Thanks to major gifts from generous local residents, the Smithsonian Institution’s collection of historically important jewelry is one of the finest in the world
By Jeffrey E. Post • Photography by Len DePas
Fifty years ago famed jeweler Harry Winston presented the Hope Diamond to the Smithsonian Institution and the nation with the intention that it would be the cornerstone of a great National Gem Collection. The addition triggered a series of major gifts from generous individuals that have built the collection into the largest and finest of its kind in the world. It was appropriate that the diamond should return to the city that was such a part of its more recent history. After all, Evalyn Walsh McLean, queen of the Washington social scene in the ’20s and ’30s, and owner of the Hope Diamond from 1912 to 1947, added greatly to its fame and legend.
But there are many other Washingtonians who played critical roles in helping to build the National Gem Collection, perhaps most prominently Marjorie Merriweather Post and her daughters, who donated several iconic pieces such as the Napoleon Diadem and Necklace, Blue Heart Diamond, and Marie Antoinette earrings. Others include the unflappable Polly Logan, Mr. and Mrs. O. Roy Chalk, Libbie Moody Thompson, Mrs. Milton Turner, C. Thomas Clagett, Mrs. H. V. Rubin and Frances Miller Seay.
The Logan Sapphire
This magnificent 423-carat gem, mined in Sri Lanka and one of the world’s largest faceted blue sapphires (it is approximately the size of an egg), is the heaviest mounted stone in the Smithsonian’s collection. It was donated in 1960 by Polly Logan, a noted Washington hostess who had received it from her first spouse, Col. M. Robert Guggenheim, a mining and smelting fortune heir, ambassador to Portugal and notorious philanderer. Once asked by a friend how she could ever part with such a fabulous jewel, Mrs. Logan replied, “Every time I looked at it, all I could think of was my no good, cheating husband.”
The Chalk Emerald
The superb clarity and deep green color of this 37.8-carat stone ranks it among the very finest Colombian emeralds. According to legend, it was once the centerpiece of a necklace belonging to a maharani of Baroda in India. It was re-cut by Harry Winston and set in a ring surrounded by 60 pear-shaped diamonds (totaling 15 carats) then purchased by O. Roy Chalk, an entrepreneur whose holdings included the Washington bus and trolley systems. His wife Claire was fond of telling how she once endeavored to conceal the ring in the receiving line for a White House state dinner honoring Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II. It was bigger than anything Her Majesty was wearing that night, Mrs. Chalk told friends, and she didn’t wish to embarrass her. The Chalks gave the ring to the Smithsonian in 1972.
Marjorie Merriweather Post’s Wonderful Gifts
The fabulously rich Post Toasties heiress lived like a queen and had jewelry to match. In fact, much of her collection was of royal provenance. In 1964, after deciding to donate several of the most historical pieces to the Smithsonian, Mrs. Post showed up in the office of then-Secretary S. Dillon Ripley to personally deliver them. He later told of his profound astonishment when she pulled them out of a brown paper grocery bag.
The Marie-Antoinette Earrings
Although we don’t really know what connection these diamonds had to France’s ill-fated queen, tradition has it that the pear-shaped Indian (or Brazilian) stones, weighing 20.34 and 14.25 carats respectively, were among her favorite jewels. Whether or not they disappeared when the royal family tried to flee Paris in 1791, or after the mob sacked the Tuileries in 1792, they ended up in the possession of the Youssoupoff family of Russia, who sold them to jeweler Pierre Cartier in 1928. Mrs. Post purchased them the same year to wear on the occasion of her presentation at the Court of St. James and later presented them to her daughter, Eleanor Close Barzin, who gave them to the Smithsonian in 1964.
Commissioned in 1810 by Napoleon Bonaparte as a wedding gift to his second wife, Marie Louise, the diadem was originally set with emeralds, which were replaced in the 1950s with Persian turquoise. It was originally part of a parure that included a necklace, comb, earrings and belt buckle. Marie Louise bequeathed the diadem to her Hapsburg aunt, Archduchess Elise, whose descendant, Archduke Karl Stefan, sold it to Van Cleef & Arpels in 1953. Mrs. Post purchased the diadem for the Smithsonian in 1971 but reserved the right to wear it on a number of occasions, including at the Red Cross Ball in Palm Beach.
The Napoleon Diamond Necklace
Napoleon presented this spectacular 263-carat piece containing 28 large old mine diamonds to Empress Marie-Louise after the birth of their son in 1811. At her death it passed to Archduchess Marie-Louise of Austria, who sent it to New York to be sold in 1929. An unscrupulous merchant priced it far below market value and returned only $16,000 to the owner before absconding with the rest of the money. A major scandal ensued after which it was returned to the archduchess. In 1948, another family member, Prince Franz Josef of Liechtenstein, sold it to a French collector who in turn sold it to Harry Winston in 1960. Mrs. Post acquired it from Winston and presented it to the Smithsonian in 1962.
The Blue Heart Diamond
If the Smithsonian didn’t have the Hope, a diamond called the Blue Heart would be the star of the collection. The world’s third largest and finest dark-blue diamond weighs 30.62 carats, about two-thirds the size of the Hope Diamond. The stone is sometimes mistakenly referred to as the “Eugenie Blue” after Empress Eugenie of France, the empress consort of Napoleon III, but she could never have owned this diamond because it was discovered only in 1908. About a year later, the 102-carat stone was cut and eventually sold to an Argentinean family by the name of Unzue. It stayed in their possession until the 1950s when it was acquired by Van Cleef & Arpels and sold to a German baron. In 1959, the Blue Heart was set into a ring by Harry Winston, who sold it to Mrs. Post. She gave it to the Smithsonian in 1964.
This 21-carat emerald was once set in a ring worn by Mexico’s ill-fated Emperor Maximilian, the Austrian archduke whose misguided attempt to rule Mexico ended in his assassination in 1864. The emerald’s present setting by Cartier is enhanced by six baguette diamonds. Donated by Mrs. Post in 1964.