Cutting Through History: 3 Famous Gemstones

| 6 min read

The history of gemstones and jewellery is a fascinating one, all the more so because the provenance of a gemstone is often veiled in mystery. It makes fascinating viewing to watch any of the antiques programmes on television, the visitor eagerly waiting to hear everything the antiques expert can tell them about their jewellery, using the hallmarking and overall styling as their clues. In fact, even without being set in jewellery or part of a metalwork artefact – the history of a gemstone can be even more intriguing. It will acquire a geographical, social and even political history on its journey through time.

A gemstone will often end up thousands of miles from its origin and possibly pass through many hands on its journey: from the physical source of the gem in the hands of the miners, to the skilled stone cutters (lapidarists) to be inlaid in the crowns or sword hilts of the great rulers, or the ornate jewels of courtiers. Even on the odd occasion, to end up in the hands of a jewel thief – to vanish for a period of time or indeed for good. A gemstone of value can travel across continents, many thousands of miles and over hundreds of years. On such a journey, it is generally only the highly prized and valuable gemstones whose stories survive – often as part of royal jewels or museum collections. Jewels held in private collections can all too often be lost in history unless they resurface as part of a museum exhibition.

Jewellery has an intrinsic financial value. So it's quite likely that pieces may be seen purely for their weight in gold or gems, and sold or even melted down or taken apart for their material value. Once-beautiful jewels can transform beyond their original form or be destroyed and lost to history altogether. Often a gemstone may be removed from one item and re-set into a different piece of jewellery, as is the whim of changing fashion. You may also find inferior cut gemstones are re-cut to remove scratches and wear, or into more fashionable shapes. As an example of this, the Brilliant Cut developed by Marcel Tolkowsky, did not appear until 1919. Today it is arguably one of the most frequently utilised styles of gemstone fashioning, as it produces the most brilliance, fire and sparkle from the gem. This new fashionable cut replaced bulkier styles, such as the Old Mine Cut or the Old European Cut.

Antique Old European Cut versus modern Round Brilliant Cut

Some individual stones have histories that have become legendary. Here are three of the most famous:

The Kimberley Diamond

The Kimberley Diamond and mine - image courtesy of AMNH/D. Finnin

The Kimberley Diamond – which was exhibited in New York’s American Museum of Natural History in 2013, is a famous example of a re-fashioned gemstone. It was named after the Kimberley mines, in South Africa, where it was discovered in the late 19th Century at the start of the Diamond Rush. This beautiful gemstone was originally cut from an impressive 490 carat champagne coloured Diamond. This gem was destined to become part of the Russian Crown Jewels, but reappeared on the open market, not long after the end of the Russian Revolution in 1917. Described in a GIA publication as “a large somewhat flat stone”, this was re-cut in 1921 to produce a flawless step-cut 70ct Diamond. In 1958 it was once again re-cut into its present stunning Emerald shape, to enhance the brilliance and its overall proportions. This further reduced its weight from 70 carats to 55 carats. In just the last 130 years, this stunning Diamond has travelled from South Africa, via Russia and currently belongs to a private collector in America.

The Blue Hope

The French Blue, or Hope Diamond

The Kimberley Diamond is not the first gemstone to be caught up in a revolution. Originally brought back from India circa 1666, by the French travelling merchant Jean-Baptiste Tavernier – 'The French Blue' has an infamous history. This unparalleled 112 carat Blue Diamond was sold by Tavernier to Louis XIV in 1669, after which it was re-cut from its original Moghul faceted shape into a 67.8 carat triangle shape. It remained within the French monarchy, until it was looted in 1792 during the French Revolution and vanished into history.

By 1812, a remarkably similar Blue Diamond appeared in London belonging to a Diamond merchant. There is strong historical evidence to suggest that this Diamond was in fact 'The French Blue', though re-cut. After further owners, including King George IV, the infamous Blue Diamond gained the title 'The Blue Hope', after one of its owners. By 1909 it had been sold to the famous jeweller Cartier, who reset the Diamond and sold the gem to a wealthy American heiress. In 1958, it was donated to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in America.

Koh-i-Noor Diamond

The Koh-i-Noor Diamond - image courtesy of the US Copyright Office

This brings us to the last and the most famous of Diamonds from India – the Koh-i-Noor Diamond. First believed to be found in the 13th Century in Golconda, India, its original rough size was thought to be 739 carats and it was rumoured to be set as the eye of a Hindu goddess. Centuries later, when India fell to the Persians in 1739, the conqueror Nadir Shah gave this remarkable Diamond its name – 'Koh-i-Noor' meaning 'Mountain of Light'. A subsequent owner, Shah Jehan, who commissioned the building of the Taj Mahal, was also a famous gem collector of his day. His famous peacock throne was adorned with thousands of gemstones, including the Koh-i-Noor, the Shah Diamond (now housed in the Russian Treasury of Diamonds & Precious Stones in the Kremlin) and the Timur Ruby – which is in fact a Spinel – currently housed in the Tower of London. Both of these gemstones were unique in that they were inscribed with the names of several of their owners, including Shah Jehan.

Shah Jahan on the Peacock Throne

The Koh-i-Noor and the Timur Ruby came into English possession during the annexation of the Punjab Province under the East India Company in 1849 – a year later both were presented to Queen Victoria. The Koh-i-Noor had been recut from its original Moghul faceting, as recorded by Jean Baptiste Tavernier in the mid-17th century and in 1852 it was cut again reducing the size from 186 to 108.9 carats.

During its time in the Royal Collection, the Koh-i-Noor has been set in various crowns. Today it can be seen in the crown of Queen Mary and is housed in the Tower of London.

The Koh-i-Noor in Queen Mary's Crown

It is not only these famous gems which have a prestigious history. Every one of Mother Nature’s precious creations has a fascinating past. From their formation to their discovery, cutting and setting, through to their lives as heirlooms, passed down through generations – gemstones outlive us all. This makes every single one unique.

But perhaps you don’t have an heirloom piece to inherit? Here at Gemporia, we believe that it is one thing to be a link in a chain, passing a piece on in your turn, but it is even better to begin a new chain and to start a family legacy from scratch.

Find your piece of heirloom jewellery with Gemporia.

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