Some of the most exquisite gemstones in history carry with them fascinating stories of possible curses to which many of their owners have succumbed. Here, we look at four jewels that leave in their wake a trail of mystery, treachery and death.
Do you believe in their supposed supernatural powers, or is it more likely a string of coincidences built-up around their infamy? Let’s dive into their histories.
LA PEREGRINA PEARL
La Peregrina Pearl, meaning ‘the pilgrim’ or ‘the wanderer’ is one of the most famous Pearls of all time, and certainly lives up to its name. It is a perfectly symmetrical pear-shaped gem and was the largest Pearl ever found at the time it was discovered. The phenomenal story of this Pearl takes it from 16th century South America to the Hollywood glamour of the 20th century and beyond.
It was discovered over 500 years ago by an African slave on the coast of one of the aptly named Pearl Islands, in the Gulf of Panama. The Pearl was given to the administrator of the Spanish colony in Panama and earned the slave their freedom. It made its way back to Spain and entered the Spanish Crown Jewels. King Philip II of Spain gifted the Pearl to Queen Mary I of England, daughter of Henry VIII – from his first marriage, to Catherine of Aragon – as a pre-wedding gift, and she can be seen wearing it in several of her portraits (above).
In an era long before photography, Mary is said to have fallen for Philip II after seeing a painting of him, but despite them marrying just two days after they first met each other in person, he never loved her in return. Philip essentially left her, spending most of his time abroad while Mary remained in England. It is because of these events that the curse of La Peregrina came to represent lost and unrequited love.
After Mary’s death in 1558, the Pearl passed to her successor Queen Elizabeth I, another daughter of Henry VIII but this time from his second marriage, to Anne Boleyn. When she rejected an offer of marriage from Philip II, she returned the Pearl to Spain, and it was subsequently worn by a succession of Spanish queen consorts over the following two-and-a-half centuries. The curse seemingly returned to King Philip IV and his first wife Queen Isabel, who was having an affair with a poet named Peralta. Despite warnings of his impending doom Peralta failed to act in time and was murdered.
In 1808 Joseph Bonaparte, older brother of Napoleon, was made King of Spain. After a reign of just five years, he fled Spain and took some of the Crown Jewels, including La Peregrina, back to France. He left the Pearl to his nephew, who went on to be Napoleon III of France, and before Napoleon III passed away in 1873, he sold it to the wealthy James Hamilton in England. The Hamilton family held it until 1969 when they placed it up for auction at Sotheby’s.
The auction winner was Richard Burton, who paid $37,000 for the Pearl. He gave it to his wife Elizabeth Taylor as a Valentine’s Day gift during their first marriage, which lasted from 1964 to 1974. They remarried in 1975 but divorced a second and final time in 1976, adding more credence to the curse of La Peregrina. The Pearl remained with Elizabeth Taylor until her death in 2011. It was auctioned in December that year and sold for a staggering $11 million, well above the estimated price of $3 million. The next chapter in the history of this intriguing gem now rests in the hands of the anonymous bidder who won this remarkable piece of history.
THE HOPE DIAMOND
The Hope Diamond is probably the most notorious of cursed gems. Its story begins with a French traveling merchant named Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, who obtained the 112 carat ‘French Blue’, as it was once known, in India in 1666. He apparently stole it from the forehead of an idol of Sita, a Hindu goddess. Tavernier returned to France and sold it to King Louis XIV, who had it recut down to 67 carats, and it remained in the French Crown Jewels for a time.
It was eventually owned by King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette at the time of the French Revolution and their beheadings in 1793, after which it was looted and went missing for almost 20 years.
It is believed to have next surfaced in England in 1812, cut down again by around 20 carats. Whether this stone is still the French Blue is open to debate, but they certainly both share a distinctive grey-blue hue, and it’s widely thought to be the same gem. It came to be owned by King George IV, but after his death, it was sold to pay his enormous debts. At this point, it passed into private ownership, and its next owners were the Hope family, hence the name 'Hope Diamond'.
Various private owners took possession of the stone down the years, some of whom died in unusual ways. Princess de Lambelle was beaten to death by a mob, Jaques Colet committed suicide, Surbaya was murdered by the very man who’d given her the stone and Simon Montharides and his family were wiped out in a terrible carriage crash after their time with the Diamond.
Eventually, it was bought by Pierre Cartier in 1909, and here things take a notable turn. Cartier wanted to sell the gem to one of his clients, the socialite and heiress Evalyn Walsh McLean. McLean is said to have felt that unlucky objects were lucky to her, and she is claimed to have said she could reverse any curse. It’s entirely possible that Cartier played-up elements of the story to entice his potential buyer. McLean eventually bought the stone, but while she was the owner of the Diamond her husband left her, her daughter died of an overdose and her son was killed in a car crash. Although McLean herself did not believe any of these misfortunes were linked to the legends of the gem, it certainly added to the narrative of the curse.
In 1947, the Hope Diamond was bought by noted American jeweler Harry Winston, who recut the bottom facet of the Diamond to increase its brilliance. After spending a decade touring the stone and popularizing its story, Winston donated it to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. where it has spent the last 60 years as one of the museum's most popular exhibits, seemingly curse-free. When it was weighed in 1974, it was found to be 45.52 carats.
Whether or not the Diamond carries an aura of bad luck, it certainly has a fascinating history. Much of the backstory may have been appropriated just to increase the interest and value of the stone, and many of the unusual turns in its history could merely be a coincidence. It does, however, yield one gemological characteristic that may have added to its mystique over the years. The gem displays an unusually intense orange phosphorescent glow after being exposed to ultraviolet light. This is due to boron atoms within the stone though and is not an indication of supernatural forces.
THE KOH-I-NOOR DIAMOND
Possibly the most famous Diamond in the world, the Koh-i-Noor - which is Persian for ‘mountain of light’ - has a history stretching back at least as far as the 13th century. It is believed to have been mined at the Kollur Mine in the state of Andhra Pradesh, India, which is also where the Hope Diamond and other notable Diamond stones are thought to have originated. Legend says that to begin with it weighed 793 carats uncut and that it was used as the eye in an idol of a Hindu goddess. It was passed down through successive Indian dynasties.
It eventually came to be owned by Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire, in around 1526 and it was known for a time as the Diamond of Babur. It was later incorporated into the Peacock Throne of Shah Jahan, the Mughal emperor who commissioned the Taj Mahal. When he fell ill, his four sons fought for his throne; a battle won by his third son Aurangzeb. During Aurangzeb’s ownership of the stone, it is alleged that a poorly-skilled lapidarist was entrusted with a recut of the Diamond that led to a carat weight reduction from 793 carats to 186 carats, a loss of over 75 percent of the stone. It’s unknown whether this story is true, but when it first came to Britain, it did indeed weight 186 carats.
The legend of the gem being cursed dates all the way back to the first known verifiable appearance of the stone in 1306. A Hindu text from the time referenced the gem by saying, “He who owns this Diamond will own the world, but will also know all its misfortunes. Only God or woman can wear it with impunity.” Over the centuries, the gem changed hands many times, and in a series of vicious and bitter battles, its ownership switched between many rulers. Its owners' lives were filled with treachery, violence and murder, and many of the men who possessed the stone did indeed lose their thrones.
In 1739, Delhi was invaded and looted by the Iranian ruler Nader Shah, and he acquired many treasures of the Mughal Empire. The gem got its current name when Nader Shah supposedly exclaimed “Koh-i-Noor!” when he saw the gem for the first time. The Diamond was first acquired by the British in 1849. It faced a tumultuous voyage from India that included a severe cholera outbreak and a vicious storm that lasted 12 hours. It was eventually presented to Queen Victoria in 1850 by the East India Company. In 1851 it went on public display at the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, London, and was set into an armlet for the Queen to wear.
Prince Albert was never satisfied with its appearance though, and in 1852 it underwent a 38-day recut that saw several flaws removed from the stone and resulted in a 42 percent reduction in carat weight from 186 carats to its current 105 carats. Queen Victoria must have been well aware of the reported curse upon men who wear the Koh-i-Noor. She reportedly stated in her will that only a female should wear the Diamond and that if a male ascended to the throne, the Diamond was to be worn by his wife.
Therefore, after Queen Victoria’s death in 1901, the Diamond was first set into Queen Alexandra’s crown, then Queen Mary’s crown in 1911, and finally Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother’s crown in 1937, where it remains to this day. The ownership of the gem is contentious, but for the time being at least, it can be viewed in the Jewel House at the Tower of London.
THE BLACK PRINCE'S RUBY
For such an infamous gemstone, you may be surprised to learn that the Black Prince’s Ruby isn't a Ruby at all – it is a fine red Spinel! This lends the stone its nickname, ‘The Great Imposter’, but while it’s not the gem it purports to be, it is still a remarkably impressive stone.
It’s believed to be one of the biggest uncut Spinels in the world, although it has been well polished in lieu of a ‘proper’ cut. With such a rich glowing deep red color, it’s easy to understand the error, especially as Spinel and Ruby weren’t identifiable as separate stones until 1783.
It is thought that the gem originated from somewhere in present-day Tajikistan, an area historically known as Badakhshan. In the 14th century, in what is modern-day Spain, the neighbouring territories of Castile and Granada were at war, and Don Pedro the Cruel, ruler of Castile, was winning. The Sultan of Granada, Prince Abu Sa’id, sought to surrender to Don Pedro and Don Pedro is said to have welcomed him to Seville, the seat of Castile. When the Granadian party arrived, Don Pedro had the prince’s servants killed and is said to have murdered Abu Sa’id himself, earning him his ‘cruel’ moniker. On searching the body of the Sultan, Don Pedro found the peerless ‘Ruby’ and kept it for himself.
Soon after, in 1367, when Don Pedro’s half-brother Henry mounted an attack on the throne of Castile - wanting it for himself - Don Pedro enlisted the help of Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales, the eldest son of King Edward III of England. His successes in the early years of the Hundred Years’ War had earned him the nickname ‘the Black Prince’, and the combined might of the armies of Don Pedro and Prince Edward easily saw off Henry’s challenge to the throne. So grateful was Don Pedro, he handed the ‘Ruby’ to the Black Prince, albeit reluctantly by some accounts. This grizzly turn of events, however, is where stories of the gem being cursed originated.
Just a couple of years after his victory with Edward, Don Pedro was defeated and killed by his brother. In 1370, Prince Edward’s eldest son died aged just five, and in 1376 Edward predeceased his father by just over a year, never taking the throne that he was in line to inherit. Richard II instead inherited the throne and the stone, but was deposed by his cousin and murdered. This cousin was Henry IV, who himself died slowly and in great pain from an unknown disease. The gem passed to Henry V, who was wearing the gem on his helmet when he was struck with an axe at the Battle of Agincourt, though he survived. Legend has it that Richard III was wearing it at Bosworth Field in 1485 at the final battle of the Wars of the Roses, where he was killed. The stone was thus inherited by the Tudors.
Apart from a brief foray out of Royal ownership during Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth of England between 1649 and 1660, the stone has mostly been used for ornamental purposes in crowns ever since. The Black Prince's Ruby currently resides in pride of place on the front of the Imperial State Crown of the British Crown Jewels, which is worn annually at the State Opening of Parliament by Queen Elizabeth II. If you’ve ever noticed that a smaller gemstone appears to sit atop the gem, this is, in fact, a Ruby, and its placement is to conceal a drill hole from a time when the gem was worn as a pendant.