George Switzer; Got Hope Diamond for Smithsonian

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 27, 2008

George S. Switzer, 92, the scientist who acquired the legendary Hope Diamond for the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum, died March 23 of complications of pneumonia at Hermitage at St. John's Creek, an assisted living facility in Solomons. He was a resident of Port Republic and a former resident of Bethesda.

The Hope Diamond, a shimmering deep-blue gem whose owners have included Louis XIV of France and George IV of Britain, came into the Smithsonian's possession in 1958, where it became the centerpiece of Dr. Switzer's efforts to develop a world-class gem collection.

In the early years of the 20th century, the diamond belonged to wealthy Washington socialite Evalyn Walsh McLean, wife of a former owner of The Washington Post. She kept it in a cigar box in her bedroom and occasionally lent it to World War II patients at Walter Reed Hospital, who enjoyed playing catch with it.

In 1949, she sold it to Harry "King of Diamonds" Winston of New York, one of the world's leading gem dealers. Winston donated it to the Smithsonian after years of assiduous courting by Dr. Switzer.

The fabulous stone, 44 1/2 carats, arrived in Washington -- by mail for $145.29 -- where it was accepted by Dr. Switzer and Leonard Carmichael, secretary of the Smithsonian. Wrapped in brown paper, it came weighted with mystery, intrigue and a spine-tingling legend of a curse afflicting anyone who presumed to possess it.

The French adventurer Tavernier, who smuggled the original rough stone out of India, died after being attacked by a pack of wild dogs. Princess DeLamballe, an early owner in France, was fatally mauled by a mob, and Marie Antoinette, who also wore the diamond, lost her head.

Dr. Switzer was a calm and rational scientist, but he was tempted to believe in the curse when he took the diamond with him to Paris for a 1962 exhibition, "Ten Centuries of French Jewelry."

His wife sewed a little velvet pouch for the stone, and Dr. Switzer pinned it inside his pants pocket. The trip became accursed almost immediately, it seemed. Pan American Flight 116 departed Baltimore's Friendship Airport on time, but a faulty landing at its first scheduled stop in Philadelphia damaged the plane, causing the rest of the flight to be canceled. Dr. Switzer, trying to maintain secrecy and to improvise, caught a flight to New York and then another to Frankfurt.

He cabled his Paris contacts to apprise them of his situation and worried about German customs officials. Would they assume he was a smuggler? A diamond thief, with the most famous rock in the world hidden in his pants pocket?

Fortunately, he was able to remain in the transit lounge while waiting for his Moroccan Air Line flight to Paris, which arrived nine hours late. Greeted by two frantic Louvre staff members, he was whisked away by car, only to be involved in what his son Mark Switzer described as a "classic French fender bender." Dr. Switzer hurried on to the museum, and minutes later, the legendary stone was safely ensconced in the Louvre.

George Shirly Switzer was born in Petaluma, Calif., and attended Santa Rosa Junior College before graduating from the University of California at Berkeley in 1937. He received a master's degree in 1939 and a doctorate in 1942, both from Harvard University.

He taught at Stanford University in 1939-40 and at Harvard from 1940 to 1945. He tried to enlist in the military but was told by a recruiter that his 20 years of education ought to be put to use elsewhere. He became a crystallographer for Majestic Radio & TV Corp., where he kept aircraft radios on frequency.

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