January 15, 2008 — My girlfriend thinks I’m about to propose to her, and it’s all the Hope Diamond’s fault. For the past week or so, my computer has been infested with diamond research in preparation for this article. It’s all over my web history, it’s lodged in my Google toolbar, it’s mentioned in file names on my desktop...and every time she’s shoulder-surfed me, I’ve had images of diamonds bezel-set in my screen. Now, sure, those images are of one of the most famous diamonds on the planet, but that doesn’t alter the fact that, unlike other famous diamonds with exotic chase-them-down-in-the-jungle-with-Micheal-Douglas-and-Kathleen-Turner names like the Koh-i-Nur and the Star of Africa, the Hope Diamond has a name like any you could buy at a chain jewelry store in a shopping mall. Also, as to all that research, I have no idea what happened to it. It certainly didn’t go into this article. It’s a mystery.
But you’re not going to find the Hope Diamond in a shopping mall. You’re going to have to go to Washington D.C., to the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History, specifically, where the jewel’s been on display for the past 50 years, give or take a few loans to other museums around the world. Now, I try not to go to the Smithsonian well too often to dredge up oddities for this site. I mean, granted, it’s not my fault that I suburb beside one of the best museum systems in the world...and that your taxes pay for me to go there any time I want for free. But when they have one of the wonders of the gemolical world like the Hope Diamond on display, well, I have to go see it. And these days it means I also have to write about it. Incidentally, I’m sorry I started this paragraph with such a horribly obvious opening sentence.
I’ve seen the Hope Diamond at the Smithsonian on many different occasions, and without fail, seeing it makes me want to heist it. Not because I believe in the abilities of my fencing connections or because I have the patience to outlast a statute of limitations or even really because the word “heist” is one of the most enjoyable syllables to escape a person’s lungs. It’s solely because of over-the-top heist movies and—I’m going to say it—a few Remington Steele episodes that’ll always stick with me. You know what I’m talking about. Red laser security grids, perfect circles scored in glass with carbide-tipped compasses, anonymous figures clad in black regardless of the current fashion trends, grappler cables shot onto roofs like harpoons into whales, pictures of empty rooms clipped to the front of security cameras. All the tropes. And although I can’t prove it, when the MacGuffin in those heist movies is a famous diamond, you can bet that it was probably inspired by the Hope Diamond. For future reference, anytime I begin a statement with “although I can’t prove it,” that means I’m probably wrong. Oh, and while not a heist movie, it should be mentioned just as a preemptive strike against people e-mailing me this particular piece of trivia later that the Heart of the Ocean diamond in the Titanic movie was indubitably based on the Hope Diamond. And when I use the word “indubitably,” it means I’m telling the absolute truth. And that I’m watching BBC America while typing this.
At 45.52 carats, the Hope Diamond is the world’s largest blue diamond. I’ll skip the specifics of its genealogy since that’s not in my contract, but in overview, it originated in the mines of India, was brought to the Christian world in the mid 1600s, and has since been worn by kings, merchants, and doddering socialites. Its most famous owners were Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, who had to stop wearing it around their necks because it kept falling off the bleeding stumps where their heads use to be. Yup. Just made a French royalty joke. How freaking bourgeois of me. It was actually named for one of its less famous owners, Henry Philip Hope, for reasons I can’t fathom, and it has been inherited; hocked to cover debts; cut down to less than twice its original size over the course of its existence to meet the demands of taste, to hide its identity, and to increase its value; and, yes, Virginia, it has been heisted. Actually, that particular entry in its history occurred during the French Revolution, so “looted” is probably a more accurate term. Either way, it now sits on the second floor of a free-admission museum for middle-class grubbers like you and me to smear our noses against the glass to see.
Many show interest in this bauble for one reason. The fabled curse of the Hope Diamond. The curse is exactly that, of course—a fable. It was probably never stolen from the eye of a Hindu idol. It probably never killed any of its owners directly or indirectly. It probably never brought bad fortune to anybody. However, it most probably—nah, I’ll say it—it’s indubitably the reason some of its owners were called pretentious bastards. Who else would wear a 45.52 carat diamond? Sure, some owners and people in contact with the gem suffered misfortune and eventually died, but that is, was, and will be true of everybody, whether they have a cursed treasure in their possession or not. Plus I could trace the same pattern of death with any random object, be it Happy Meal or home run ball. Try me.
I’ve seen both the British Crown Jewels (which contains more than its fair share of the most famous diamonds in the world) and the Honours of Scotland. The latter I mention just to brag; the former, though, because of how they’re displayed. A Jetsons-style moving walkway escorts visitors briskly past the jewels, giving each visitor a limited, perpetually moving chance to view them (playground slide rules apply, of course; you can always get back in line and ride again). The display of the Hope Diamond at the Smithsonian is not so efficient, but what it sacrifices in efficiency it gains in intimacy. If you could ever call a relationship with something behind three-inch-thick bullet-proof glass intimate. I sometimes do.
The Hope Diamond is located on the second floor of the museum, in the Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems, and Minerals (the place isn’t solely funded by your taxes, you know). The hall is U-shaped, with the Hope Diamond displayed in a room located between the ends of the arms of the hall. The rest of the hall guides you through an astounding collection of minerals, rocks, gems, and ores beautiful enough to make you pissed that you don’t live underground. I would give up an open azure sky for a brilliant azurite roof any day. No I wouldn’t. Inset in the walls of the Hope Diamond room are displayed other, famous-but-less-than-Hope-Diamond-famous jewels and jewelry, but the rest of the room is open. The Hope Diamond reigns in the center of that space in a stand-alone, four-sided columnar case that allows you to get mere inches away from it...if you can buzzsaw your way through all the other museum visitors clustered around it like they’re watching an egg hatch in the Jurassic Park laboratories. Although the case is taller than a person, the actual jewel is displayed only about waist-high. Unless you’re a child or wheel-chair bound, in which case it’s at eye level. The interior pedestal upon which the gem is displayed rotates 90 degrees every few seconds so that it eventually faces each of the four sides of its display case throughout the course of its circuit. Currently, the Hope Diamond is ovaltine in shape (I know...but I find it funny to misuse that brand name) and mounted in a circlet of smaller-but-still-large white diamonds and strung on a necklace of even more white diamonds. Circumferentially, the Hope Diamond is slighter larger than a quarter, but the circlet of diamonds around it makes it seem bigger, like one of those lizards that flares its frills to scare off danger. Also scaring off danger is a guard positioned in the room to stare at you as you stare at the diamond. To make sure you aren’t planning to heist it, I’m sure.
As you can tell from mine, taking pictures of the Hope Diamond in its display case is problematical. First, you have to set up shop and wait for the diamond to slowly rotate to face you, knowing full well that a crowd of people are behind you waiting to get their own crack at it, then you have to fight against the glare of the glass, the refraction from the many stones, and the small spotlight that illuminates the stone itself, and then you only have a small window of time before it turns again. Then you have to hope that in the shots you did manage to squeeze out, you aren’t getting faces or pelvises from the people looking through on the opposite side of the tank. Unless pelvi are what you want in the background...in which case this is a great set-up for that. It helps a lot as well to have a girlfriend who doesn’t find your need to have a photographic record of yourself with everything at all disturbing.
As a result, you’ll spend a respectable amount of time, energy, and Metro fees to get to the diamond, but your conscience will only let you spend a few moments with it. It’s all you really need, though. The diamond is certainly beautiful, but no more beautiful than 75% of the natural rocks in the rest of the geology displays (some of which are literally breathtaking...in the sense that their excavators suffocated in mine collapses trying to dig them up. Just kidding. Most of the stones on display are absolutely mesmerizing). Still, the Hope Diamond is storied, and we’re trained societally to flip at diamonds regardless, especially really expensive ones, even though they look to the naked, untrained eye like every other diamond, including fake ones made out of plastic and glass...like the ones in the nearby gift shop.
For those of you not big into heisting, each section of the museum more or less has its own gift shop, including the Hall of Geology. In the geology gift shop you can buy the Hope Diamond in half a dozen cheesy ways, including emblazoned on T-shirts and reproduced as glass necklaces, key chains, earrings, brooches, and other types of adornment. And I only berate this merchandise because I wish I’d have purchased a facsimile of the Hope Diamond myself. I’ll have an empty gem setting inside me until I do.