With a flick of a cloth, the last stubborn specks of dust fly off the steely blue facets, the heavy glass doors are lowered into place, the lights click on, and the Hope Diamond warms up for its daily performance. Today, like every day, thousands to tens of thousands of visitors will press into the Winston Gallery of the Smithsonian’s Geology, Gems, and Minerals exhibition to experience the beauty, magic, and mystery of one of the world’s most famous diamonds, making it perhaps the most visited museum object in the world. More than 200 million people have viewed the Hope since Harry Winston gave it to the museum in 1958.
In the adjacent gallery, all types of spectacular gems and jewelry pieces are displayed in the National Gem and Mineral Collection, which I curate, but visitors are clearly most fascinated with the diamonds: the 262 carats of glistening stones in the necklace given by Napoléon to Empress Marie-Louise in 1811 to celebrate the birth of their son; the fabulous Blue Heart; the DeYoung pink and red diamonds; the exquisite 253-carat Oppenheimer diamond crystal; and many more.
Diamonds, more than most objects, appeal to us on many different levels. As is the case with all gems, they represent a unique and almost irresistible synergy of natural perfection and skilled human artistry. Of course, many of our visitors are simply drawn to the diamonds’ radiant beauty. And, naturally, people are captivated by the extreme value of these stones—diamonds are probably the most valuable objects (based on volume) on Earth. The most commonly asked question by far is “How much is it worth?” It is our policy not to offer values for our gems, and in most cases, I think people enjoy allowing their imaginations to supply the answer. When I am in the gem gallery during visitor hours, I observe children and parents—men and women alike—engaging in diamond-inspired fantasies about enormous wealth and opulent lifestyles. Others are intrigued by the fact that each diamond was cut from a crystal that was born of unimaginable heat and pressure 100 miles deep in the earth, where no human has ever visited—or ever will.
Diamonds are also time travelers, having witnessed hundreds of millions to billions of years of Earth’s history and, more recently, the lives of those who have cut, sold, and worn them. A diamond’s beauty does not diminish with time; rather, the stone accumulates its own history, which only enhances its allure. The same diamond that was once the ornament of an ancient emperor might be admired today in a lavish necklace—perhaps worn to the Academy Awards—and we can only imagine where it will be in a thousand years (maybe a future display at the Smithsonian?).
Despite all the reasons for man’s fascination with diamonds, the Hope alone has achieved iconic status. Invariably, visitors are surprised and even, I hate to admit, a tad disappointed when they glimpse the stone for the first time. Many have erroneously assumed that the Hope Diamond is the world’s largest diamond. The expectation is to see something about the size of a softball, but what they see instead is a “puny” 45.52-carat, walnut-sized gem. Then there is the color: Who ever heard of a blue diamond? And gem-savvy folks never tire of pointing out the poor cut, with its asymmetric shape and large culet (the flat facet at the bottom of the stone).
Its physical shortcomings notwithstanding, this black (or blue) sheep among diamonds has its own mystique. Once people get past their initial disappointment with the stone’s size, most realize that it is one of the largest diamonds they have ever seen. And when they learn that dark blue diamonds are very rare and very valuable, and that the Hope is one of the largest ever discovered, the level of respect quickly rises. When you add a storied history that includes a stint in the French crown jewels, a daring theft, two recuttings, ownerships by an English king and a wealthy American socialite, a bit of mystery, and a curse or two, you have an irresistible intrigue that is the envy of every diamond. Of course, the next chapter of the Hope’s story has yet to unfold. How will it end? No one knows, but for now the diamond sits quietly in its vault, slowly turning, watching, and waiting.
Jeffrey E. Post is the curator of the National Gem and Mineral Collection at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.