Diamond in the Rough Bavarian Crown Jewel Given Controversial Makeover
The crown jewel of the former Kingdom of Bavaria is going on public display for the first time in half a century as part of a new exhibition at the Smithsonian in Washington. But experts are outraged: The famous blue diamond has been recut in an historically inaccurate way.
Two men dressed in expensive suits walked through the video-monitored security entrance and entered the shop of jeweler Laurence Graff in London. Graff, known as the "diamond king," counts Victoria Beckham, Naomi Campbell and the Sultan of Brunei among his clients.
The men had hardly entered the showroom when they pulled out handguns and robbed the shop, making off with bracelets and earrings worth about 47 million ($66 million). They wore deceptively realistic latex facemasks to conceal their true identities.
The August 2009 robbery, which The Guardian called "Britain's biggest jewelry heist," still has police baffled today. The stolen jewelry has yet to be recovered.
But luck was on Graff's side. His biggest treasure, the "Wittelsbach Blue," was in a special safe at the time of the robbery. Some believe that stealing the diamond was the thieves' real objective.
Following a bidding war at Christie's, Graff purchased the enormous gem in December 2008 for the record price of 18.7 million. The diamond had adorned the golden crown of Bavaria since 1807, but later fell into private hands and disappeared.
The gem will be on public display once again as of Jan. 29. The National Museum of Natural History in Washington, the home of the supposedly cursed, 45-carat Hope diamond, is putting on a special exhibition of the two stones.
'A Piece of Hard Candy'
But even before it opens, the precious exhibit has triggered indignation. Opposition has been rife over Graff's re-cutting of the Wittelsbach Blue. Its soft rose cut, which was done more than 300 years ago, has been sharpened to give the diamond a more modern look and more facets.
Although the new cut has enhanced the famed gem's blue color and its "fire," its historical shape has been lost.
The old 35-carat diamond "has been turned into a piece of hard candy," says Hans Ottomeyer, director of the German Historical Museum in Berlin. "It's as if someone had painted over a Rembrandt painting." Chemistry professor Jürgen Evers of the University of Munich calls the re-cutting "barbaric."
Even diamond merchants are outraged. "It's a disgrace!" says the treasurer of the World Federation of Diamond Exchanges, Dieter Hahn, from Idar-Oberstein near Frankfurt. World-renowned Antwerp master diamond cutter Gabriel Tolkowsky even sees the treatment of the Wittelsbach Blue as an omen of the "end of culture."
The new owner had the bluish oval ground down by about 4.5 carats (one carat weighs about 0.2 grams). Its diameter was reduced and the facets were angled more sharply to achieve greater light reflection. "Graff was recklessly trying to increase the market value," says Ottomeyer.
Luminous like the Sky
Another source of controversy is the fact that the stone is now officially known as the Wittelsbach-Graff Diamond. "This renaming," says one angry diamond expert, is "a tremendous affront."
Graff's changes have robbed the people of Bavaria of their old crown jewel. Now, because of its position on the color scale ("deep blue"), the stone has acquired a "stratospheric" rarity, to use the effusive language of the diamond trade.
Statistically speaking, only one in thousands of diamonds is truly colorful. Most are yellow or brown, which are not particularly popular colors.
But the Wittelsbach is a radiant azure blue, as luminous as the sky. Moreover, it comes from the legendary Kollur Mine in a region of deep valleys in India's former Golkonda kingdom (near the modern-day city of Hyderabad).
The region's diamonds started as carbon crystals and grew under enormous pressure at depths of 150 kilometers (94 miles). Traces of boron turned the stones blue, while uranium radiation made them green.