The Life of a Stone

Book cover
The Diamondby Julie Baumgold

Simon & Schuster. 307p $24


In an utterly captivating piece of historical fiction, Julie Baumgold has crafted a multifaceted gem of a novel that chronicles the history of the Régent diamond, the central piece of the precious stone collection of the French throne.

Spirited out of India in 1702 by Robert Pitt, the son of Thomas Pitt, the British Governor of Madras, the uncut diamond began a journey that would ultimately make it the centerpiece of the royal jewel collections of five French kings and two emperors.

Explaining that he had always had an interest in jewels, Napoleon I’s biographer, Comte de las Cases, is the narrator of the Régent’s history. Sharing Napoleon’s exile on the isle of St. Helena, de las Cases researches the history of the precious stone as a diversion from writing Le Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène.

The emperor has called me his magpie, because I am drawn to small shiny things, writes de las Cases. Taking advantage of the emperor’s firsthand knowledge of the stone plus documents from Napoleon’s library, de las Cases pieces together an account of the famed diamond that encompasses the major historical events and personalities of the age.

Upon its arrival in England, the rough, 410-carat stone spent two years on the cutting wheel. By the time Joseph Cope finished the job, The Great Pitt, as it was first called, was down to just over 136 carats. With its 58 facets, the baroque brilliant was the finest piece of work the London craftsman ever produced. The cut, clarity, lack of color and the intensity made it the most beautiful, as well as the largest, diamond in the world.

Countering charges made by the Great Mogul that the diamond had been stolen and must be returned to India, Pitt defended his ownership of the stone and then attempted to sell it to Louis XIV, who declined the offer. Queen Anne and King George reputedly also passed on Pitt’s diamond, which had acquired a bad reputation because of the Mogul’s claim.

Finally in 1717, the infamous financier James Law brokered a deal along with the Duc de Saint-Simon that sent the The Great Pitt to the Duc d’Orléans, the regent for the boy king Louis XV, who ostensibly made the purchase on behalf of the crown.

With Pitt pocketing about two million livres (135,000 pounds) and Law collecting 5,000 pounds for his effort, The Great Pitt crossed the English Channel to acquire a more eloquent sobriquet: the Régent. Saint-Simon called the magnificent stone a symbol of all that France can be again, as in the first days of the Grand Monarch.

Beginning with the reign of Louis XV, although the Régent is certainly part of the story, the narrative goes on to chronicle the rise and fall of the royalty who possessed the stone. Instead of being Saint-Simon’s symbol of all that France can be, the Régent becomes an icon of the self-indulgent and extravagant monarchy. Nestled in the curls of Marie Antoinette and adorning Louis XVI’s clothing, the brilliant diamond acts as a beacon that spotlights the royal family’s excesses and guides the revolutionaries to their doorstep.

Of the royal couple de las Cases writes, With their small beaked noses, they were like a pair of proud rare birds hovering on the winds of extinction. As part of the violent upheaval instigated by the Revolution, the Régent is stolen. After discussing the daring break-in at Garde Meuble, where the gem has been stored, de las Cases explains how the gem is eventually recovered and passed on to Napoleon. It is here that the author first sees the famous diamond on the hilt of the emperor’s sword.

Although Napoleon continually looks over de las Cases’ shoulder and occasionally comments on what he reads of the Régent’s early history, he now assumes an important role in the stone’s history. Pawning the diamond not once but twice to advance his design of conquest, the emperor, like those who preceded him, eventually gives the reclaimed gem a place of honor where it can proclaim his exalted position.

Like those who went before him, Napoleon’s reign ends in infamy, which returns the narrative to St. Helena. As the 13 months and nine days he spent on the island come to an end, de las Cases writes, It is our trade to live in the others’ lives and serve our stories, and every writer knows when the story is done.

Although referring to the eight-volume Memorial of Saint Helena, the writer might just as well have been alluding to his history of the diamond. Comte de las Cases lives until 1842, but he doesn’t finish the Régent manuscript. It is left up to a young man simply called Abraham to complete the story.

A member of Baroness Betty Rothschild’s household, Abraham covers the events of the 1800’s, which culminate in Louis-Napoleon’s fall from grace and the Régent’s encasement in the Apollo Gallery of the Louvre.

The dangers of Napoleon and the dangers of his diamond were trapped by coffers of marble and glass, concludes Abraham. It was better they were both gone from the world, that their harm and dangerous brilliance were locked away.

The diamond that built the House of Pitt in England helped destroy the houses of the Bourbons and Bonapartes, supposedly jinxing their descendents and bringing an end to the French monarchy.

Perhaps that gives too much credit to an inanimate object whose only real claim to fame is its exceptional size, storied brilliance and association with illustrious, historical personages. Because of the ill luck that seems to hover about the stone through its first two centuries, it is part of the lore associated with cursed diamonds.

Rather than belabor the stone’s negative karma, Baumgold focuses on the events and personages that were part of the Régent’s legacy. The result is a highly entertaining and totally captivating story whose scope transcends the object to embrace a period of European history most readers will relish learning more about.

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