to the new Republic.

King Louis and Marie Antoinette ultimately faced the guillotine during the French Reign of Terror.  

During a looting of the crown jewels in 1792, the French Blue disappears!  When Napoleon later becomes Emperor of France, he swore to recover the crown jewels, including the blue diamond, but failed in his attempt.

As some possible curse-related collateral damage, Marie-Louise, Princess de Lamballe, was a Lady in Waiting to Marie Antoinette and is said to have once tried on the French Blue. She was killed by a mob during the French Revolution, her body stripped and disemboweled.  Her head was decapitated, impaled on a pike, and carried to Marie Antoinette’s prison window for display!

The French Blue diamond went missing for over 2 decades.  A slightly smaller 45-carat blue diamond turns up in London in 1812 in the possession Daniel Eliason, an English diamond merchant.  Eliason sells the blue gemstone to another king, British King George IV, who used it as a trophy for defeating his despised French enemy, Napoleon. George however, spent wildly and almost bankrupts the throne.  After his death in 1830, his executor sells the blue diamond to pay off his debts. The buyer was a diamond collector by the name of Henry Philip Hope.

Hope reset the diamond in a medallion with a hanging pearl. Following the death of Henry Hope in 1839, the stone passes to his nephew’s grandson, Lord Francis Hope. The Hope family was one of England’s wealthiest. They had land, castles, paintings, and other property. But in the course of just two generations, they lost that great wealth.  Lord Francis gambled poorly on horses, his businesses, and an American actress wife, May Yohé. In 1901, Francis Hope had lost both his fortune and his wife AND had to sell the French Blue to help pay off his mounting debts.  

The buyer this time was Joseph Frankels & Sons of New York City.  The 1907 Recession however took its toll on the company.  Frankel’s had the blue diamond, but was cash poor and going bankrupt as well.  Frankel sells the diamond to Selim Habib, a wealthy Turkish diamond collector, on behalf of the Ottoman Sultan. However in 1909, the stone was auctioned off to settle Habib’s own mounting debts.   Is there a pattern of ruin here, or just coincidence?

The first stories of the “Blue Diamond Curse” came in the New York Times. 

Other newspapers then made the curse increasingly elaborate.  They wrote of the sinister power of the blue stone, and the evil that it unleashed upon its pitiful owners. They blamed the blue diamond for the executions of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, Hope’s bankruptcy and divorce, and Frankel’s collapse.  The Dutch jeweler who last recut the diamond supposedly ended up murdered by his son, who then killed himself.  A Turkish merchant who once help sell the diamond drove his car over a cliff and killed himself, his wife, and his child.

The blue diamond, now ironically known as the Hope Diamond, was then purchased in 1910 by Pierre Cartier, grandson of Louis-Francois Cartier, founder of the famous French jewelry brand.  He took a huge chance and invested in the Hope.  If he couldn’t sell it quickly though, the House of Cartier would too be left in debt. And yet Pierre felt the risk was worth taking.

Cartier exploited the curse’s story to entice wealthy buyers.  He’d read the novel  Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins.  In it, a large, yellow diamond was the eye of a Hindu idol in an Indian temple. It was looted by a Muslim conqueror, who years later had his own treasury looted by British colonial solders, taking the diamond back to England. There, tragedy, murder, and insanity followed those who possessed the cursed gem.  Cartier used that novel’s plot as a backstory for the Hope Diamond.

Though the Hope was a magnificent stone, it proved difficult to locate a buyer who could afford it AND be brave enough to disregard the curse.  He knew of an American heiress who would relish the idea of parading the unique French Blue Hope in front of society.

Evalyn Walsh McLean couldn’t own enough jewels.

Her money came from her father, who owned one of the largest gold mines in the US. She had married 19-year-old Ned McLean, whose equally wealthy family owned the Washington Post newspaper.

“I cannot help it if I have a passion for jewels,” Evalyn once admitted. “They make me feel comfortable, and even happy.”       

Evalyn Walsh McLean wearing Hope Diamond
Evalyn Walsh McLean wearing Hope Diamond

The McLeans were among the richest families in America.  They owned mines, banks, real estate, and the Washington Post. McLean, VA is named after the family. In addition to Washington DC, they had estates in Newport, Rhode Island, and Palm Beach, Florida. They exemplified the extravagant wealth of The Gilded Age, flaunting their gigantic fortunes.

Pierre Cartier met with Evalyn and Ned at their hotel in Paris. He placed a mysterious-looking package before them and proceeded to retrace the Hope’s infamous history. Cartier wove together different historical accounts, as well as stories from the newspapers and Moonstone. He attributed bankruptcy, deaths, even revolutions to the stone’s curse.  By the time he unveiled the diamond, he had the couple on the edge of their seats.

Pierre had changed the setting of the stone for Evalyn to a frame of large white diamonds that enhanced the blue Hope in the center. He proposed that she keep the necklace for the weekend, knowing full well it would be impossible for her to return it. Evalyn took the bait and eventually the stone. 

The McLeans bought the Hope in 1911 for $180,000 (about $5 million today).

After prolonged legal fees, the sale of the Hope Diamond wasn’t profitable for Pierre Cartier.  And yet, there was no question the publicity around this single huge sale made House of Cartier a household name in US. Add to that the curse, and the newspaper gossip columns were all abuzz. As the saying goes, there is no such thing as bad publicity.  

Evalyn McLean, who loved the stone’s notoriety, never missed an opportunity to flaunt the Hope at lavish parties around Washington DC. She even had her great dane, Mike, wear the diamond around his large neck.  She had it made it into the pendant of a full diamond necklace, the one we know today. In the pendant, surrounding the Hope Diamond are Cartier’s 16 white diamonds. The necklace chain contains an additional 45 white diamonds.

Evalyn wasn’t convinced of the curse, but a previous wearer of the diamond, May Yohe (the ex-wife of Lord Hope), publicly warned her. She blamed the Hope bankruptcy and her failed marriage on the cursed diamond.  Evalyn couldn’t help but be a little put off. She had the diamond blessed by a Monsignor in a Roman Catholic Church. The diamond sat on a velvet cushion, when lightning suddenly flashed outside and thunder shook the church! 

“Ever since that day,” she declared, “I have worn my diamond as a charm.”

Evalyn owned the diamond till her death, and though she never fully believed the curse, she did suffer a fair amount of bad luck. Her husband, Ned, ran off with another woman, eventually went insane, and later died in a mental institution. Their family paper, The Washington Post, went bankrupt.  Her 10 year old son was killed in a car accident.  Her daughter Evie later died of a drug overdose of sleeping pills.  Her two other children had a string of failed marriages.  Her and Ned had an ugly divorce of their own.

When her son, Vinson, was killed by a car in Washington, DC, newspapers headlines proclaimed: THE CURSE HAS STRUCK AGAIN, and wondered WHO IS NEXT?  The story resonated with other curse stories of the day, like the Curse of King Tut’s Tomb. Some felt that the family, who had flaunted their wealth, were now getting the punishment they deserved.  Evalyn actually pawned the Hope Diamond during the Great Depression, only to later buy it back. 

President Warren Harding and his wife were close friends of the McLeans, so of course his heart attack & death in office was attributed by the press to the curse. In her autobiography, she remained ambivalent towards her Hope Diamond, sometimes dismissing the curse and other times wondering if it was payback for the way in which she spend her life. Evalyn herself died in 1947 of pneumonia at the age of 60.  Her estate then sold the Hope Diamond to Harry Winston, Inc.

Winstons of New York City in fact purchased Mrs. McLean’s entire jewelry collection, including the Hope, in 1949.  For the next 10 years, Winston had the Hope Diamond shown at dozens of exhibits and charitable events worldwide.

On 1958, Harry Winston agreed to donate the Hope Diamond to the Smithsonian Institution

It would be the centerpiece of the National Gem Collection of the National Museum of Natural History.  He actually had it sent through the U.S. Mail in a simple cardboard box, wrapped in plain brown paper!  He sent it as simple registered mail, insured for $1 million at a cost of $145.29, of which $2.44 was for the postage. 

Almost immediately the famous Hope Diamond became the premier attraction.  Of course, if the Smithsonian was the national museum, was then the entire US government cursed?  This was the Cold War and the public was already high on anxiety. Many wrote letters to President Eisenhower to turn down the cursed diamond.  Even the postman who delivered that package, James Todd, suffered a series of bad luck. His wife died, his leg was crushed, and his house burned down.   

So what became of the curse?  Well for the Smithsonian, the Hope Diamond has been a source of surprising good luck.  The blue diamond is on display in the Harry Winston Gallery and viewed by millions annually.  Even the brown paper box is in the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, illustrating the trust the famous jeweler placed in the U.S. Postal Service.

So did curse solely come from the imagination of newspaper reporters and Pierre Cartier? 

Some of its many owners committed suicide, were murdered, or left penniless. Their families suffered failed marriages, dead children, addiction, and insanity. Still, was the Hope Curse more or less concocted to sell newspapers and the stone itself?  Some, like Louis XVI’s and Marie Antoinette’s beheading by guillotine, were undoubtedly real.

Others argue the seemingly disastrous lives of the French Blue’s owners can be created by simply leafing through their history and picking anything bad that happened to them. Since nearly every family has something tragic happen at least once in their lifetime, it’s not difficult to collect a list of such bad events and blame it all on the Hope Diamond.

If there is perhaps one true curse of the blue gemstone, it is the cardinal sin of greed. It was said that only a person with a “pure heart” could escape the Hope’s terrible curse.  Could this mean someone who did not to profit from it, but rather gave it away philanthropically?  If that is the case, the curse ended, not with its blessing by a priest, but rather when Harry Winston donated it to the Smithsonian 

If you are ever in the U.S. capital, spend some time with the infamous Blue Diamond, if you dare.

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Published by andrewspaulw

LOST IN HISTORY Blog/Podcast about key forgotten history still relevant in today's world. Paul Andrews also has 5 historical adventure novels, all available on Amazon.

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