The Austrian Yellow: An Historical Account

The history of the Austrian Yellow diamond, beginning with Tavernier's account of it in Florence, belonging to the Medici family and ending with Francis Stephen

The subject of this article is, as its name sets forth, a diamond of a yellow hue. After the Orloff, it is the largest cut diamond in Europe, weighing one hundred and thirty-nine and a half carats. Tavernier, who first mentions it, says "it has a tinge of yellow which is a pity." King declares, "on the highest authority," which he does not further particularize, that this tinge is a very strong one, almost destroying its brilliancy.

Yellow diamonds are not necessarily devoid of brilliancy, as we can bear witness from personal knowledge. There was recently offered for sale at a public auction in London a very large specimen known as the Orange Diamond, of one hundred and ten carats weight, which we carefully examined. The circumstances were decidedly adverse to the beauty of a diamond, for it was in the half-light of a London fog that we saw it, yet the stone seemed literally to shoot tongues of yellow fire from its facets. It was a round brilliant, and being set in a circle of about a score of white diamonds its tawny complexion was shown to admirable advantage. The jewel was supported on a delicate spring which vibrated with each step upon the floor, so that there was a constant coruscation of light around it.

It is difficult to establish the early history of the Austrian Yellow. Tavernier saw it in Florence somewhere about 1642, but he does not say whence it came. Its appearance proves it to be an Indian-cut rose, but that does not help us much with regard to its private wanderings in Europe. A good authority on diamonds, de Laet, who flourished shortly before Tavernier's time, declared that the largest diamond then known weighed seventy carats, which would clearly indicate that he knew nothing about the much larger yellow diamond. Tradition relates that it was bought for a few pence in the market at Florence, under the impression that it was a piece of glass! If this is so, one would be glad of some particulars of the moment when the happy possessor found out his mistake.

Tavernier says that "the Grand Duke (of Tuscany) did him the honor to show him the diamond several times." He made a drawing of it, as he did of nearly all the large diamonds he saw, and his estimation of its value is two millions of livres (about four hundred thousand dollars)--a low price considering the size of the stone; but no doubt its yellow tinge had something to say to it. The Grand Duke of Tavernier's time was Ferdinand II., who reigned from 1621 to 1670--a man of considerable enlightenment, a protector of Galileo and an encourager of literature.

If there is any truth in the popular belief to which we shall presently allude, that diamonds promote the mutual affection of husband and wife, then indeed the great yellow stone had need of its charm in the case of Ferdinand's son and successor, Cosimo III. This luckless prince was married to Marguerite Louise d'Orleans, niece of Louis XIV., a young lady of flighty fancies and obstinate willfulness. Being deeply attached to her cousin of Lorraine, she was only induced to give her hand to the heir of Tuscany on the threat of imprisonment in a convent. She was married in 1660 and made her state entry into Florence amid unparalleled splendor. Immediately afterwards the courts of Europe rang with the quarrels of the newly-wedded pair. The Pope of Rome, the King of France, mother, sisters, aunts, ambassadors, bishops, cardinals, lady's maids, each in turn interfered with the object of restoring harmony, and each in turn ignominiously failed. Here surely was work for the diamond had it been possessed of its reputed power.

During this time and for many years afterwards, the diamond about which we write was known as the "Florentine" or "Grand Tuscan." It was the chief jewel in the treasure-house of the Medici, and no doubt filled a conspicuous place in the pageants of the grand-ducal court. The Florentine sovereigns were not wealthy, but upon state occasions they made extraordinary displays which sometimes deceived foreigners visiting among them into a false idea of their affluence. A wedding was always a favorite occasion upon which to show off their finery. For example, at the marriage of Violante de Baviere with the son of Cosimo III., a magnificence was displayed such as was never before seen even in Florence. The bride sat on a car studded with gems. Her father-in-law with his crown, no doubt containing the great diamond, upon his head, met her at the gate of San Gallo and escorted her to the palace.

This princess dying childless, the throne was occupied by Giovan-Gaston, another son of Cosimo III. and the flighty Marguerite. He likewise left no heirs, so with his death in 1737 terminated the great house of Medici. Giovan-Gaston was succeeded on the grand-ducal throne by Francis Stephen of Lorraine, who was forced much against his inclination to change his paternal duchy of Lorraine for that of Tuscany. He was married to Maria Theresa, archduchess of Austria, afterwards so famous as the Empress-queen who fought valiantly against Frederick the Great. By the will of Giovan-Gaston dei Medici all the statues, books, pictures and jewels of his palace were "to remain forever at Florence as public property for the benefit of the people and the attraction of foreign visitors," and none were to be removed from out of the Grand Duchy.

Francis Stephen and Maria Theresa entered their new capital, remained there four months, and then departing carried away with them the great Tuscan diamond. So much for the respect paid to the wills of dead princes! Hence-forward the yellow diamond became known as the Austrian Yellow in recognition, we suppose, of the royal thief who carried it off from Florence.

At the coronation of Francis Stephen as emperor of Germany at Frankfort-on-the-Main, on the fourth of October, 1745, the pilfered diamond was used to decorate his Majesty's imperial diadem. Maria Theresa had been extremely anxious for her husband to be emperor, both because she was fondly attached to him, and because she wanted him to hold a title equal at least to her own as Queen of Hungry. She stood on a balcony at the ceremony and was the first to salute him with the cry of "Long live the Emperor!" when the crown had been placed upon his head. Our readers will of course be aware that the imperial dignity was an elective one. It remained, it is true, in the Hapsburg family, still it did not descend from father to son like the other crowns of Europe, and the ceremony of a fresh election was gone through at the death of each emperor.

Napoleon, who upset most things in Europe, failed not to upset the throne of Charlemagne. The Holy Roman Empire ceased to exist in 1806, and Francis I., the elected emperor, abdicated the old German throne to mount the brand-new one of Austria.

We return to our diamond.

Francis Stephen, although emperor and reputed owner of the yellow diamond, was quite overshadowed by the fame and splendor of his wife Maria Theresa. It is on record that one day being present at some high ceremony, he left the circle around the throne and went to sit in a corner beside a couple of ladies. They rose respectfully at his approach.

"Oh! don't mind me," he said, "I am only going to sit here and watch the crowd until the court is gone."

"As long as your Imperial Majesty is present the court will be here," replied the ladies.

"Not at all," said Francis Stephen. "The court is my wife and children. I'm nobody."

And such indubitably was the fact. The Empress adored him, but he was nobody and has left but little trace in history. He was very fond of money and sometimes resorted to singular means in order to turn an honest penny. When his wife was engaged in that long struggle with the King of Prussia which goes in history by the name of the Seven Years' War, he made a good sum by supplying the enemy's cavalry with forage. Another strange though somewhat less crooked means of augmenting his riches is related concerning his diamonds. He employed himself for a considerable time in a series of experiments which had for their object the melting down of small diamonds with the view of making a large one. No doubt Francis Stephen would have been very pleased to smelt up a good number of diamonds if he could thereby have produced a match for his great yellow gem; but it is easier to burn diamonds than to fuse them.

The storms and revolutions which nearly shook the house of Austria to the ground have left its diamond untouched. It was carefully preserved in the hasty flights from Vienna which occurred during the effervescing period of 1848 when all Europe was in an uproar. And now it reposes peacefully as a hat-button for the Emperor Francis II. In appearance the diamond is a nine-rayed star, and is all covered with facets, according to the true Indian fashion. It may possibly interest the reader to hear what the Austrians themselves think of their diamond. The following extract is made from the official account furnished to Mr. Streeter:

"This jewel was once the property of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, who according to the custom of the day carried all his valuables in the battlefield, first to have them always in sight, and secondly on account of the mysterious power then attributed to precious stones. Charles lost this diamond at the battle of Morat, on the twenty-second of June, 1476. Tradition relates that it was picked up by a peasant who took it for a piece of glass and sold it for a florin. The new owner, Bartholomew May, a citizen of Berne, sold it to the Genoese, who sold it in turn to Ludovico Moro Sforza. By the intercession of the Fuggers it came into the Medici treasury at Florence. When Francis Stephen of Lorraine exchanged this duchy against the grand-duchy of Tuscany he became owner of the Florentine diamond."

Of this extraordinary tale the concluding sentence alone is the only one worthy of the slightest attention; all the rest is mere legend. Contemporary accounts show that Charles the Bold had no diamond at all similar to the Austrian Yellow either in size or shape; two very important factors in establishing the identity of a diamond.

We have now reached the last great diamond which it is our purpose to chronicle, and it is hoped that the reader has become sufficiently interested in these sparkling pebbles to bear with equanimity a few technical details concerning their nature and the processes which they undergo before becoming ornaments for the crowns of kings or the brooches of queens.

That the diamond depends for its beauty almost entirely upon the labor of man is sufficiently known. The rough diamond is seldom a beautiful object, being usually coated with a greenish film which gives it the look of an ordinary pebble. It requires the eye of an adept to recognize any potentiality of sparkle in so dull a lump. The ordinary rock-crystal is infinitely more beautiful until the royal gem has been transformed by human skill. But after the touch of the magic wheel there is no substance which can compare with the diamond for luster, brilliancy and iridescence.

Certain Indian diamonds finished by the hand of Nature and known as "Naifes," are an exception to the rule that rough diamonds are dull looking. They are seldom or never found now, but were greatly prized by the natives in olden times and considered superior to the artificially polished stone. They were octahedral in form, with polished facets. The primary crystalline form of the diamond is the octahedron, or a figure of eight sides; but it by no means confines itself to this form alone. It sometimes assumes twelve-sided shapes, or is merely a cube, or yet again variations of these figures.

The atoms composing the diamond tend to place themselves in layers, and the discovery of this fact facilitated the cutting of the stone, as by finding the grain a skillful manipulator was able to cleave off protuberances at a blow.

The accompanying diagrams represent a certain large diamond both in the rough and after it was cut into a brilliant, and they will help to explain the process of diamond-cutting, which is briefly as follows: The first process is to make lead models of the stone in its actual state and also in the ideal, namely, after it is cut. By this means is found out the most economical way to shape it. The next step is to cleave it toward that shape as far as possible. Cleaving is performed in two ways; by a steel saw strung on a whalebone and coated with diamond dust which saws off the required amount; or by scratching a nick with a diamond point in the direction of the grain and splitting it off with one blow. This latter process, observes an old writer, requires great strength of mind as well as dexterity of hand, for by an unlucky blow a valuable stone may be utterly ruined. Supposing however that the cleavage has been safely performed, the diamond is next fixed into a handle and is so imbedded in a soft cement as to leave exposed only that portion which is to be ground. By means of another diamond similarly imbedded in a handle it is worked down to the requisite shape. The dust from the two grinding diamonds is carefully saved and is used for polishing them. This process is effected by means of a disk of soft iron about a foot in diameter, coated with the diamond dust mixed with olive oil, and made to revolve very rapidly in a horizontal position. The portion of the diamond to be polished is then pressed against the revolving wheel and a high state of polish is thus attained. The grinding of the facets is entirely governed by eye, and such is the dexterity and accuracy attained by good manipulators that perfect roses are cut so small that fifteen hundred of them go to the carat; and when we remember that one hundred and fifty carats go to an ounce we shall have some faint idea of the minuteness of the work.

In Europe the brilliant is the usual form to give to the diamond, and the one most admired. The invention of this particular method of cutting is due to Vincenzo Peruzzi, a Venetian, who seems to have introduced the fashion in the latter half of the eighteenth century. He discovered that the utmost light and fire could be obtained by reducing the diamond to the shape of a pair of truncated cones, united at the base with thirty-two facets above and twenty-four below the girdle or largest circumference.

Reference to the illustrations will explain the following technical terms: a, the upper surface, is called the table; b, its sloping edge, the beasil; c, the girdle; d, the lower pointed portion, is called the pavilion, and the bottom plane, the collet. Of the thirty-two top facets only those are called star-facets which touch the table; all the rest, as well as those below the girdle, are called skill-facets.

The old "table diamonds," once so highly prized, may be described as having the table and collet greatly enlarged at the expense of the beasil and pavilion. The rose diamond is covered with equal facets, either twelve or twentyfour in number, the base of the stone being flat. This rule holds only for European roses; the Orientals covered their diamonds with irregular facets following exactly the shape of the stone, as with them the one object was to preserve the weight of the stone as far as possible.

Chemically speaking, the diamond is almost pure carbon, and may be said to be first cousin to ordinary coal and half-brother to the smoke of an oil lamp. If the lordly gem should refuse to acknowledge such mean relations it can always be confronted with the "black diamond," which though an undoubted diamond, looks so very like a piece of coal that the kinship is evident. The present writer once saw a very costly parure belonging to the Countess of Dudley, composed entirely of black diamonds set heavily in gold. Being a very little girl she considered it a great waste of the precious metal to employ it to set such ugly stones. She is of the same opinion still.

In ancient times the diamond was credited with a vast number of occult virtues. Thus it was said by the Romans to baffle poison, keep off insanity and dispel vain fears. The Italians believed that it maintained love between man and wife, but we have already seen one notable instance in which it signally failed to render this useful service. One is at a loss to imagine how such a belief became common, seeing the number of diamonds which belonged to royal personages, and the state of affairs prevalent in their domestic life. In England, at the same period, diamonds were looked upon as deadly poisons. The murder of Sir Thomas Overbury in the Tower of London during the reign of James I. was said to have been attempted by means of these gems ground to powder. Overbury certainly died, and presumably by foul means, but modern science has acquitted diamonds of having any share in the crime.

There is a certain rule for estimating the price of a diamond, and singular to say it is the old Indian rule by which Tavernier was guided in his purchases, and which modern commerce has been content to let stand. The current market price of a good cut diamond, one carat in weight being ascertained, the square of the weight of the diamond to be valued is multiplied by that figure. The present selling price in London of a clear and faultless cut diamond one carat in weight is one hundred dollars, one of three carats therefore would be worth 3X3X100=$900.

Were our advice asked with regard to the purchase of these valuable pebbles whose history has so long occupied our attention, we should refer our interlocutor to that Chinese philosopher who on being asked why he kept bowing and saying, "Thank you, thank you," to the gem-bedecked mandarin, replied:

"I am thanking him for buying all those diamonds and undertaking the trouble and anxiety of keeping them safe that I, undisturbed, may look at them and admire them at my leisure."


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