Undaunted by the reputation of the ill-famed Hope Diamond, Georgette Mosbacher said yesterday, "I think I'm lucky to have the chance to wear it -- I'd wear it in my navel, on my nose, on my toes for a million bucks."
At yesterday's announcement of a gift of $1 million from the House of Harry Winston jewel firm to the National Museum of Natural History, Mosbacher -- CEO of La Prairie and wife of the commerce secretary -- became the first person known to have worn the fabled treasure since it was donated to the Smithsonian in 1958.
Tales of murder, assassination, theft, bankruptcy, revolution, infidelity, fraud, damnation and money have followed the Hope Diamond since it was found in an Indian diamond market in 1642. The 45.52-carat diamond is the rare blue of a bottomless hole in the heavens. The gem is framed by 16 diamond lights, suspended from a firmament of 46 chained diamonds. The Winston firm values it at $100 million.
Mosbacher, whose eyes were observed to be close to the blue of the diamond, wore a chaste high-necked mauve wool dress. She admitted the diamond "would look better against bare skin," but considering the hour (9:30 a.m.), decollette might be too much for Washington, she said.
Laurence Krashes, vice president of the House of Winston, put the Hope Diamond and its 62 attendant diamonds around Mosbacher's neck and assiduously adjusted it -- with help from Frank Talbot, the museum's director. Ronald Winston, poet, scion of the family and CEO of the jewel firm, stood inconspicuously in the background. Like his late father, he is forbidden by his insurance company to be photographed.
The gift to the Smithsonian, marking the 100th anniversary of the House of Harry, will go to build the Harry Winston Gallery to display the Hope Diamond necklace. The gallery, said Talbot, will serve as an entrance to the remodeled Geology, Gems and Minerals Hall to open in 1994. The museum hopes to raise $5 million more to match the federal government's contribution for the $10 million to $12 million project.
The Hope Diamond has remarkable properties -- including the ability to change color and glow orange in the dark -- but it isn't always agreeable to showing off. After Mosbacher, with reluctance, gave up the diamond, Jeffrey Post, chairman of the museum's department of mineral sciences, tried to demonstrate. He held an ultraviolet light to the stone for some time. But the Hope, perhaps disturbed by the display lights -- or the lights of envy in people's eyes -- was reluctant to perform. Later, however, in a dark gem laboratory, with Ronald Winston for audience, John White, curator of gems and minerals, held the ultraviolet light on the gem, then turned it off. And the Hope glowed an eerie orange.
"The blood of kings," said Winston.
For 32 years, the gem -- one of the Smithsonian's two or three greatest crowd-pleasers -- has been locked in the Natural History Museum's glass case. Almost 6 million people a year stare at it, presumably unharmed. At night, doors slide over the display, locking it securely in its vault.
Evalyn Walsh McLean, the Washington hostess, once owned not only the Hope Diamond, but the Star of India and The Washington Post. McLean bought the diamond from Pierre Cartier in 1910, who showed it to her after hearing she thought that "unlucky objects bring me luck." McLean often wore the Hope with the Star of India dangling from it, as well as a long necklace of pearls, and pearl earrings. But she wouldn't let anyone else touch it until, it is said, she had it blessed -- during an uncanny electrical storm. After that she often would bring it out and pass it around during teas she gave for World War II military. In between times, McLean kept it in the depths of her sofa. After she died in 1947, Harry Winston paid something over $1 million for both gems and 71 other notable pieces of jewelry, Krashes wrote in "Harry Winston, the Ultimate Jeweler," edited by Ronald Winston.
"My father loved it," his son said. "He used to keep it in a small vault by his favorite chair and take it out and play with it."