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 who recently gave a talk on cursed gems at Brooklyn's Morbid Anatomy Museum, 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 80s, 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, 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

Don't believe everything you read about the Delhi Purple Sapphire. It's not a sapphire but an amethyst, for one thing, 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." (You can read the full text of the letter here.)

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

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 9 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 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

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.

14 Things You Might Not Have Known About James K. Polk

Matthew Brady/Getty Images
Matthew Brady/Getty Images

James K. Polk may have served just one term, but he was one of history’s most consequential U.S. presidents. Polish up on Young Hickory, America's 11th Commander in Chief.

1. James K. Polk had surgery to remove urinary bladder stones when he was 16.

Born on November 2, 1795, James Knox Polk was the oldest of 10 children born to Samuel Polk, a farmer and surveyor, and his wife, Jane. When James was 10, the family moved to Tennessee and settled on a farm in Maury County. As a child, James was too ill to attend formal school; just before he turned 17, he had urinary bladder stones surgically removed by Ephraim McDowell, a prominent Kentucky surgeon. Anesthesia wasn’t available at that time, so the future president reportedly dulled the pain with brandy. The surgery allowed the formerly ill Polk to attend formal schooling for the first time. He entered the University of North Carolina as a sophomore after just 2.5 years of formal schooling. According to Britannica, "as a graduating senior in 1818 he was the Latin salutatorian of his class—a preeminent scholar in both the classics and mathematics." After graduation, he returned to Tennessee to study law and eventually opened up his own practice.

2. James K. Polk won a seat on the Tennessee Legislature at 27, and the U.S. House of Representatives at 29.

During his time in the state legislature, he met—and befriended—future president Andrew Jackson. He also began courting his future wife, Sarah Childress. The daughter of a prominent planter, she had been educated at the prestigious Moravian Female Academy in Salem, North Carolina, and was an eager and active participant in his political campaigns. Polk and Sarah married in 1824. In 1825, Polk was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives; he was speaker of the House from 1835 until he left in 1839 to become governor of Tennessee.

3. James K. Polk's nomination for president surprised everyone—including himself.

Months before the democratic national convention of 1844, Polk was at a low point. He had just lost his bid to be re-elected governor of Tennessee (he had been voted out of office in 1841 and tried—and failed—to be elected again in 1843). But when the delegates at the convention couldn’t agree on a nominee—the party was deadlocked between Martin Van Buren and Lewis Cass—they eventually decided to compromise by picking a “dark horse” candidate: Polk.

4. Everyone thought James K. Polk would lose his bid for the presidency.

Despite being a seven-time congressman, a former Speaker of the House, and an ex-governor, Polk was a relative nobody. His opponent Henry Clay lamented that Democrats had failed to choose someone “more worthy of a contest.” Despite the doubts, Polk won the popular vote by nearly 40,000 and the Electoral College 170-105.

5. During James K. Polk's White House "office hours," any American could stop by.

During Polk’s day, anybody was permitted to visit the White House for “office hours.” For two days every week, concerned citizens and lobbyists could drop by to vouch for a cause or ask for political favors. “Job seekers were the worst, in Polk’s view, and he found their incessant interruptions far more annoying than his Whig opponents in Congress,” writes Walter R. Borneman in his book Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America.

6. James K. Polk was remarkably boring.

Polk had as much charisma as a puddle of mud. He was straight-laced, somber, and humorless. As Speaker, an editor in Washington called him the "most unpretending man, for his talents, this, or perhaps any country, has ever seen." Some attributed Polk’s boringness to his refusal to drink socially. The politician Sam Houston supposedly called him “a victim of the use of water as a beverage.” (Sarah banned hard liquor—and dancing—from the White House.)

7. James K. Polk worked 12 hour days and didn't take much time off from the presidency.

Polk regularly spent 12 hours a day at the office. He rarely left Washington, took advice, or delegated. When he wanted to lobby for policy, he’d visit Congress and do it himself. Over the course of his single term, Polk took a total of just 27 days off. “No President who performs his duty faithfully and conscientiously can have any leisure,” Polk wrote.

8. James K. Polk acquired America's first patch of Pacific coastline.

In the early 19th century, the Pacific Northwest was jointly occupied by British and American settlers. But as the century progressed, Americans began to outnumber the British, and they increasingly felt like the rightful owners of the “Oregon Country.” Thankfully, neither country was interested in battling over the land. In 1846, Polk and the British drew a border at the 49th parallel (with some adjustment for Vancouver Island)—what is now Washington State’s boundary with Canada. With that, the United States obtained its first uncontested patch of Pacific coastline.

9. James K. Polk waged a controversial—and consequential—war with Mexico.

In the 1840s, Mexico’s border encompassed California, the American southwest, and even parts of Colorado and Wyoming. Polk wanted this land. In 1845, he offered to buy some disputed territory near the Texas-Mexico border, as well as land in California; when Mexico refused, Polk sent troops into the disputed territory. Mexico retaliated. Polk then requested Congress to declare war. His critics (including a young Abraham Lincoln) complained that Polk had deliberately provoked Mexico. Whatever Polk’s motivations, the United States lost 13,000 men and approximately $100 million in the ensuing war—but succeeded in taking one-third of Mexico’s land.

10. James K. Polk is the reason the United States stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.

In the course of just one term, Polk oversaw one of the greatest territorial expansions of any president—an increase of 1.2 million square miles. His administration extended the United States boundary to the Pacific Ocean and laid the groundwork for states such as California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Washington, Idaho, Oregon, and Montana.

11. James K. Polk's ambivalence toward the issue of slavery may have sparked the Civil War.

When Polk’s administration began pushing westward, debate raged over how these new territories could alter the power balance between free and slave states. Polk, who considered slavery a side issue, refused to give the rancor much time or attention. (No doubt because of his own relationship with slavery. He owned more than 20 enslaved people and brought them to the White House.) Polk’s ambivalence helped sow so much discord that historians now consider his rapid expansion westward as the first steps toward the Civil War.

12. James K. Polk signed bills that reshaped Washington, D.C.

Polk accomplished a lot in just four years. During his tenure, he signed the Smithsonian Institution into law. He was instrumental to the construction of the Washington Monument and helped establish the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. He also re-established an independent U.S. Treasury, which was partly intended to reduce the role of speculation in the economy.

13. James K. Polk's administration introduced Americans to the postage stamp.

One of Polk’s unofficial campaign managers was a Nosferatu-lookalike named Cave Johnson, who Polk rewarded with a job as Postmaster General. It was a tough gig. The post office’s budget was swimming in red ink. (At the time, mail recipients paid postage: If a mail carrier failed to find a recipient, no money was made. This happened a lot.) Johnson fixed the financial problem by introducing the prepaid postage stamp, which flipped the responsibility of paying to senders. According to historian C. L. Grant, in 1845, Johnson estimated that the department would have a deficit of over a million dollars. By the time he left that was down to $30,000.

14. The location of James K. Polk's grave is causing a stir in Tennessee.

Polk died, likely of cholera, in 1849, just months after leaving office. Because he died of an infectious disease, the president was hastily buried in a city cemetery near the outskirts of Nashville. Months later, he was re-interred near his Nashville mansion, Polk Place. In 1893, his tomb was moved again to the state Capitol grounds. Today, Tennessee legislators are actively debating whether to move Polk’s bones a fourth time, this time to his old family home in Columbia, Tennessee.

10 Complicated Facts About Shaft

Richard Roundtree stars in Shaft (1971).
Richard Roundtree stars in Shaft (1971).
MGM

On July 2, 1971, moviegoers caught their first glimpse of John Shaft, the "black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks." Today, Shaft is considered one of the grandfathers of the blaxploitation genre—and it’s got one of the most recognizable soundtracks of all time. While Samuel L. Jackson has taken on the role for a new generation here are some interesting facts about the original film's creation and release. If you picked up on why Shaft and his associates call everyone "mother," you’re smarter than at least one unfortunate reporter.

1. A white newspaper reporter created Shaft.

John Shaft made his debut in Shaft, a novel by Ernest Tidyman. Tidyman was a reporter for The Cleveland News, The New York Post, and The New York Times before he began writing the Shaft series, which included seven detective stories. Along with John D.F. Black, he adapted his first Shaft book into the screenplay for the first film. He would later go on to write the screenplays for The French Connection (1971) and High Plains Drifter (1973) as well as Shaft’s Big Score! (1972) and the Shaft TV series (1973-1974). His work earned him an NAACP Image Award.

2. The studio wanted to shoot Shaft in Los Angeles.

Shaft was filmed entirely in New York City, which is clearly illustrated by the shots of Times Square and Greenwich Village. But it nearly wasn’t. In his autobiography, Voices in the Mirror, director Gordon Parks recalled how he received word from MGM mere hours before he was set to commence filming that he was to return to Los Angeles and shoot the movie there. Apparently it was a budgetary issue, but Parks wasn’t having it. He flew back to the West Coast and essentially told the studio heads he would quit if he couldn’t shoot in Manhattan. "It has to have the smell of New York," Parks insisted. The director won out, and his nightmare of a Harlem in Hollywood was never realized.

3. Shaft's mustache was non-negotiable.

The Los Angeles fiasco was behind him, but Parks immediately faced another scare when he spied his star, Richard Roundtree, heading to the bathroom with a towel and razor. Producer Joel Freeman had asked him to get rid of his soon-to-be legendary mustache. Parks told Roundtree emphatically, “Shave it off and you’re out of a job.” And with that, the ‘stache stayed in the picture.

4. Gordon Parks put his magazine in the movie.

In the movie’s opening sequence, Shaft stops to talk to a blind newsstand vendor. The magazine Essence is prominently displayed—and that’s no accident; Parks helped found the publication and served as its editorial director for its first three years in print.

5. Bumpy Jonas was based on a real mobster.

Shaft spends most of the movie tracking down a kidnapped girl. She’s the daughter of Harlem crime kingpin Bumpy Jonas, and Bumpy was not a Hollywood invention. He was based on Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, who ruled the Harlem crime scene from the 1930s through the 1960s. He had ties to the infamous murder of Dutch Schultz and mentored Frank Lucas, the notorious heroin dealer Denzel Washington played in American Gangster. Fictionalized versions of Johnson have also appeared in movies like The Cotton Club and Hoodlum.

6. Gordon Parks made a cameo.

Parks appears briefly in the montage of Shaft searching for Ben Buford. He’s the landlord with the pipe, who complains that he’s also looking for Buford, who owes him six months of rent.

7. Muhammad Ali's trainer had a bit role.

Drew Bundini Brown was a well-known member of Muhammad Ali’s entourage. He worked as an assistant trainer, and was famous for the “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” bit he performed with Ali for the cameras. But when he wasn’t in Ali’s corner, Brown was busy racking up movie credits. His first was Shaft, where he played one of Bumpy Jonas's men.

8. "Skloot Insurance" was a nod to a crew member.

Shaft’s office is sandwiched in between Acme Imports Exports Inc. and Skloot Insurance. The latter is a reference to Steven P. Skloot, the movie’s unit production manager.

9. Parks had to explain what "shaft" and "mother" meant to a reporter.

When Parks flew to London to do publicity for the film, he ended up giving an impromptu vocabulary lesson. At a press screening, a confused British reporter asked the director what “shaft” really meant. Parks replied by smiling and sticking his middle finger up in the air, explaining that was “the most honest answer” he could give. But the reporter was persistent and followed up by asking why the characters called each other “mother.” Parks really didn’t know how to answer that one, but luckily, a woman in the audience swooped in. “You’ve heard of Smucker’s jam, young man,” she said. “Just snip out the first two letters and add an ‘f’ and you’ll get the message.”

10. Isaac Hayes was the first black composer to win an Oscar.

Isaac Hayes’s ubiquitous “Theme from Shaft” earned him a 1972 Academy Award for Best Original Song. This win was historic for many reasons: For one, Hayes was the first black composer to score an Oscar. But he was also only the third African American to win an Oscar, period. Prior to 1973, the only other black Academy Award winners were Hattie McDaniel (Best Supporting Actress for Gone with the Wind) and Sidney Poitier (Best Actor for Lilies of the Field).

This story has been updated for 2019.

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