The Curse of the Hope Diamond

Spider Bait
Mademoiselle Ledue, an actress in the Folies Bergere, who was lent the Hope Diamond by Russian Prince Kanitovsky and was subsequently shot by him the first time she appeared on stage with it on. He himself was killed during the revolution. Hulton Archive / Stringer/ Hulton Archive/ Getty Images

According to the legend, a curse attends the owner of the Hope diamond, a curse that first befell the large, blue gem when it was plucked (i.e. stolen) from an idol in India—a curse that foretold bad luck and death not only for the owner of the diamond but for all who touched it.

Whether or not you believe in curses, the Hope diamond has intrigued people for centuries. Its perfect quality, its large size, and its rare color make it strikingly unique and beautiful. Its fascination is enhanced by a varied history which includes being owned by King Louis XIV, stolen during the French Revolution, sold to earn money for gambling, worn to raise money for charity, and then finally donated to the Smithsonian Institution where it resides today. The Hope diamond is truly unique.

But, is there really a curse? Where did the Hope diamond come from, and why was such a valuable gem donated to the Smithsonian?

Cartier's Legend of the Hope Diamond

Pierre Cartier was one of the famous Cartier jewelers, and in 1910 he told the following story to Evalyn Walsh McLean and her husband Edward, to entice them to buy the enormous rock. The very wealthy couple (he was the son of the owner of the Washington Post, she was the daughter of a successful gold miner) was vacationing in Europe when they met with Cartier. According to Cartier's story, several centuries ago, a man named Tavernier made a trip to India. While there, he stole a large, blue diamond from the forehead (or eye) of a statue of the Hindu goddess Sita. For this transgression, according to the legend, Tavernier was torn apart by wild dogs on a trip to Russia after he had sold the diamond. This was the first horrible death attributed to the curse, said Cartier: there would be many to follow.

Cartier told the McLeans about Nicholas Fouquet, a French official who was executed; Princess de Lambale, beaten to death by a French mob; Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette were beheaded. In 1908, Sultan Abdul Hamid of Turkey purchased the stone and subsequently lost his throne and his favorite Subaya wore the diamond and was slain. Greek jeweler Simon Montharides was killed when he, his wife and child rode over a precipice. The grandson of Henry Thomas Hope (for whom the diamond is named) died penniless. There was a Russian count and an actress who owned the stone in the early 20th century and came to bad ends. But, researcher Richard Kurin reports that many of these stories were misleading and some were flat out lies.

In her memoir "Father Struck It Rich," Evalyn McLean wrote that Cartier was most entertaining—"I might have been excused that morning for believing that all the violences of the French Revolution were just the repercussions of that Hindu idol's wrath." 

The Real Tavernier Story

How much of Cartier's story was true? The blue diamond was first found by Jean Baptiste Tavernier, a 17th century jeweler, traveler, and story teller, who wandered the world between 1640–1667 looking for gems. He visited India—at the time famous for abundance of large colored diamonds—and bought, probably in the diamond market there, an uncut 112 3/16 carat blue diamond, believed to have come from the Kollur mine in Golconda, India.

Tavernier arrived back in France in 1668, where he was invited by the French King Louis XIV, the "Sun King," to visit him at court, describe his adventures and sell him diamonds. Louis XIV bought the large, blue diamond as well as 44 large diamonds and 1,122 smaller diamonds. Tavernier was made a noble, wrote his memoirs in several volumes, and died at the age 84 in Russia.

Worn by Kings

In 1673, King Louis XIV decided to re-cut the diamond to enhance its brilliance. The newly cut gem was 67 1/8 carats. Louis XIV officially named it the "Blue Diamond of the Crown" and would often wear the diamond on a long ribbon around his neck.

In 1749, Louis XIV's great-grandson, Louis XV, was king and ordered the crown jeweler to make a decoration for the Order of the Golden Fleece, using the blue diamond and the Cote de Bretagne (a large red spinel thought at the time to be a ruby). The resulting decoration was extremely ornate.

The Hope Diamond Was Stolen

When Louis XV died, his grandson, Louis XVI, became king with Marie Antoinette as his queen. Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI were beheaded during the French Revolution, but not, of course, because of the blue diamond's curse.

During the Reign of Terror, the crown jewels (including the blue diamond) were taken from the royal couple after they attempted to flee France in 1791. The jewels were placed in the royal storehouse known as the Garde-Meuble de la Couronne, but were not well guarded.

Between September 12 and 16, 1791, the Garde-Meuble was repeatedly looted, something officials didn't notice until September 17. Though most of the crown jewels were soon recovered, the blue diamond was not, and it disappeared.

The Blue Diamond Resurfaces

A large (44 carat) blue diamond resurfaced in London by 1813, and was owned by jeweler Daniel Eliason by 1823. It isn't certain that the blue diamond in London was the same one stolen from the Garde-Meuble because the one in London was of a different cut. Yet, most people feel the rarity and perfection of the French blue diamond and the blue diamond that appeared in London makes it likely that someone re-cut the French blue diamond in the hopes of hiding its origin.

King George IV of England bought the blue diamond from Daniel Eliason and upon King George's death, the diamond was sold to pay off his debts.

Why Is It Called the "Hope Diamond"?

By 1839, or possibly earlier, the blue diamond was in the possession of Henry Philip Hope, one of the heirs of the banking firm Hope & Co. Hope was a collector of fine art and gems, and he acquired the large blue diamond that was soon to carry his family's name.

Since he had never married, Henry Philip Hope left his estate to his three nephews when he died in 1839. The Hope diamond went to the oldest of the nephews, Henry Thomas Hope.

Henry Thomas Hope married and had one daughter; his daughter grew up, married and had five children. When Henry Thomas Hope died in 1862 at the age of 54, the Hope diamond stayed in the possession of Hope's widow, and her grandson, the second oldest son, Lord Francis Hope (he took the name Hope in 1887), inherited the Hope as part of his grandmother's life estate, shared with his siblings.

Because of his gambling and high spending, Francis Hope asked permission from the court in 1898 to sell the Hope diamond—but his siblings opposed its sale and his request was denied. He appealed again in 1899, and again his request was denied. In 1901, on an appeal to the House of Lords, Francis Hope was finally granted permission to sell the diamond.

The Hope Diamond as a Good Luck Charm

It was Simon Frankel, an American jeweler, who bought the Hope diamond in 1901 and brought it to the United States. The diamond changed hands several times during the next few years (including the sultan, the actress, the Russian count, if you believe Cartier), ending with Pierre Cartier.

Pierre Cartier believed he had found a buyer in Evalyn Walsh McLean, who had first seen the diamond in 1910 while visiting Paris with her husband. Since Mrs. McLean had previously told Pierre Cartier that objects usually considered bad luck turned into good luck for her, in his pitch Cartier emphasized the Hope diamond's negative history. However, since Mrs. McLean did not like the diamond in its current mounting, she turned him down.

A few months later, Pierre Cartier arrived in the U.S. and asked Mrs. McLean to keep the Hope diamond for the weekend. Having reset the Hope diamond into a new mounting, Cartier hoped she would grow attached to it over the weekend. He was right and McLean bought the Hope diamond.

Evalyn McLean's Curse

When Evalyn's mother-in-law heard about the sale, she was aghast and persuaded Evalyn to send it back to Cartier, who sent it right back to her and then had to sue to get the McLeans to pay the promised fee. Once that was cleared up, Evalyn McLean wore the diamond constantly. According to one story, it took a lot of persuading by Mrs. McLean's doctor to get her to take off the necklace even for a goiter operation.

Though McLean wore the Hope diamond as a good luck charm, others saw the curse strike her too. McLean's firstborn son, Vinson, died in a car crash when he was only nine. McLean suffered another major loss when her daughter committed suicide at age 25. In addition to all this, McLean's husband was declared insane and confined to a mental institution until his death in 1941.

Though Evalyn McLean had wanted her jewelry to go to her grandchildren when they were older, her jewelry was put up for sale in 1949, two years after her death, in order to settle debts from the estate.

Harry Winston and the Smithsonian

When the Hope diamond went on sale in 1949, it was acquired by the famed New York jeweler Harry Winston. On numerous occasions, Winston offered the diamond to various ladies to be worn at balls to raise money for charity.

Winston donated the Hope diamond to the Smithsonian Institution in 1958 to be the focal point of a newly established gem collection as well as to inspire others to donate. On November 10, 1958, the Hope diamond traveled in a plain brown box, by registered mail, and was met by a large group of people at the Smithsonian who celebrated its arrival. The Smithsonian received a number of letters and newspaper stories suggesting that the acquisition of such a ill-famed stone by a federal institution meant bad luck for the entire country.

The Hope diamond is currently on display as part of the National Gem and Mineral Collection in the National Museum of Natural History for all to see.

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