Diamonds in America are associated with the heat of romance, but the famed and feared Hope Diamond feels cool, almost chilly as it draws warmth away from the palm of the hand. Museum security guards stood by nervously Thursday as curators — joking they hoped the gem’s storied curse wouldn’t rub off — allowed a reporter and photographer to hold the diamond briefly after it was removed from its case for scientific study.
WHAT DOES IT FEEL like to hold such a priceless gem, one of the most famed in the world?
The first thought that comes to mind is, “Wow!”
It’s like holding a bit of ancient India, the French Revolution, Georgian England and Gilded Age America in one magnificent moment.
You cradle the walnut-size, 45.5-carat stone — heavier than its translucence makes it appear — turning it from side to side as the light flashes from its facets, knowing it’s the hardest natural material yet fearful of dropping it.
Once part of the French crown jewels, the fabled gem is now the star of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. It normally resides in a special protective display case in a secure room.
THE LABORATORY AND THE LEGEND
For the testing it was taken to a museum laboratory, reachable down winding corridors and through three locked doors. It was only the second time in 20 years the Hope has been removed from its necklace setting, where it is surrounded by bright clear diamonds that intensify its blue color.
National Gem Collection Curator Jeffrey Post ordered the lights turned off and focused an ultraviolet beam on the Hope Diamond. Then he switched off the beam and, in pitch dark, the diamond glowed bright orange-amber.
It’s that strong color, which lasts for several seconds after the diamond is exposed to ultraviolet light, that intrigues scientists. What causes the gem to fluoresce remains a mystery — Post speculates it’s related to chemical impurities that give it that blue color.
But the Hope Diamond has inspired legends over the years and some may prefer those to sheer science.
Some say, for instance, that the glowing color reflects the blood of royalty spilled in the French Revolution and the trail of bad luck said to have followed the stone over many years — including the bankruptcy of the Hope family for whom it is named and the death of the young son of later owner Evalyn McLean.
The claimed curse notwithstanding, this diamond has been nothing but good luck for the Smithsonian, Post said. Attendance jumped after jeweler Harry Winston donated it to the museum in 1958, he said, and that gift spurred others, helping the museum to build its world-class gem collection.
Two other of the world’s best blue diamonds were also on hand for the research, the Smithsonian’s Blue Heart, 30.8 carats, and the Steinmetz Heart of Eternity, 27.6 carats.
The Hope is slightly blue-gray compared with the other two. The Hope was mined in India and the others in South Africa, so they shouldn’t be expected to be exactly the same, Post explained.
Both of the other stones also glowed following exposure to ultraviolet light, but only briefly compared with the Hope. The Steinmetz also glowed amber while the Blue Heart had a brief white glow.
STUDYING THE SPECTRUM
The blue color of the stones is caused by the element boron mixed into the carbon of the diamonds, Post said, and part of the testing was to use infrared light to get a chemical spectrum from the gems. The results are still being studied, but Post said tests did confirm that boron was present
Scientific analysis of the diamonds had to wait until the Smithsonian had the instruments to conduct the work, since taking the diamond somewhere else would be a security problem, Post said.
The Hope Diamond was returned to its necklace setting and display case Thursday morning in time for visitors to begin walking past, unaware the stone had been away from its normal resting place. The Blue Heart was also back in its case at the museum, while the Steinmetz is being returned to its owner after being on loan to the museum for several months.
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