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With deference to lyricist Leo Robin, who wrote the hit song Carol Channing belted out on Broadway in 1949’s “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” diamonds are not a girl’s best friend. For that matter, neither are they men’s greatest ally. As legend holds, in 17th century India, French gem merchant Jean-Baptists Tavernier plucked a 115.16 carat blue diamond from one of the eyes of a Hindu statue. Upon discovering its theft, priests cursed whoever was in possession of the once devout diamond. Though some reports suggest he lived to the age of 84, the more sordid version of history purports that Tavernier came down with a raging fever and, for good measure, was ravaged by wolves.
At some point before his dramatic demise, Tavernier sold the stone to King Louis XIV. In 1673, a royal recutting was ordered which produced the “French Blue.” Poor Louis soon succumbed to gangrene and all but one of his legitimate successors died in childhood. Though no photographic evidence exists to prove Marie Antoinette wore the jewel (how could it?), we do know there was no living happily ever after for the gem’s inheritor, King Louis XVI and his lovely bride.
The next possessor was one Wilhelm Fals, a Dutch jeweler who had the diamond re-recut in 1791 to the 45-carat stone you can safely see in the Smithsonian today. Would you believe his son killed him and then took his own life? For many years, the diamond’s whereabouts was a mystery. In 1839, it resurfaced in the catalog of a gem collection owned by the Hope banking family of London. Renaming the stone did nothing to temper its temper. Greek merchant Simon Maoncharides clearly fancied himself impervious to any sort of folkloric fate when he acquired the infamous stone, that is, until he drove his car off a cliff with his wife and child alongside him.
The Indian priests must have been on break in the two years to 1912, which is how long it took one Pierre Cartier to perform the sales job that transformed a brand into an icon. In 1908, at the age of 22, American heiress Evalyn Walsh married 19-year-old Ned McLean whose family owned the Washington Post. Such was the young couple’s obsessions with the trappings of wealth, Evalyn once bragged, “The truth is, when I neglect to wear jewels, astute members of my family call in doctors because it is a sign that I’m becoming ill.” It nearly broke the bank to buy the Hope Diamond from Cartier. And in fact, the first of several attempts failed.
But the young Cartier was shrewd enough to ship it to Evalyn for a test drive of sorts. Once hanging from her neck, as it once had on that of a since-decapitated queen, she could not escape its magnetism. The price exacted: her son died at nine, her husband left her for another woman and later died in an insane asylum and her daughter died when she was 25. The huge debts Evalyn owed when she passed prompted her estate to sell the blighted bling to Harry Winston.
In 2012, Louis Vuitton entered the realm of fine jewelry with the addition of an atelier at its Place Vendome flagship. Last year, the luxury retailer ripped yet another page from Cartier’s playbook, acquiring for an unpublished sum the Sewelo Diamond, a tennis-ball sized rough diamond weighing 1,758 carats. The diamond, second in size only to the 3,106-carat Cullinan, which was mined in 1905 and outfitted the British Crown Jewels, was mined last April using a disruptive mining technology called XRT circuit which avoids crushing the diamond-bearing rock. Of the audacious foray, Louis Vuitton chairman and CEO Michael Burke said, “We’re positioning ourselves for the next 100 years.”