Surrounded by proud curators and nervous security men, the famed Hope Diamond traveled 75 paces to its new home on Sunday.
“Isn’t it great? Isn’t it great?” said curator Jeffrey Post, who is in charge of the Smithsonian Institution’s world-famous gem collection. “I think it’s the first time it’s been displayed to look as good as it can look.”
“They’re going to really go nuts in here,” added Robert Sullivan, anticipating public reaction when the Smithsonian opens its new display of gems and minerals on Saturday.
Post and Sullivan removed the diamond from its wall safe early Sunday morning, carefully placed it in a black security case, took it to a back room for cleaning, then placed it in the new display.
Displayed for decades in a wall safe with one side open, the blue-white Hope Diamond, about the size of a walnut, will be housed in a glass cylinder that is “almost a shrine,” said Sullivan, the museum’s associate director for public programs. It is surrounded by 16 white diamonds and suspended from a platinum chain bearing 46 additional diamonds.
It rotates beneath special lights designed to peer deep into the heart of the 45.52-carat diamond itself. The room is called the Harry Winston Gallery for the New York jeweler who donated the gem to the Smithsonian.
Asked the value of the stone, Sullivan said the Smithsonian has received estimates but declines to make them public. Essentially, he said, it is priceless.
This gallery brings visitors into a renovated hall of gems and minerals which touches on everything from mining to plate tectonics to the moon. It closes with stardust - a vial of diamond powder formed in a dying star and brought to Earth aboard a meteorite.
But it’s the lure of the Hope Diamond that draws thousands of visitors a year to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.
The diamond originated in India, where it was acquired by French gem merchant Jean Baptiste Tavernier. He sold the stone, then weighing 112 carats, to France’s King Louis XIV, who had it recut to 67 carats.
Cut to its current size, the diamond was sold to King George IV. After the king died, it was bought by London banker Henry Philip Hope. After 71 years in the Hope family, the diamond was bought by Evalyn Walsh McLean of Virginia in 1912 from Paris jeweler Pierre Cartier.
Winston bought the gem from her estate and presented it to the Smithsonian in 1958.
The $13 million renovation of the gem hall was financed entirely by private donations, including $5 million from Janet Annenberg Hooker and $1 million from the Harry Winston Research Foundation. Safe manufacturer Diebold contributed the new display case, with 3-inch glass and a mechanism that will cause the gem to drop out of sight at any threat.
Visitors waiting to see the diamond can study a giant piece of quartz from Namibia in Southern Africa, a “modern sculpture” that actually is a solidified flow of molten copper from Michigan, a natural sand concretion from France and a meteorite from Arizona.
The goal is to pique people’s curiosity enough for them to step through a door and see the rest of the new hall. “I think it’s just going to be mouth-opening when people see it,” said Sullivan.
Along with the Hope Diamond, visitors will see a necklace given by Napoleon to Empress Marie Louise, earrings once worn by Marie Antoinette, the Star of Asia sapphire and a 23,000-carat topaz.
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