Diamonds and Pearls

Facts and fantasies about the most sought-after stone

There is a very pretty diamond-story current in connection with the good Empress Eugenie. Madame de Barrera relates it in this wise.

“When the sovereign of France marries, by virtue of an ancient custom kept up to the present day, the bride is presented by the city of Paris with a valuable gift. Another is also offered at the birth of the first-born.

“In 1853, when the choice of His Majesty Napoleon III. raised the Empress Eugenie to the throne, the city of Paris, represented by the Municipal Commission, voted the sum of six hundred thousand francs for the purchase of a diamond necklace to be presented to Her Majesty.

“The news caused quite a sensation among the jewellers. Each was eager to contribute his finest gems to form the Empress's necklace,—a necklace which was to make its appearance under auspices as favorable as those of the famous Queen's Necklace had been unpropitious. But on the 28th of January, two days after the vote of the Municipal Commission, all this zeal was disappointed; the young Empress having expressed a wish that the six hundred thousand francs should be used for the foundation of an educational institution for poor young girls of the Faubourg St. Antoine.

“The wish has been realized, and, thanks to the beneficent fairy in whose compassionate heart it had its origin, the diamond necklace has been metamorphosed into an elegant edifice, with charming gardens. Here a hundred and fifty young girls, at first, but now as many as four hundred, have been placed, and receive, under the management of those angels of charity called the Sisters of St. Vincent de Paul, an excellent education proportioned to their station, and fitting them to be useful members of society.

“The solemn opening of the Maison-Eugenie-Napoleon took place on the 1st of January, 1857.

“M. Veron, the journaliste, now deputy of the Seine, has given, in the 'Moniteur,' a very circumstantial account of this establishment. From it we borrow the following:—

“'The girls admitted are usually wretchedly clad; on their entrance, they receive a full suit of clothes. Almost all are pale, thin, weak children, to whom melancholy and suffering have imparted an old and careworn expression. But, thanks to cleanliness, to wholesome and sufficient food, to a calm and well-regulated life, to the pure, healthy air they breathe, the natural hues and the joyousness of youth soon reanimate the little faces; and with lithe, invigorated limbs, and happy hearts, these young creatures join merrily in the games of their new companions. They have entered the institution old; they will leave it young.'

“The Empress Eugenie delights in visiting the institution of the Faubourg St. Antoine. This is natural. Her Majesty cannot but feel pleasure in the contemplation of all she has accomplished by sacrificing a magnificent, but idle ornament to the welfare of so many beings rescued from misery and ignorance. These four hundred young girls will be so many animated, happy, and grateful jewels, constituting for Her Majesty in the present, and for her memory in the future, an ever new set of jewels, an immortal ornament, a truly celestial talisman.

“A fresco painting represents, in a hemicycle, the Empress in her bridal dress, offering to the Virgin a diamond necklace; young girls are kneeling around her in prayer; admiration and fervent faith are depicted on their brows.”

A very large amount of the world's capital is represented in precious stones, and ninety per cent of that capital so invested is in diamonds. This was not always the case. Ancient millionnaires held their enormous jewelry-riches more in colored stones than is the custom now. Crystallized carbon has risen in the estimation of capitalists, and crystallized clay has gone down in the scale of value. If the diamond be the hardest known substance in the world's jewel-box, the pearl is by no means its near relation in that particular. The daughters of Stilicho slept undisturbed eleven hundred and eighteen years, with all their riches in sound condition, except the pearls that were found with their splendid ornaments. The other decorations sparkled in the light as brilliantly as ever; but the pearls crumbled into dust, as their owners had done centuries before. Eight hundred years before these ladies lived and wore pearls, a queen with “swarthy cheeks and bold black eyes” tried a beverage which cost, exclusive of the vinegar which partly composed it, the handsome little sum of something over eighty thousand pounds. Diamond and vinegar would not have mixed so prettily.

Pearls are perishable beauties, exquisite in their perfect state, but liable to accident from the nature of their delicate composition. Remote antiquity chronicles their existence, and immemorial potentates eagerly sought for them to adorn their persons. Pearl-fisheries in the Persian Gulf are older than the reign of Alexander; and the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, and the Coast of Coromandel yielded their white wonders ages ago. Under the Ptolemies, in the time of the Caliphs, the pearl-merchant flourished, grew rich, and went to Paradise. To-day the pearl-diver is grubbing under the waves that are lapping the Sooloo Islands, the coast of Coromandel, and the shores of Algiers. In Ceylon he is busiest, and you may find him from the first of February to the middle of April risking his life in the perilous seas. His boat is from eight to ten tons burden, and without a deck. At ten o'clock at night, when the cannon fires, it is his signal to put off for the bank opposite Condatchy, which he will reach by daylight, if the weather be fair. Unless it is calm, he cannot follow his trade. As soon as light dawns, he prepares to descend. His diving-stone, to keep him at the bottom, is got ready, and, after offering up his devotions, he leaps into the water. Two minutes are considered a long time to be submerged, but some divers can hold out four or five minutes. When his strength is exhausted, he gives a signal by pulling the rope, and is drawn up with his bag of oysters. Appalling dangers compass him about. Sharks watch for him as he dives, and not infrequently he comes up maimed for life. It is recorded of a pearl-diver, that he died from over-exertion immediately after he reached land, having brought up with him a shell that contained a pearl of great size and beauty. Barry Cornwall has remembered the poor follow in song so full of humanity, that we quote his pearl-strung lyric entire.

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