By  on February 1, 2010

WASHINGTON — Gasps, oohs and ahhs filled the intimate Harry Winston Gallery at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History here, where scientists, reporters and one of the world’s wealthiest men were locked into a small room.

The cause of the commotion was the Wittelsbach-Graff Diamond, an extraordinarily rare 31.06-carat Deep-Blue Color diamond — a bit smaller than a walnut — that hadn’t been shown publicly for more than 50 years.

Graff Diamonds chairman Laurence Graff bought the stone in 2008 for 16.4 million pounds, or about $24 million, at a Christie’s auction. He flew in from London to loan the cushion-shaped stone to the Smithsonian for research and display. It went on exhibit Friday until Aug. 1 in the same hall as its chief rival, the larger and more famous Hope Diamond.

Of all the diamonds that the billionaire and gem lover has bought and sold, the Wittelsbach-Graff is by far his favorite.

“I’ve been fortunate over the years to own some of the world’s greatest diamonds,” Graff said. “But the Wittelsbach-Graff is the most precious and beautiful.”

Graff restored the stone by having the chips removed for optimum brilliance.

The diamond has a storied history. It comes from the same Indian mine as the 45.52-carat Hope Diamond that Harry Winston donated to the Smithsonian in 1959.

Jeffrey Post, curator of the National Gem Collection at the museum, was able to examine the stone to see if, as some believed, the Wittelsbach-Graff was derived from the same original crystal as the Hope. But it turns out “they aren’t brother and sister stones,” Post said. “They are more like cousins.”

Post described the stone as “the most famous diamond that the public has never seen.” The Hope and the Wittelsbach were studied side by side for the first time and went through a battery of tests, he said.

The stone dates to the 17th century, when it was given to Infanta Margarita Teresa upon her engagement to Emperor Leopold I of Austria in 1664 by her father, Philip IV of Spain. The diamond was passed on to the House of Wittelsbachs, members of the ruling house of Bavaria, in 1772. When Bavaria became a republic after World War I, its crown jewels were sold through Christie’s in 1931. But the diamond disappeared before the auction and was replaced by a worthless piece of blue, cut glass.

As mysteriously as it vanished, the stone resurfaced in Belgium in 1951. It was displayed at the World Exhibition in Brussels in 1958 and was identified as the Wittelsbach in 1962. After Graff’s purchase and 2009 restoration, the Gemological Institute of America upgraded its color classification to Deep Fancy Blue, akin to that of the Hope. It is the largest colored diamond GIA has ever certified.

Graff said the stone was priceless. Asked if he would consider ever selling it, Graff said: “I have nightmares. I don’t want to part with all of these beautiful stones that I’ve [acquired]. It breaks your heart to sell…but some clients are demanding. They come to me and they say, ‘Show me something that will break your heart to sell.’ It breaks my heart. It really does.”

Graff America president and chief executive officer Henri Barguirdjian said the unveiling of the stone on Thursday was historic. After the Smithsonian, the Wittelsbach-Graff will likely go on display in London’s Natural History Museum, Graff said.

Although the Hope and the Wittelsbach-Graff may be “cousins,” they seemingly don’t share the same family drama. The Hope has a legend that it is cursed, as several of its owners died horrible deaths. “There are no detrimental stories [associated] with it,” Graff said of the Wittelsbach-Graff.

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