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.


Photo Gallery: Recutting History

Foto: AP/ Smithsonian Institution

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.

Bringing Stones to Life

Legend has it that Alexander the Great, whose military campaigns reached to the Indus River, ordered bloody pieces of meat thrown into a "diamond canyon." The precious stones became stuck to the meat. Sinbad the Sailor also figures prominently in one of the legends about this mysterious place.


Photo Gallery: Recutting History

Foto: AP/ Smithsonian Institution

Golkonda's diamond mines are exhausted today, but from a mineralogical perspective, the region remains unique. The Kollur Mine, where slaves once worked, was the world's only source of walnut-sized "blues." There are only four known specimens today, and one of them is the Wittelsbach Blue.

The stone was polished gently and carefully, using age-old techniques. It wasn't until later that craftsmen in the Western world developed increasingly hard cuts, culminating in the so-called "brilliant" cut, which captures light through symmetrical fields and then returns it in a particularly dazzling way, bringing the stone to life -- hence the term brilliant.

Europe's aristocracy, in particular, soon lusted for these sparkling symbols of eternity. From the Sun King Louis XIV to the Russian czars, regents adorned themselves with colored diamonds from the faraway Indian subcontinent. As the "crown jewels" in the crowns and scepters of kings, they represented the legitimate claim to dominance, power and property.

Violent Histories

The circumstances surrounding the procurement of these luxury items were often violent. The famous Koh-i-Noor ("Mountain of Light"), radiant and light-colored, weighs 105 carats and is said to have once belonged to an Indian hero in 56 B.C. Moguls and maharajas fought over the diamond.

In the end Britain, as the colonial power, seized the gem. After a Sikh uprising, the one-of-a-kind object was taken to England.

The history of the French crown jewels is even more violent. The yellow Sancy (55 carats) spent some time in the stomach of a murdered messenger. A Hindu slave smuggled the colorless Regent (140 carats) out of the mine by inserting it into a self-inflicted wound.

The bloodiest history of all is that of the pale pink Darya-i-Noor, which the Persians captured during an attack on Delhi in 1739, massacring hundreds in the process. The gem is now on display in the Central Bank of Iran in Tehran.

The Orlov (189 carats), on the other hand, has a history of longing and passion. It once served as the eye of a god in a Hindu temple. It later fell into the hands of a Russian prince, who gave it to Catherine the Great as a token of his love for her. But the empress spurned her admirer, and the man ended up in an insane asylum.

Lies and Evidence

The Wittelsbach Blue also has a fascinating history, but one with which hardly anyone was familiar until now. Chemistry professor Jürgen Evers, who spent years digging through archives, says: "I discovered that a crook named Klaus Schneider, who posed as a historian in the 1960s, concocted a false legend about the origins of the jewel."

Evers recently published an article about the true history of the Bavarian jewel in the US professional journal Gems & Gemology. "The Spanish king supposedly gave it to his daughter as a wedding present in 1666," says Evers, "but that was all a lie."

According to Evers, the only reliable evidence of the stone's existence points to a date 50 years later in Vienna. From there, it eventually went to Munich.

After World War I, the Wittelsbach family was so broke that it offered its most beautiful jewel for sale at auction at Christie's. "It went to London in a small package sent via the postal service," says Evers.

But no one at the auction was even willing to pay the minimum price for the diamond.

A Gift for a Secretary

Then came the darkest period in the blue gem's history. In 1958, it was displayed at the World's Fair in Brussels -- anonymously and without any information about its origins. And then it disappeared again.

Only much later was it revealed that the department store king Helmut Horten had purchased the stone as a wedding present for Heidi Jelinek, a young secretary he had met. Groups of dancers from Las Vegas and Tokyo performed at the wedding party in Cap d'Antibes.


Photo Gallery: Recutting History

Foto: AP/ Smithsonian Institution

Finally, in front of 240 guests and under cascades of champagne, Horten pulled the rock from the pocket of his trousers.

When a writer with the Rheinische Post newspaper dared to call the wedding gift a "bed prize," the billionaire had the man followed and imposed an advertising ban on the newspaper.

Heidi Horten, almost 70 today, eventually tired of the sparkling blue gem. Although she is considered Austria's richest woman, she is barred from selling the company and other assets, which apparently prompted her to sell the enormous diamond.

In late 2006, the gem was displayed at the Bulgari branch in St. Moritz for several days. The Christie's auction house heard about it and became curious.

Diamond-Bedecked Wife

Prior to the big auction in December 2008, many hoped that the Bavarian state government would bid on the diamond to bring home the Wittelsbach Blue. But Horst Seehofer, the new Bavarian governor, was in the midst of assembling a bailout package worth €30 billion to rescue the state-owned bank BayernLB.

The gem went to diamond king Laurence Graff, 71, whose advanced age hasn't protected him against foolish vanity. His wife, the British press writes gleefully, is sometimes "so bedecked with diamonds as to look like a glacier."

For years, Graff, whose global chain of jewelry stores is estimated to be worth €1 billion, has pursued a sophisticated market strategy. He is attempting to catapult "fancy diamonds," that is, colored diamonds, into higher price ranges.

The plan is going well. Only a few months ago, a pale blue diamond from South Africa was sold at auction in Geneva for more than €7 million. It weighed only seven carats. "Diamonds have finally arrived in the field of 'capital investment,'" says museum director Ottomeyer.

Now Graff has continued his business plan with the Wittelsbach Blue, a much heavier stone with a more elaborate history. To suit his purposes, he had the diamond mercilessly recut.

What remains is anger and frustration. In an "obituary" to the Wittelsbach Blue, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung mourned what it called the "abolition of eternity."

Of course, the jewel has not lost all of its allure as a result of the new cut. Seehofer could still bring back the blue gem to Bavaria. But he would have to pay dearly for it.

"Graff will not part with the stone for less than €25 million," predicts a well-known jewel trader.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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