Diamonds and Pearls
Facts and fantasies about the most sought-after stone
We were lately lounging away a Roman morning among the gems in Castellani's sparkling rooms in the Via Poli. One of the treasures handed out for rapturous examination was a diamond necklace, just finished for a Russian princess, at the cost of sixty thousand dollars, and a set of pearls for an English lady, who must pay, before she bears her prize homeward, the sum of ten thousand dollars. Castellani junior, a fine, patriotic young fellow, who has since been banished for his liberal ideas of government, smiled as he read astonishment in our eyes, and proceeded forthwith to dazzle us still further with more gems of rarest beauty, till then hidden away in his strong iron boxes.
Castellani, father and son, are princes among jewellers, and deserve to be ranked as artists of a superior order. Do not fail to visit their charming apartments, as among the most attractive lesser glories, when you go to Rome. They have a grand way of doing things, right good to look upon; and we once saw a countrywoman of ours, who has written immortal words in the cause of freedom, made the recipient of a gem at their hands, which she cannot but prize as among the chief tributes so numerously bestowed in all parts of the Christian world where her feet have wandered.
Castellani's jeweller's shop has existed in Rome since the year 1814. At that time all the efforts of this artist (Castellani the elder) were directed to the imitation of the newest English and French fashions, and particularly to the setting of diamonds. This he continued till 1823. From 1823 to 1827 he sought aid for his art in the study of Technology. And not in vain; for in 1826 he read before the Accademia dei Lincei of Rome, (founded by Federico Cesi,) a paper on the chemical process of coloring a giallone (yellow) in the manufacture of gold, in which he announced some facts in the action of electricity, long before Delarive and other chemists, as noticed in the “Quarterly Journal of Science,” Dec., 1828, No. 6, and the “Bibliotheque Universelle de Geneve,” 1829, Tom. xi. p. 84.
At this period Etruria began to lay open the treasures of her art. All were struck by the beauty of the jewels found in the tombs; but Castellani was the first who thought of reproducing some of them; and he did it to the great admiration of the amateurs, foremost among whom may be mentioned the Duke Don Michelangelo Caetani, a man of great artistic feeling, who aided by his counsels and his designs the renaissance of Roman jewelry.
The discovery of the celebrated tomb Regulini-Galassi at Cervetri was an event in jewelry. The articles of gold found in it (all now in the Vatican) were diligently studied by Castellani, when called upon to appraise them. Comprehending the methods and the character of the work, he boldly followed tradition.
The discoveries of Campanari of Toscanella, and of the Marquis Campana of Rome, gave valuable aid to this new branch of art.
Thus it went on improving; and Castellani produced very expert pupils, all of them Italians. Fashion, if not public feeling, came to aid the renaissance and others, in Rome and elsewhere, undertook similar work after the models of Castellani. It may be asserted that the triumph of the classic jewelry is now complete. Castellani renounced the modern methods of chasing and engraving, and adhered only to the antique fashion of overlaying with cords, grains, and finest threads of gold. From the Etruscan style he passed to the Greek, the Roman, the Christian. In this last he introduced the rough mosaics, such as were used by the Byzantines with much effect and variety of tint and of design.
The work of Castellani is dear; but that results from his method of execution, and from the perfect finish of all the details. He does not seek for cheapness, but for the perfection of art: this is the only thing he has in view. As he is a man of genius, we have devoted considerable space to his admirable productions.
The Talmud informs us that Noah had no other light in the ark than that which came from precious stones. Why do not our modern jewellers take a hint from the ancient safety-boat, and light up accordingly? We dare say old Tavernier, that knowing French gem-trader of the seventeenth century, had the art of illuminating his chateau at Aubonne in a way wondrous to the beholder. Among all the jewellers, ancient or modern, Jean Baptiste Tavernier seems to us the most interesting character. His great knowledge of precious stones, his acute observation and unfailing judgment, stamp him as one of the remarkable men of his day. Forty years of his life he passed in travelling through Turkey, Persia, and the East Indies, trading in gems of the richest and rarest lustre. A great fortune was amassed, and a barony in the Canton of Berne, on the Lake of Geneva, was purchased as no bad harbor for the rest of his days. There he hoped to enjoy the vast wealth he had so industriously acquired. But, alas! stupid nephews abound everywhere; and one of his, to whom he had intrusted a freight worth two hundred and twenty thousand livres, caused him so great a loss, that, at the age of eighty-four, he felt obliged to sail again for the East in order to retrieve his fortune, or at least repair the ill-luck arising from his unfortunate speculation. He forgot, poor old man! that youth and strength are necessary to fight against reverses; and he died at Moscow, on his way, in 1689. When you visit the great Library in Paris, you will find his “Travels,” in three volumes, published in 1677-79, on a shelf among the quartos. Take them down, and spend a pleasant hour in looking through the pages of the enthusiastic old merchant-jeweller. His adventures in search of diamonds and other precious commodities are well told; and although he makes the mistakes incident to many other early travellers, he never wilfully romances. He supposed he was the first European that had explored the mines of Golconda; but an Englishman of the name of Methold visited them as early as 1622, and found thirty thousand laborers working away for the rich Marcandar, who paid three hundred thousand pagodas annually to the king for the privilege of digging in a single mine. The first mine visited by Tavernier was that of Raolconda, a five-days' journey from Golconda. The manner of trading there he thus describes—
A very pretty sight is that presented every morning by the children of the master-miners and of other inhabitants of the district. The boys, the eldest of which is not over sixteen or the youngest under ten, assemble and sit under a large tree in the public square of the village. Each has his diamond weight in a bag hung on one side of his girdle, and on the other a purse containing sometimes as much as five or six hundred pagodas. Here they wait for such persons as have diamonds to sell, either from the vicinity or from any other mine. When a diamond is brought to them, it is immediately handed to the eldest boy, who is tacitly acknowledged as the head of this little band. By him it is carefully examined, and then passed to his neighbor, who, having also inspected it, transmits it to the next boy. The stone is thus passed from hand to hand, amid unbroken silence, until it returns to that of the eldest, who then asks the price and make the bargain. If the little man is thought by his comrades to have given too high a price, he must keep the stone on his own account. In the evening the children take account of stock, examine their purchases, and class them according to their water, size, and purity, putting on each stone the price they expect to get for it; they then carry the stones to the masters, who have always assortments to complete, and the profits are divided among the young traders, with this difference in favor of the head of the firm, that he receives one-fourth per cent. more than the others. These children are so perfectly acquainted with the value of all sorts of gems, that, if one of them, after buying a stone, is willing to lose one-half per cent. on it, a companion is always ready to take it.
Master Tavernier discourses at some length on the ingenious methods adopted by the laborers to conceal diamonds which they have found, sometimes swallowing them,—and he tells of one miner who hid in the corner of his eye a stone of two carats! Altogether, his work is one worthy to be turned over, even in that vast collection, the Imperial Library, for its graphic pictures of gem-hunting two hundred years ago.
Professor Tennant says, “One of the common marks of opulence and taste in all countries is the selection, preservation, and ornamental use of gems and precious stones.” Diamonds, from the time Alexander ordered pieces of flesh to be thrown into the inaccessible valley of Zulmeah, that the vultures might bring up with them the precious stones which attached themselves, have everywhere ranked among the luxuries of a refined cultivation. It is the most brilliant of stones, and the hardest known body. Pliny says it is so hard a substance, that, if one should be laid on an anvil and struck with a hammer, look out for the hammer! [Mem. If the reader have a particularly fine diamond, never mind Pliny's story: the risk is something, and Pliny cannot be reached for an explanation, should his experiment fail.] By its own dust only can the diamond be cut and polished; and its great lustre challenges the admiration of the world. Ordinary individuals, with nothing to distinguish them from the common herd, have “got diamonds,” and straightway became ever afterwards famous. An uncommon-sized brilliant, stuck into the front linen of a foolish fellow, will set him up as a marked man, and point him out as something worth looking at. The announcement in the papers of the day, that “Mademoiselle Mars would wear all her diamonds,” never failed to stimulate the sale of tickets on all such occasions. As it may interest our readers to know what treasures an actress of 1828 possessed, we copy from the catalogue of her effects a few items.
“Two rows of brilliants set en chatons, one row composed of forty-six brilliants, the other of forty-four; eight sprigs of wheat in brilliants, composed of about five hundred brilliants, weighing fifty-seven carats; a garland of brilliants that may be taken to pieces and worn as three distinct ornaments, three large brilliants forming the centre of the principal flowers, the whole comprising seven hundred and nine brilliants, weighing eighty-five carats three-quarters; a Sevigne mounted in colored gold, in the centre of which is a burnt topaz surrounded by diamonds weighing about three grains each, the drops consisting of three opals similarly surrounded by diamonds; one of the three opals is of very large size, in shape oblong, with rounded corners; the whole set in gold studded with rubies and pearls.
“A parure of opals, consisting of a necklace and Sevigne, two bracelets, ear-rings the studs of which are emeralds, comb, belt-plate set with an opal in the shape of a triangle; the whole mounted in wrought gold, studded with small emeralds.
“A Gothic bracelet of enamelled gold, in the centre a burnt topaz surrounded by three large brilliants; in each link composing the bracelet is a square emerald; at each extremity of the topaz forming the centre ornament are two balls of burnished gold, and two of wrought gold.
“A pair of girandole ear-rings of brilliants, each consisting of a large stud brilliant and of three pear-shaped brilliants united by four small ones; another pair of ear-rings composed of fourteen small brilliants forming a clustre of grapes, each stud of a single brilliant.
“A diamond cross composed of eleven brilliants, the ring being also of brilliants.
“A bracelet with a gold chain, the centre-piece of which is a fine opal surrounded with brilliants; the opal is oblong and mounted in the Gothic style; the clasp is an opal.
“A gold bracelet, with a grecque surrounded by six angel heads graven on turkoises, and a head of Augustus.
“A serpent bracelet a la Cleopatre, enamelled black, with a turkois on its head.
“A bracelet with wrought links burnished on a dead ground; the clasp a heart of burnished gold with a turkois in the centre, graven with Hebrew characters.
“A bracelet with a row of Mexican chain, and a gold ring set with a turkois and fastened to the bracelet by a Venetian chain.
“A ring, the hoop encircled with small diamonds.
“A ring, a la chevaliere, set with a square emerald between two pearls.
“A gold chevaliere ring, on which is engraved a small head of Napoleon.
“Two belt-buckles, Gothic style, one of burnished gold, the other set with emeralds, opals, and pearls.
“A necklace of two rows coral; a small bracelet of engraved carnelians.
“A comb of rose diamonds, form D 5, surmounted by a large rose surrounded by smaller ones, and a cinque-foil in roses, the chatons alternated, below a band of roses.”
The weight of the diamond, as every one knows, is estimated in carats all over the world. And what is a carat, pray? and whence its name? It is of Indian origin, a kirat being a small seed that was used in India to weigh diamonds with. Four grains are equal to one carat, and six carats make one pennyweight. But there is no standard weight fixed for the finest diamonds. Competition alone among purchasers must arrange their price. The commercial value of gems is rarely affected, and among all articles of commerce the diamond is the least liable to depreciation. Panics that shake empires and topple trade into the dust seldom lower the cost of this king of precious stones; and there is no personal property that is so apt to remain unchanged in money-value.
Diamond anecdotes abound, the world over; but we have lately met with two brief ones that ought to be preserved.
“Carlier, a bookseller in the reign of Louis XIV., left, at his death, to each of his children,—one a girl of fifteen, the other a captain in the guards,—a sum of five hundred thousand francs, then an enormous fortune. Mademoiselle Carlier, young, handsome, and wealthy, had numerous suitors. One of these, a M. Tiquet, a Councillor of the Parliament, sent her on her fete-day a bouquet, in which the calices of the roses were of large diamonds. The magnificence of this gift gave so good an opinion of the wealth, taste, and liberality of the donor, that the lady gave him the preference over all his competitors. But sad was the disappointment that followed the bridal! The husband was rather poor than rich; and the bouquet, that had cost forty-five thousand francs, (nine thousand dollars,) had been bought on credit, and was paid out of the bride's fortune.”
“The gallants of the Court of Louis XV. carried extravagance as far as the famous Egyptian queen. She melted a pearl,—they pulverized diamonds, to prove their insane magnificence. A lady having expressed a desire to have the portrait of her canary in a ring, the last Prince de Conti requested she would allow him to give it to her; she accepted, on condition that no precious gems should be set in it. When the ring was brought to her, however, a diamond covered the painting. The lady had the brilliant taken out of the setting, and sent it back to the giver. The Prince, determined not to be gainsaid, caused the stone to be ground to dust, which he used to dry the ink of the letter he wrote to her on the subject.”
Let us mention some of the most noted diamonds in the world. The largest one known, that of the Rajah of Matan, in Borneo, weighs three hundred and sixty-seven carats. It is egg-shaped and is of the finest water. Two large war-vessels, with all their guns, powder, and shot, and one hundred and fifty thousand dollars in money, were once refused for it. And yet its weight is only about three ounces!
The second in size is the Orloff, or Grand Russian, sometimes called the Moon of the Mountain, of one hundred and ninety-three carats. The Great Mogul once owned it. Then it passed by conquest into the possession of Nadir the Shah of Persia. In 1747 he was assassinated, and all the crown-jewels slipped out of the dead man's fingers,—a common incident to mortality. What became of the great diamond no one at that time knew, till one day a chief of the Anganians walked, mole-footed, into the presence of a rich Armenian gentleman in Balsora, and proposed to sell him (no lisping,—not a word to betray him) a large emerald, a splendid ruby, and the great Orloff diamond. Mr. Shafrass counted out fifty thousand piastres for the lot; and the chief folded up his robes and silently departed. Ten years afterwards the people of Amsterdam were apprised that a great treasure had arrived in their city, and could be bought, too. Nobody there felt rich enough to buy the great Orloff sparkler. So the English and Russian governments sent bidders to compete for the gem. The Empress Catharine offered the highest sum; and her agent, the Count Orloff, paid for it in her name four hundred and fifty thousand roubles, cash down, and a grant of Russian nobility! The size of this diamond is that of a pigeon's egg, and its lustre and water are of the finest: its shape is not perfect.
The Grand Tuscan is next in order,—for many years held by the Medici family. It is now owned by the Austrian Emperor, and is the pride of the Imperial Court. It is cut as a rose, nine-sided, and is of a yellow tint, lessening somewhat its value. Its weight is one hundred and thirty-nine and a half carats; and its value is estimated at one hundred and fifty-five thousand, six hundred and eighty-eight pounds.
The most perfect, though not the largest, diamond in Europe is the Regent, which belongs to the Imperial diadem of France. Napoleon the First used to wear it in the hilt of his state-sword. Its original weight was four hundred and ten carats; but after it was cut as a brilliant, (a labor of two years, at a cost of three thousand pounds sterling,) it was reduced to one hundred and thirty-seven carats. It came from the mines of Golconda; and the thief who stole it therefrom sold it to the grandfather of the Earl of Chatham, when he was governor of a fort in the East Indies. Lucky Mr. Pitt pocketed one hundred and thirty-five thousand pounds for his treasure, the purchaser being Louis XV. This amount, it is said, is only half its real value. However, as it cost the Governor, according to his own statement, some years after the sale, only twenty thousand pounds, his speculation was “something handsome.” Pope had a fling at Pitt, in his poetical way, intimating a wrong with regard to the possession of the diamond; but we believe the transaction was an honest one. In the inventory of the crown-jewels, the Regent diamond is set down at twelve million francs!
The Star of the South comes next in point of celebrity. It is the largest diamond yet obtained from Brazil; and it is owned by the King of Portugal. It weighed originally two hundred and fifty-four carats, but was trimmed down to one hundred and twenty-five. The grandfather of the present king had a hole bored in it, and liked to strut about on gala-days with the gem suspended around his neck. This magnificent jewel was found by three banished miners, who were seeking for gold during their exile. A great drought had laid dry the bed of a river, and there they discovered this lustrous wonder. Of course, on promulgating their great luck, their sentence was revoked immediately.
The world-renowned Koh-i-noor next claims our attention.
A Venetian diamond-cutter (wretched, bungling Hortensio Borgis!) reduced the great Koh-i-noor from its primitive weight—nine hundred carats—to two hundred and eighty. Tavernier saw this celebrated jewel two hundred years ago, not long after its discovery. It came into the possession of Queen Victoria in 1849, three thousand years, say the Eastern sages, after it belonged to Karna, the King of Anga! On the 16th of July, 1852, the Duke of Wellington superintended the commencement of the re-cutting of the famous gem, and for thirty-eight days the operation went on. Eight thousand pounds were expended in the cutting and polishing. When it was finished and ready to be restored to the royal keeping, the person (a celebrated jeweller) to whom the whole
care of the work had been intrusted, allowed a friend to take it in his fingers for examination. While he was feasting his eyes over it, and turning it to the light in order to get the full force of its marvellous beauty, down it slipped from his grasp and fell upon the ground. The jeweller nearly fainted with alarm, and poor “Butterfingers” was completely jellified with fear. Had the stone struck the ground at a particular angle, it would have split in two, and been ruined forever.
Innumerable anecdotes cluster about this fine diamond. Having passed through the hands of various Indian princes, violence and fraud are copiously mingled up with its history. We quote one of Madame de Barrera's stories concerning it:—
“The King of Lahore having heard that the King of Cabul possessed a diamond that had belonged to the Great Mogul, the largest and purest known, he invited the fortunate owner to his court, and there, having him in his power, demanded his diamond. The guest, however, had provided himself against such a contingency with a perfect imitation of the coveted jewel. After some show of resistance, he reluctantly acceded to the wishes of his powerful host. The delight of Runjeet was extreme, but of short duration,—the lapidary to whom he gave orders to mount his new acquisition pronouncing it to be merely a bit of crystal. The mortification and rage of the despot were unbounded. He immediately caused the palace of the King of Cabul to be invested, and ransacked from top to bottom. But for a long while all search was vain; at last a slave betrayed the secret;—the diamond was found concealed beneath a heap of ashes. Runjeet Singh had it set in an armlet, between two diamonds, each the size of a sparrow's egg.”
The Shah of Persia, presented to the Emperor Nicholas by the Persian monarch, is a very beautiful stone, irregularly shaped. Its weight is eighty-six carats, and its water and lustre are superb.
The various stories attached to the Sancy diamond, the next in point of value, would occupy many pages. During four centuries it has been accumulating romantic circumstances, until it is now very difficult to give its true narrative. If Charles the Bold, the last Duke of Burgundy, ever wore it suspended round his neck, he sported a magnificent jewel. If the Curate of Montagny bought it for a crown of a soldier who picked it up after the defeat of Granson, not knowing its value, the soldier was unconsciously cheated by the Curate. If a citizen of Berne got it out of the Curate's fingers for three crowns, he was a shrewd knave. De Barante says, that in 1492 (Columbus was then about making land in this hemisphere) this diamond was sold in Lucerne for five thousand ducats. After that, all sorts of incidents are related to have befallen it. Here is one of them.—Henry IV. was once in a strait for money. The Sieur de Sancy (who gave his name to the gem) wished to send the monarch his diamond, that he might raise funds upon it from the Jews of Metz. A trusty servant sets off with it, to brave the perils of travel, by no means slight in those rough days, and is told, in case of danger from brigands, to swallow the precious trust. The messenger is found dead on the road, and is buried by peasants. De Sancy, impatient that his man does not arrive, seeks for his body, takes it from the ground where it is buried, opens it, and recovers his gem! In some way not now known, Louis XV. got the diamond into his possession, and wore it at his coronation. In 1789, it disappeared from the crown-treasures, and no trace of it was discovered till 1830, when it was offered for sale by a merchant in Paris. Count Demidoff had a lawsuit over it in 1832; and as it is valued at a million of francs, it was worth quarrelling about.
The Nassuck Diamond, valued at thirty thousand pounds, is a magnificent jewel, nearly as large as a common walnut. Pure as a drop of dew, it ranked among the richest treasures in the British conquest of India.
What has become of the great triangular Blue Diamond, weighing sixty-seven carats, stolen from the French Court at the time of the great robbery of the crown-jewels? Alas! it has never been heard from. Three millions of francs represented its value; and no one, to this day, knows its hiding-place. What a pleasant morning's work it would be to unearth this gem from its dark corner, where it has lain perdu so many years! The bells of Notre Dame should proclaim such good-fortune to all Paris.
But enough of these individual magnificos. Their beauty and rarity have attracted sufficient attention in their day. Yet we should like to handle a few of those Spanish splendors which Queen Isabel II. wore at the reception of the ambassadors from Morocco. That day she shone in diamonds alone to the amount of two million dollars! We once saw a monarch's sword, of which
“The jewelled hilt,
Whose diamonds lit the passage of his blade,”
was valued at one hundred thousand dollars! But one of the pleasantest of our personal remembrances, connected with diamonds, is the picking up of a fine, lustrous gem which fell from O.B.'s violin-bow, (the gift of the Duke of Devonshire,) one night, after he had been playing his magic instrument for the special delight of a few friends. The tall Norwegian wrapped it in a bit of newspaper, when it was restored to him, and thrust it into his cigar-box! [O.B. sometimes carried his treasures in strange places. One day he was lamenting the loss of a large sum of money which he had received as the proceeds of a concert in New York. A week afterwards he found his missing nine hundred dollars stuffed away in a dark corner of one of his violin-cases.]
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.
“Within the midnight of her hair,
Half hidden in its deepest deeps,
A single, peerless, priceless pearl
(All filmy-eyed) forever sleeps.
Without the diamond's sparkling eyes,
The ruby's blushes, there it lies,
Modest as the tender dawn,
When her purple veil's withdrawn,—
The flower of gems, a lily cold and pale!
Yet what doth all avail,—
All its beauty, all its grace,
All the honors of its place?
He who plucked it from its bed,
In the far blue Indian ocean,
Lieth, without life or motion,
In his earthy dwelling,—dead!
And his children, one by one,
When they look upon the sun,
Curse the toil by which he drew
The treasure from its bed of blue.
“Gentle Bride, no longer wear,
In thy night-black, odorous hair,
Such a spoil! It is not fit
That a tender soul should sit
Under such accursed gem!
What need'st thou a diadem,—
Thou, within whose Eastern eyes
Thought (a starry Genius) lies,—
Thou, whom Beauty has arrayed,—
Thou, whom Love and Truth have made
Beautiful,—in whom we trace
Woman's softness, angel's grace,
All we hope for, all that streams
Upon us in our haunted dreams?
“O sweet Lady! cast aside,
With a gentle, noble pride,
All to sin or pain allied!
Let the wild-eyed conqueror wear
The bloody laurel in his hair!
Let the black and snaky vine
Round the drinker's temples twine!
Let the slave-begotten gold
Weigh on bosoms hard and cold!
But be THOU forever known
By thy natural light alone!”
One of the best judges of pearls that ever lived, out of the regular trade, was no less a person than Caesar. He was a great connoisseur, and could tell at once, when he took a pearl in his hand, its weight and value. He gave one away worth a quarter of a million dollars. Servilia, the mother of Brutus, was the lady to whom he made the regal present.
Caligula, not satisfied with building ships of cedar with sterns inlaid with gems, had a pearl-collar made for a favorite horse! Pliny grows indignant as he chronicles the luxury of this Emperor.
“I have seen,” says he, “Lollia Paulina, who was the wife of the Emperor Caligula,—and this not on the occasion of a solemn festival or ceremony, but merely at a supper of ordinary betrothals, —I have seen Lollia Paulina covered with emeralds and pearls, arranged alternately, so as to give each other additional brilliancy, on her head, neck, arms, hands, and girdle, to the amount of forty thousand sesterces, [£336,000 sterling,] the which value she was prepared to prove on the instant by producing the receipts. And these pearls came, not from the prodigal generosity of an imperial husband, but from treasures which had been the spoils of provinces. Marcus Lollius, her grandfather, was dishonored in all the East on account of the gifts he had extorted from kings, disgraced by Tiberius, and obliged to poison himself, that his grand-daughter might exhibit herself by the light of the lucernae blazing with jewels.”
Nero offered to Jupiter Capitolinus the first trimmings of his beard in a magnificent vase enriched with the costliest pearls.
Catherine de Medicis and Diane de Poitiers almost floated in pearls, their dresses being literally covered with them. The wedding-robe of Anne of Cleves was a rich cloth-of-gold, thickly embroidered with great flowers of large Orient pearls. Poor Mary, Queen of Scots, had a wonderful lot of pearls among her jewels; and the sneaking manner in which Elizabeth got possession of them we will leave Miss Strickland, the biographer of Queens, to relate.
“If anything farther than the letters of Drury and Throgmorton be required to prove the confederacy between the English Government and the Earl of Moray, it will only be necessary to expose the disgraceful fact of the traffic of Queen Mary's costly parure of pearls, her own personal property, which she had brought with her from France. A few days before she effected her escape from Lochleven Castle, the righteous Regent sent these, with a choice collection of her jewels, very secretly to London, by his trusty agent, Sir Nicholas Elphinstone, who undertook to negotiate their sale, with the assistance of Throgmorton, to whom he was directed for that purpose. As these pearls were considered the most magnificent in Europe, Queen Elizabeth was complimented with the first offer of them. 'She saw them yesterday, May 2nd,' writes Bodutel La Forrest, the French ambassador at the Court of England, 'in the presence of the Earls of Pembroke and Leicester, and pronounced them to be of unparalleled beauty.' He thus describes them: 'There are six cordons of large pearls, strung as paternosters; but there are five-and-twenty separate from the rest, much finer and larger than those which are strung; these are for the most part like black muscades. They had not been here more than three days, when they were appraised by various merchants; this Queen wishing to have them at the sum named by the jeweller, who could have made his profit by selling them again. They were at first shown to three or four working jewellers and lapidaries, by whom they were estimated at three thousand pounds sterling, (about ten thousand crowns,) and who offered to give that sum for them. Several Italian merchants came after them, who valued them at twelve thousand crowns, which is the price, as I am told, this Queen Elizabeth will take them at. There is a Genoese who saw them after the others, and said they were worth sixteen thousand crowns; but I think they will allow her to have them for twelve thousand.' 'In the mean time,' continues he, in his letter to Catherine of Medicis, 'I have not delayed giving your Majesty timely notice of what was going on, though I doubt she will not allow them to escape her. The rest of the jewels are not near so valuable as the pearls. The only thing I have heard particularly described is a piece of unicorn richly carved and decorated.' Mary's royal mother-in-law of France, no whit more scrupulous than her good cousin of England, was eager to compete with the latter for the purchase of the pearls, knowing that they were worth nearly double the sum at which they had been valued in London. Some of them she had herself presented to Mary, and especially wished to recover; but the ambassador wrote to her in reply, that 'he had found it impossible to accomplish her desire of obtaining the Queen of Scots' pearls, for, as he had told her from the first, they were intended for the gratification of the Queen of England, who had been allowed to purchase them at her own price, and they were now in her hands.'
“Inadequate though the sum for which her pearls were sold was to their real value, it assisted to turn the scale against their real owner.
“In one of her letters to Elizabeth, supplicating her to procure some amelioration of the rigorous confinement of her captive friends, Mary alludes to her stolen jewels:—'I beg also,' says she, 'that you will prohibit the sale of the rest of my jewels, which the rebels have ordered in their Parliament, for you have promised that nothing should be done in it to my prejudice. I should be very glad, if they were in safer custody, for they are not meat proper for traitors. Between you and me it would make little difference, and I should be rejoiced, if any of them happened to be to your taste, that you would accept them from me as offerings of my good-will.'
“From this frank offer it is apparent that Mary was not aware of the base part Elizabeth had acted, in purchasing her magnificent parure of pearls of Moray, for a third part of their value.”
One of the most famous pearls yet discovered (there may be shells down below that hide a finer specimen) is the beautiful Peregrina. It was fished up by a little negro boy in 1560, who obtained his liberty by opening an oyster. The modest bivalve was so small that the boy in disgust was about to pitch it back into the sea. But he thought better of his rash determination, pulled the shells asunder, and, lo, the rarest of priceless pearls! [Moral. Don't despise little oysters.] La Peregrina is shaped like a pear, and is of the size of a pigeon's egg. It was presented to Philip II. by the finder's master, and is still in Spain. No sum has ever determined its value. The King's jeweller named five hundred thousand dollars, but that paltry amount was scouted as ridiculously small.
There is a Rabbinical story which aptly shows the high estimate of pearls in early ages, only one object in Nature being held worthy to be placed above them:—
“On approaching Egypt, Abraham locked Sarah in a chest, that none might behold her dangerous beauty. But when he was come to the place of paying custom, the collectors said, 'Pay us the custom': and he said, 'I will pay the custom.' They said to him, 'Thou carriest clothes': and he said, 'I will pay for clothes.' Then they said to him, 'Thou carriest gold': and he answered them, 'I will pay for my gold.' On this they further said to him, 'Surely thou bearest the finest silk': he replied, 'I will pay custom for the finest silk.' Then said they, 'Surely it must be pearls that thou takest with thee': and he only answered, 'I will pay for pearls.' Seeing that they could name nothing of value for which the patriarch was not willing to pay custom, they said, 'It cannot be but thou open the box, and let us see what is within.' So they opened the box, and the whole land of Egypt was illumined by the lustre of Sarah's beauty,—far exceeding even that of pearls.”
Shakspeare, who loved all things beautiful, and embalmed them so that their lustre could lose nothing at his hands, was never tired of introducing the diamond and the pearl. They were his favorite ornaments; and we intended to point out some of the splendid passages in which he has used them. But we have room now for only one of those priceless sentences in which he has set the diamond and the pearl as they were never set before. No kingly diadem can boast such jewels as glow along these lines from “Lear”:—
“You have seen
Sunshine and rain at one: her smiles and tears
Were like a better day: Those happy smiles
That played on her ripe lip seemed not to know
What guests were in her eyes; which parted thence,
As pearls from diamonds dropp'd.”