8 Daring Female Entrepreneurs From History

An assortment of Madam C.J. Walker products
An assortment of Madam C.J. Walker products
FA2010, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In the past 20 years, the number of women-owned businesses has risen 114 percent. But female entrepreneurship isn't just a hallmark of the modern era: Since as early as the 17th century, women have been forging their own paths in a variety of trades. From merchants to ironmasters to dressmakers, these historic women shattered glass ceilings and broke stereotypes to rise to the top of their industries.

1. Margaret Hardenbroeck

When 22-year-old Margaret Hardenbroeck arrived in New Amsterdam (later New York) from the Netherlands in 1659, she was ambitious and ready to work. She already had a job lined up—collecting debts for a cousin's business. She continued to work even after she married the wealthy merchant Pieter de Vries, this time as a business agent for several Dutch merchants. She sold small goods like cooking oil to the colonists, and bought furs to send to Holland.

When Peter died in 1661, Hardenbroeck inherited his estate and took over his business. She expanded her fur shipping operations in Holland, trading the furs for merchandise to sell back in the colonies. For the Dutch, it was not wholly unusual for women to run businesses on equal footing with men; in New Amsterdam, they sometimes called themselves she-merchants. Hardenbroeck would become the most successful and wealthiest she-merchant in the colony.

Eventually, she was able to purchase her own ship, the King Charles, and accumulated real estate holdings throughout the colonies. Ever the savvy businesswoman, Hardenbroeck ensured that her wealth, properties, and independence were protected when she married her second husband, Frederick Philipse, by choosing an usus marriage under Dutch law. That meant she rejected marital guardianship of her husband and communal property, retaining all that was hers prior to marriage. When Hardenbroeck died in 1691, she was the wealthiest woman in New York.

2. Rebecca Lukens

Printed picture of Rebecca Lukens, c. 1820
Rebecca Lukens circa 1820
Hagley Museum Collection, Wikimedia // Public Domain

In 1825, 31-year-old Rebecca Lukens found herself a widow and the new owner of Brandywine Iron Works and Nail Factory. The Pennsylvania-based company had been started by Lukens’s father Isaac Pennock in 1810, leased to her husband Charles, and ultimately left to her after both men died only a year apart. As uncommon as it was at the time for a women to be an ironmaster, and despite objections from her own family, Lukens took over and led the company into a new era of innovation and industry.

Under her husband’s leadership, Brandywine Iron Works had harnessed the demand for steam power by producing rolled iron plate for steam engines. Lukens continued this line of production and propelled Brandywine to become the leading producer of boilerplate. But she saw another opportunity for iron when the Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad, one of the first commercial railways in the U.S., launched in the mid-1830s, and she began seeking out commissions to produce iron for locomotives.

Even in the midst of the financial crisis of the Great Panic of 1837, Brandywine continued to roll out iron, and when business was stagnant, she sustained her employees by putting them to work maintaining and updating the mill. When she couldn’t pay them with money, she paid them with food. Her foresight and willingness to seek out new opportunities kept Brandywine afloat when other ironworks failed, and her business emerged from the Panic as the most prominent ironworks company. Lukens herself is remembered as the first woman CEO of an industrial company, and one of the first female ironmasters in the US.

3. Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley

A drawing of Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley from her book
A drawing of Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley from her book
Behind the Scenes by Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, HathiTrust // Public Domain

Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley was one of Washington, D.C.'s most popular 19th century dressmakers—but it was a long and difficult road to financial independence and recognition. Born into slavery in Virginia in 1818, Keckley was moved from plantation to plantation. Taught sewing by her seamstress mother Agnes Hobbs, Keckley used this skill while still a teenager to build a clientele, making dresses for both white women and freed black women. While much of the money that she made from her dresses went to the family who owned her, some of her loyal clients loaned her the $1200 she needed to buy her and her son’s freedom. Keckley worked to pay back all the patrons who helped her buy her freedom before moving to Washington, D.C.

In D.C., word of her talents reached Mary Todd Lincoln. The first lady took Keckley on as her personal designer—and close personal friend. Keckley designed nearly all of Mary’s gowns during her time in the White House, including the dress she wore at Lincoln’s second inauguration, now on display at the Smithsonian. As a visible and well-respected free black woman, Keckley also founded the Contraband Relief Association (later the Ladies’ Freedmen and Soldiers’ Relief Association), an organization that raised money and provided food and clothing for black people and wounded Union soldiers.

Keckley’s success in D.C. ended, however, shortly after she published an 1868 autobiography—Behind the Scenes, Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. Mary saw the sections about her and the White House as a betrayal of confidence, and ended their friendship. The ripple effects ruined Keckley’s reputation in D.C. In the aftermath, she was offered a position at Wilberforce University in Ohio as head of the Department of Sewing and Domestic Science Arts, which she accepted. Keckley also organized the dress exhibit at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. She died in 1907.

4. Lydia Estes Pinkham

An advertising postcard for Lydia E. Pinkham
An advertising postcard for Lydia E. Pinkham
Boston Public Library // No known copyright restrictions

Lydia Pinkham reputedly came into possession of a secret medicinal recipe when her husband Isaac accepted the formula in lieu of money owed to him. The recipe contained five main herbs—pleurisy root, life root, fenugreek, unicorn root, and black cohosh—and alcohol. Pinkhman brewed her first batch of the soon-to-be-famous Vegetable Compound on her stove, and just three years later, she launched the Lydia E. Pinkham Medicine Co., a home remedy business run by and for women.

Pinkham claimed that her Vegetable Compound could cure a spectrum of female-specific ailments, from menstrual problems to a prolapsed uterus. She started out small, first distributing her compound to neighbors and friends, but in the midst of the financial crisis of 1873—when her husband was ruined—she began selling it and writing female health pamphlets to go alongside it. Her three sons helped her package, market, and sell the compound, and the strategic advertising campaign they implemented was key to the business’s success. She was the first woman to put her own likeness on her product, which helped create brand loyalty and spoke to her target audience: women. Eventually, she was able to expand her business beyond the U.S. and into Canada and Mexico.

There is little evidence proving the medical efficacy of Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, and she is often lumped into the quackery category along with hundreds of other 19th century patent medicine producers. But she was also addressing a need for women-centered health care, which was often inadequate at the time. To find alternative methods of care, and avoid dangerous, expensive doctor visits, women often turned to home remedies—like Pinkham’s compound.

5. Madam C.J. Walker

Tin for Madame C.J. Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower
Tin for Madame C.J. Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower

Born Sarah Breedlove on a Louisiana plantation on December 23, 1867, Walker was the daughter of Owen and Minerva Anderson, freed blacks who both died by the time she was 7. She was married at 14, and soon gave birth to one daughter, Lelia. After her husband died only six years into their marriage, Walker moved to St. Louis, where she worked hard as a laundress and cook, hoping to provide a life free from poverty for Lelia.

In 1904, Walker began working as a sales agent for Annie Turnbo Malone’s hair care company—and soon came into some inspiration of her own. As the story goes, she had a dream in which a man told her the ingredients for a hair-growing tonic. Walker re-created the tonic and began selling it door-to-door. After she married Charles Joseph Walker in 1906 and renamed herself Madam C.J. Walker, she launched Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower, a line of hair care for black women.

Walker built a business that was earning $500,000 a year by the time she died, while her individual financial worth reached $1 million. Yet it isn’t the wealth alone that earned Walker a lasting legacy—it was how she used that wealth for a larger social good. Within her company, she trained over 40,000 black women and men and advocated for the economic independence of black people, particularly black women. She financially supported black students at the Tuskegee Institute, and contributed the largest recorded single donation, of $5000, to the NAACP, to support anti-lynching initiatives.

6. Annie Turnbo Malone

Though Madam C.J. Walker is often recognized as the first black woman millionaire, some historians say that credit belongs to Annie Turnbo Malone, the woman who hired Walker to sell her Wonderful Hair Grower in St. Louis before Walker started her own company. Like Walker, Malone’s parents were former slaves who died when Malone was young. Her older sister Peoria raised her, and together, they began experimenting with hairdressing.

Hair care products for black women were not widely produced, and the chemical solutions that were used often damaged hair. Malone developed her own chemical straightener around the turn of the century, and soon had created an entire line of other products for black women’s hair. In 1902 later, she moved to St. Louis and, along with three assistants, sold her hair care line door-to-door. She expanded the company rapidly, advertising in newspapers, traveling to give demonstrations at black churches, and even selling her line at the 1904 World’s Fair. In 1906, Malone trademarked her products under the name Poro, and in 1918, she built Poro College, a multi-story building that housed her business offices, training offices, operations, and a variety of public gathering spaces for the local black community. Malone even franchised retail outlets throughout North and South America, Africa, and the Philippines, employing over 75,000 women worldwide.

Malone’s company was worth millions, and she continuously used her money to improve the lives of those around her, either by hiring women or donating to colleges and organizations around the country. She made $25,000 donations to both Howard University Medical School and the St. Louis Colored YMCA. She donated the land for the St. Louis Colored Orphans’ Home and raised most of their construction costs, then served on their board from 1919 to 1943. In 1946, the orphanage was renamed in her honor, and it is still operational today as the Annie Malone Children and Family Service Center.

7. Mary Ellen Pleasant

When Mary Ellen Pleasant moved to San Francisco in 1852 she was fleeing the South, where she had been accused of violating the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Pleasant had, in fact, broken the law—which punished anyone who aided people escaping slavery—as a member of the Underground Railroad, along with her first husband James Smith. For four years, Pleasant and Smith helped escaped slaves find new homes in free states and Canada, and when Smith died only four years after their marriage, Pleasant continued the work with a considerable inheritance from him.

When Pleasant moved to San Francisco in 1852 amid Gold Rush fever, she initially worked as a cook and housekeeper, but also began investing in stock and money markets, and lending money to miners and other businessmen in California's surging economy (at interest, of course). Pleasant was successful enough that she became a philanthropist, and continued her abolitionist work by housing escaped slaves and finding them jobs.

In 1866, Pleasant brought a civil rights case against the North Beach Mission Railroad Company, which refused to pick up black passengers. She won. Her success in court, as well as in continuing the Underground Railroad through her businesses, have earned her the title the mother of California’s civil rights movement.

By this time, Pleasant had amassed a sizable fortune and was considered one of the wealthiest women in America. But many people in white society saw her only as a black stereotype, and dubbed her Mammy Pleasant—a title she hated. She ended up being dragged into a series of scandals and court cases connected to wealthy men, accused of being both a thief and murderer. Financially drained and emotionally exhausted, she was forced to give up her home. The smear campaigns also greatly diminished her fortune and reputation in her time, but the legacy of her radical life has not been lost. In 2005, the city of San Francisco proclaimed February 10 Mary Ellen Pleasant Day in her honor.

8. Olive Ann Beech

A photograph of Olive Ann Beach
A photograph of Olive Ann Beach
San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive, Wikimedia // No known restrictions

From an early age, Beech knew how to manage finances. Born in 1903, she had her own bank account by the age of 7, and by 11 she had taken on the unusual childhood responsibility of keeping track of her family’s accounts. Already with a mind for business and finance, Beech enrolled in a business college in her home state of Kansas, where she studied stenography and bookkeeping. After college, she took a position in 1924 as a bookkeeper for Travel Air Manufacturing Company, a new commercial and passenger aviation company.

Beech was fundamental to the company’s growth, managing its correspondence, records, and financial dealings, and the organization quickly became the world’s largest commercial aircraft manufacturer. In a short time, she was promoted to office manager, and eventually became personal secretary to Walter Beech, one of Travel Air’s co-founders. Their working relationship became much more, and they married in 1930. As partners, they formed Beech Aircraft Company, and when Walter fell sick for a few months, Beech took over. With the onset of the U.S.’s entry into World War II, Beech Aircraft boomed, building over 7400 military aircraft over the course of the war.

When Walter died in 1950, Beech became president—the first woman president of a major aircraft company. She then took the company into the Space Age, establishing a research and development facility that supplied NASA with cryogenic systems, cabin pressurizing equipment for the Gemini program, and parts for the Apollo moon flights and Orbiter shuttle. Under Beech’s leadership, the company’s sales tripled.

In 1980, Beech Aircraft merged with Raytheon; Beech stayed on as chair of Beech Aircraft and was elected to Raytheon’s board of directors. Though Beech never piloted an aircraft herself, she was awarded the Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy that same year—the first woman to receive the award—for "five decades of outstanding leadership in the development of general aviation."

25 Inspiring Theodore Roosevelt Quotes

Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images
Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images

Born in New York City in 1858, Theodore Roosevelt grew up to become an influential politician and conservationist. He was also one of the most quotable figures in our nation’s history. The 26th president was known for his rousing speeches, informative books, and witty letters—most of which are still available for the public to appreciate today. Read on for some of the quotes that contributed to Theodore Roosevelt's reputation as a great writer and speaker—and make sure to subscribe to Mental Floss's new podcast, History Vs., which is all about TR, here.

1. On Hardship

“I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.”

—From the speech “The Strenuous Life,” given in 1899

2. On Power

“Power invariably means both responsibility and danger.”

—From his inaugural address given in 1905

3. On Conservation

“We have become great in a material sense because of the lavish use of our resources, and we have just reason to be proud of our growth. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils shall have been still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields, and obstructing navigation. These questions do not relate only to the next century or to the next generation. One distinguishing characteristic of really civilized men is foresight; we have to, as a nation, exercise foresight for this nation in the future; and if we do not exercise that foresight, dark will be the future!”

—From the speech “Conservation as a National Duty,” given in 1908

4. On His Life’s Motto

“I have always been fond of the West African proverb: ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.’”

—From a letter written to Henry L. Sprague in 1900

5. On Woodrow Wilson

“Instead of speaking softly and carrying a big stick, President Wilson spoke bombastically and carried a dish rag.”

—From an address given in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1916

6. On Democracy

“Democracy to be successful, must mean self-knowledge, and above all, self-mastery.”

—From an address to the Union League Club in Chicago in 1911

7. On Progress

“I don’t for a moment believe that we can turn back the wheels of progress.”

—From his 1911 address to the Union League Club

8. On Yosemite

“There can be nothing in the world more beautiful than the Yosemite, the groves of the giant sequoias and redwoods, the Canyon of the Colorado, the Canyon of the Yellowstone, the Three Tetons; and our people should see to it that they are preserved for their children and their children’s children forever, with their majestic beauty all unmarred.”

—From Outdoor Pastimes of an American Hunter, 1905

9. On His Fighting Style

“Don't hit a man at all if you can avoid it, but if you have to hit him, knock him out.”

—From a speech given in Cleveland in 1916

10. On Success

“There are many qualities which we need in order to gain success, but the three above all—for the lack of which no brilliancy and no genius can atone—are Courage, Honesty and Common Sense.”

—From the pamphlet "The Key to Success in Life," 1916

11. On Perseverance

“Sometimes in life, both at school and afterwards, fortune will go against anyone, but if he just keeps pegging away and don’t lose his courage things always take a turn for the better in the end.”

—From a letter to his son Kermit Roosevelt written in 1904

12. On Life and Football

“In life as in a football game, the principle to follow is: Hit the line hard; don’t foul and don’t shirk, but hit the line hard.”

—From “The Strenuous Life

13. On Takeaways from George Washington's Career

“Washington's career shows that we need to keep our faces steadily toward the sun. You can change the simile, to keep our eyes to the stars, but remember that our feet have got to be on the ground.”

—From a 1911 speech at the Union League Club in Chicago

14. On Brains vs. Brawn

“Bodily vigor is good, and vigor of intellect is even better, but far above both is character.”

—From “The Strenuous Life

15. On Wilderness

“The farther one gets into the wilderness, the greater is the attraction of its lonely freedom.”

—From Outdoor Pastimes of an American Hunter

16. On What Makes a Great Democracy

“A great democracy has got to be progressive, or it will soon cease to be either great or a democracy.”

—From a speech given to the Colorado Legislature in 1910

17. On Passion

“Remember always that the man who does a thing so that it is worth doing is always a man who does his work for the work’s sake […] A scientific man, a writer, a historian, an artist, can only be a good man of science, a first-class artist, a first-class writer, if he does his work for the sake of doing it well.”

—From an address given at Columbia University in 1902

18. On Wisdom

“Nine-tenths of wisdom is being wise in time!”

—From a speech about military preparedness given in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1917

19. On Equality

“This country will not be a good place for any of us to live in if it is not a reasonably good place for all of us to live in.”

—From the speech "What a Progressive Is," given in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1912

20. On Failure

"Far better to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat."

—From “The Strenuous Life

21. On Criticizing the President

“To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.”

—From an editorial written in 1918

22. On Being in the Arena

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."

—From the speech “Citizenship in a Republic," a.k.a. "The Man in the Arena” given in 1910

23. On Death

“Death is always and under all circumstances a tragedy, for if it is not, then it means that life itself has become one.”

—From a letter to Cecil Spring-Rice from 1900

24. On William McKinley’s Assassination

“It is a dreadful thing to come into the presidency in this way; but it would be far worse to be morbid about it. Here is the task, and I have got to do it to the best of my ability.”

—Likely from 1901, the year of McKinley's assassination

25. On Prejudice

“There are good men and bad men of all nationalities, creeds and colors; and if this world of ours is ever to become what we hope some day it may become, it must be by the general recognition that the man's heart and soul, the man's worth and actions, determine his standing.”

—From a letter written in 1903

8 Supposedly Cursed Gems

Mrs. Evalyn Walsh McLean, one of the owners of the Hope diamond, circa 1915
Mrs. Evalyn Walsh McLean, one of the owners of the Hope diamond, circa 1915
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Tales of death and destruction seem to follow certain famous jewels. There are stories of ancient warlords fighting bloody battles, kings and queen suffering agonizing ends, Russian princesses leaping off buildings, fortunes ruined, careers dashed, companies bankrupted, marriages imploded—all because of sparkling stones.

But while certain gems do seem to be associated with misfortune, some of the dark histories behind famous gemstones have been entirely fabricated or significantly embroidered. Nevertheless, these stories continue to fascinate. “I think these stones resonate with us because of their mysterious and often disreputable origins … as well as their sheer size and glamour,” Jeweler Karen Bachmann, a professor of Art & Design at the Pratt Institute, says. Smaller stones, she notes, don’t tend to have the same stories associated with them as these giant, egg-sized jewels. Plus, whether or not you believe in the idea of a “curse,” many of the tales just make a great yarn.

And there might be a lesson in some of these tales, too. Bachman also notes that a disturbing number of history’s supposedly cursed gems are said to have once been plucked from the eye of a Hindu idol. The moral of the story here might be: If you want your jewelry to be lucky, don't start out by stealing it.

1. Hope Diamond

The Hope Diamond is the most famous “cursed” gem of them all. Its tale is usually said to begin with the French merchant traveler Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, who bought the brilliant blue stone in India sometime before 1668. A persistent myth says that Tavernier then died after being torn apart by wild dogs, but he actually lived into his eighties, traveling the world to purchase many famous jewels.

Tavernier sold the "French Blue," as it came to be known, to King Louis XIV, and the gem served other French monarchs, in a variety of settings, until the tumult of the French Revolution. In September 1792, there was a week-long looting of the French crown jewels, and the "French Blue" disappeared into history. However, a deep blue diamond with very similar characteristics was documented in the possession of London diamond merchant Daniel Eliason in 1812. According to the Smithsonian, "Strong evidence indicates that the stone was the recut French Blue and the same stone known today as the Hope Diamond." Evidence also suggests the stone was acquired by King George IV, but sold after his death to repay his gargantuan debts. The gem next surfaced in the catalog of London gem collector and banker Henry Philip Hope—but without any information on its provenance.

The diamond stayed within the Hope family and then passed through several other private owners before being sold to Pierre Cartier in 1909. The crafty Cartier knew the prospective market for such an expensive gem was limited, but he'd had success before selling fantastically pricey gems to the Washington D.C. socialite and heiress Evalyn Walsh McLean. At first, McLean refused to buy the gem because she didn't like the setting, but Cartier changed the design, and McLean changed her mind. Cartier is said to have been the first to play up the idea of the gem's "curse" as a selling point—McLean was more likely to be intrigued by the story than alarmed, since she is said to have felt that unlucky objects were lucky for her.

Perhaps she shouldn't have been so blasé. Things seemed to go well for a while—McLean threw lavish "Find the Hope" parties where she stashed the gem around the house. But then things started to go downhill: According to PBS, her first-born son was killed in a car accident; her husband Ned ran off with another woman, destroyed their fortune, and died in a sanitarium from brain atrophy due to alcoholism; the family newspaper—The Washington Post—went bankrupt; and her daughter died of an overdose of sleeping pills. The next year, McLean herself died, and her jewelry collection was sold off to the pay the debts of her estate.

Harry Winston bought McLean's entire jewelry collection, and in 1958, donated it to the Smithsonian. The Hope Diamond is now the most popular object in the entire Smithsonian collections, drawing about 7 million visitors a year. For now, the “curse” seems to have been lifted.

2. Koh-I-Noor Diamond

The Crystal Palace and its contents, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Now part of Queen Elizabeth's crown, the Koh-i-Noor diamond (Persian for "Mountain of Light”) is believed to have been extracted from the Golcondas mine in India [PDF], the original home of many of the world's most famous gems. For a time, it served as the eye of an idol of a Hindu goddess (or so the story goes) and stayed within various Indian dynasties until coming into the possession of the founder of the Mughal Empire, Babur. Shah Jahan, the emperor who built the Taj Mahal, incorporated the stone into his Peacock Throne, but his son had him imprisoned in a fort after a coup. Shortly thereafter, an inept Venetian gemcutter reduced the stone—which had reported started out close to 800 carats—down to 186 carats. It remained in the possession of various local rulers, many of whom met bloody ends, until 1849, when a treaty signed as part of the British annexation of the Punjab transferred the stone to Queen Victoria.

The jewel was placed in an iron safe for transport from India to England, but the voyage didn't go so well: Reportedly, there was an outbreak of cholera on board that caused locals in Mauritius to threaten to fire on the vessel if it didn't leave port; a storm raged for 12 hours; and the diamond nearly didn’t make it at all because it was left in a waistcoat pocket for 6 months (it was only saved because a servant thought it was made of glass). It eventually made its way to the British royals, but they were said to be dissatisfied with its appearance.

Today, the jewel is on display at the Tower of London. It supposedly carries a Hindu curse that says only a woman can wear the diamond safely, while any male who wears it "will know its misfortunes." As a result, no male heir to the throne has ever worn the gem. But there’s a geopolitical element to the drama, too: Indian officials have repeatedly requested the return of the diamond, saying it was taken illegally. British officials have denied the request, saying its return wouldn’t be “sensible.”

3. Delhi Purple Sapphire


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Don't believe everything you read about the Delhi Purple Sapphire. For one thing, it's not a sapphire but an amethyst, and the "curse" surrounding it seems to have been the invention of the scientist, writer, polymath and Persian scholar Edward Heron-Allen.

According to a curator at London's Natural History Museum, Heron-Allen's daughter donated the gem, mounted in a ring in the form of a snake, to the museum in January 1944. The ring came alongside a letter, which claimed the stone "was looted from the treasure of the Temple of the God Indra at Cawnpore during the Indian mutiny in 1855 [sic] and brought to this country by Colonel W. Ferris of the Bengal Cavalry. From the day he possessed it he was unfortunate."

According to the letter, after Colonel Ferris died the gem was passed on to his son, then to Heron-Allen, who in turn passed it onto friends who suffered what the museum calls a "trail of suicides, apparitions, disasters and failed careers." Heron-Allen eventually packaged the stone inside seven boxes and deposited it with his bankers, instructing them that the gem shouldn't see the light of day until 33 years after his death. His daughter waited less than 12 months before donating it to the museum, and the institution has so far resisted the letter's recommendation to "cast it into the sea."

The museum's scientists think Heron-Allen likely fabricated the legend to lend credibility to a short story he wrote in 1921 called "The Purple Sapphire." He may have even had the ring created to lend credence to the story. The gem is now on display at the museum's Vault Collections, where it doesn't seem to cause any particular harm to visitors.

4. Star of India

Daniel Torres, Jr., Wikimedia Commons

From a certain angle it looks more like a sea creature, but the 563-carat Star of India is actually the world's largest known gem-quality blue star sapphire. The "star" inside and the milky appearance of the stone are formed by minuscule fibers from the mineral rutile, which reflect light—a phenomenon known as asterism.

The gem is said to have been mined under mysterious circumstances in Sri Lanka three centuries ago. But its most famous moment came on the night of October 29, 1964, when three jewel thieves broke into the American Museum of Natural History and made off with about $410,000 in stolen jewels (about $3 million today), including the Star of India, from the J.P. Morgan gem hall. The batteries in the display case alarm had been dead for months, the tops of the hall's windows were open for ventilation, and no security guard had been assigned to the room. The jewels weren't even insured, reportedly because premiums were prohibitive.

Fortunately, most of the gems, including the Star of India, were recovered from a Miami Trailways bus terminal locker shortly thereafter. But stories of a "curse" surrounding the Star of India have remained ever since.

5. The Black Prince's Ruby


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This gem is the big, deep-red stone set into the middle of England's Imperial State Crown, the one you've seen a thousand times in coronation photos. It's not actually a ruby but a red spinel, and for this reason it's sometimes called "The Great Imposter." It's also a link to some pretty bloody historical events.

The stone has belonged to English rulers since the 14th century, when it was given to Edward of Woodstock, also known as the "Black Prince." Prior to that it's said to have belonged to the Sultan of Granada, and was found somewhere on or near his corpse by Pedro the Cruel, King of Castile, after he or his men stabbed the sultan to death during their conquering of the area. Soon after obtaining the gem, Pedro the Cruel's reign was attacked by his half-brother, and he appealed to Edward the Black Prince, a great knight, for help. The pair were victorious, and Edward received the gem in thanks. However, Edward also seems to have contracted a mysterious disease around the same time—which caused his death nine years later.

Further deaths and mysterious diseases followed, as well as dramatic battles: Henry V is also said to have worn the "ruby" at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, where he nearly died, and Richard III is rumored to have been wearing it when he died at the Battle of Bosworth.

The stone was set into the state crown in the 17th century, but Oliver Cromwell sold it during his brief interruption of the monarchy; the jeweler who bought it sold it back to Charles II after the restoration. Some say the curse continues, with a fire that threatened the jewelers in 1841, and the German bombs that almost hit the Tower during WWII—but for now the jewel's association with blood and destruction seems to be over.

6. Black Orlov

The early history of the Black Orlov diamond is steeped in mystery, and likely more than a little fabrication. It is said to have served as the eye of an idol of the god Brahma at a shrine near Pondicherry, India, before being stolen by a monk—a theft that jump-started its curse. Later owners supposedly include two Russian princesses, who both allegedly jumped off buildings not long after acquiring the gem. (One of them was supposedly named Nadia Orlov, which is where the diamond gets its moniker.) A diamond dealer named J.W. Paris, who is said to have brought the jewel to the U.S., reportedly leapt to his death from one of New York’s tallest buildings in 1932.

But as the diamond scholar Ian Balfour explains in his book Famous Diamonds, there's no evidence of black diamonds being found in India, and even if one was discovered in that country it's unlikely it would have been prized, since "by and large black is not considered an auspicious color among the Hindus." Plus, no Russian princess named Nadia Orlov has even been found to exist.

But that hasn't stopped the gunmetal-colored gem from being prized by its owners, notably a New York dealer named Charles F. Winson, who bought the diamond and placed it in a spectacular setting surrounded by 108 diamonds and dangling from a necklace of 124 other diamonds. Winson sold the diamond in 1969 and it's been owned by a succession of private individuals since.

7. Sancy Diamond

For some, the pear-shaped Sancy diamond is believed be saddled with a vicious curse that brings violent death on anyone who owns the gem. (Others say it lends invincibility, provided it was acquired under honest circumstances.) The diamond is said to have been mined in Golconda, India and reached Europe by the 14th century, where it served in the crowns of several French and English kings. Many of these kings—including Burgundy's Charles the Bold, England's Charles I, and France's Louis XVI—suffered gruesome deaths not long after coming into contact with the gem.

The supposed curse even extended to their underlings: According to one legend, a courier who was transporting the gem for Henry IV was robbed and murdered and the stone recovered from his stomach during the autopsy. (He had swallowed it for safekeeping). The gem was stolen during the French Revolution, but later recovered, and is now on display at the Louvre, where its greatest danger seems to be causing minor injuries resulting from neck-craning and tourist jostling.

8. The Regent

The Regent Diamond in the Apollo gallery of the Louvre museum

Like most of the other gems on this list, the Regent was mined in India, in the early 1700s. But in a morbid twist, the gem is supposed to have been stolen from the mine by a slave who hid it in a self-inflicted wound in his leg. The slave and an English sea captain then planned to smuggle the gem out of the country, but the captain had other ideas—he drowned the slave and sold the jewel himself—but, as the story goes, the slave laid a curse on the gem as he was dying.

An English governor in Madras named Thomas Pitt bought the pale-blue diamond and sold it to the French Regent Philippe II of Orleans in 1717, which is when it received its name. It was stolen, alongside the Sancy, during the French Revolution, but recovered a few months later. The ill-fated Napoleon I later set it in the handle of his sword. Both the sword and the Sancy are now on display at the Louvre.

This list first ran in 2015 and was republished in 2019.

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