WASHINGTON, D.C. — By all accounts it looked to be an average Wednesday evening at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Uniformed guards milled about the entrance, lingering visitors were flushed from the halls and the stuffed elephants, birds and other resident taxidermy of the institution’s 125 million specimens struck their rightful poses.

But earlier this month, deep in the museum’s recesses in a vault far from the galleries, Jeffrey Post, the curator of the National Gem Collection, prepared to make diamond history. For the first time, three of the world’s finest blue diamonds — the Smithsonian-owned Hope Diamond (45.5 carats) and Blue Heart diamond (30.62 carats), and the privately owned Steinmetz Heart of Eternity diamond (27.64 carats) — would be removed from their settings to be compared, contrasted and tested.

For the auspicious occasion, Post, a lanky, mustachioed man with thick glasses and an air of a nutty professor about him, assembled a pack of gemologists, appraisers, professors and guards, whose excitement at the prospect of seeing the three jewels side by side reached near giddiness when Post made a simple announcement at 6 p.m.: “Let’s go get the Hope.”

Clutching an empty black briefcase, Post loped ahead, leading a pack of 15 others through a maze of hallways and locked doors before arriving at the Harry Winston Gallery, where the legendary Hope Diamond, surrounded by 16 white diamonds and dangling on a necklace chain of 45 white diamonds, resides in its own marble display case. The rest of the pack was ushered out of the room with only a few seconds’ warning as the security doors closed, leaving only Post and his colleagues to retrieve the bauble. He emerged, briefcase in hand and flanked by two guards, and sailed back through the corridors to the vault as the group trailed in his wake.

In the past 20 years, the Hope Diamond has been removed from its setting only twice: once in 1988 by the Gemological Institute of America to be graded by modern techniques, and again eight years later for cleaning and restoration work by Harry Winston Inc., which gifted the famous gem to the museum in 1958. The extraction on Oct. 1 was largely based on timing: The Hope Diamond — the most sought-after object in the Smithsonian, viewed by 13,000 people daily and six million visitors annually — must be on display when the museum is open. The museum’s summer exhibition, “The Splendor of Diamonds,” closed Sept. 30 and included the Steinmetz Heart of Eternity — discovered in the Nineties and only cut recently. The diamond was to be returned on Oct. 2 to its rightful owner, who had prepared a ring setting for it as a 50th birthday gift for his wife. In other words, the clock was ticking.“We have the three largest, finest blue diamonds in the world under one roof,” said Post. “These three diamonds have never been together as a trio. The chance to see them is an intellectual exercise. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Back at the vault, master goldsmith Stephen Clarke was tapped to remove the Hope Diamond from its setting — without a jeweler’s bench. “It’s like a doctor performing an appendectomy without an operating table,” fretted Clarke before being summoned into a second vault where Post had disappeared with the briefcase. This reporter was summoned as well and for a few precious seconds, held the necklace. It’s heavier than it looks, cold to the touch and, behind the pendant, its prongs pierce the skin. But the cornflower blue stone is mesmerizing and seeing it up close rather than behind a display case is nothing short of exhilarating.

After Clarke plucked the Hope Diamond from its setting, it was placed on a tray next to the Blue Heart and the Heart of Eternity for a color test by sight. The room, filled with nearly 30 people, strained to see the row of diamonds and pulled out their cameras. Post and John King of the GIA determined that the Heart of Eternity has the strongest color, followed by the Blue Heart and then the Hope. “No surprise — it’s pretty much what I’d expect,” said King, based on previous individual examinations of the stones.

King then flipped the gems with a pair of rubber-tipped tweezers and examined their backs. “Look at the difference in conceptual thinking going on from the 1900s to the late century,” he said, pointing out the difference in the backsides of the Blue Heart, cut in 1909, and the contemporary Heart of Eternity. The gemologists marveled at the cuts; the Heart of Eternity has a wide back which gives it more brilliancy than the others. “The Blue Heart is cut more like a sapphire,” determined King.

Next up was the phosphorescence test. With the lights off, Post shined a ultraviolet light on the gems. “Everyone close your eyes,” he instructed, “except for the guards.” After several seconds of exposure, the Hope Diamond emitted a whitish orange-red glow for several minutes, while the Heart of Eternity gave off a purple-red hue for a few seconds before dying. The Blue Heart was inactive. The test was to see whether the Hope Diamond would be the only one affected by the light, which clearly it wasn’t. But what did it all mean? The experts don’t know — but it looked cool.As Post performed the test three more times to the delight of the onlookers, he told the tale of the Hope Diamond, whose history — sorry rival blue diamonds — is beyond compare. Legend says it was pried from the eye of an Indian idol and that forevermore its owner will be cursed. Worn by such royalty as Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette, it was lost during the French Revolution before resurfacing in England. In 1910, Pierre Cartier sold it to Evalyn Walsh McLean for $154,000. She was known to scoff at the diamond’s supposed curse and even allowed her Great Dane to wear it around the house. Following the purchase, however, McLean’s daughter committed suicide; her son died in a car accident; her husband became mentally ill, and the family fortune dwindled. In 1949, Harry Winston purchased the bauble from her estate, and the rest is history.

As the evening wore on, the experts performed an infrared test on the three diamonds to determine their chemical structures, but those results are yet to be analyzed. While the tests didn’t yield any major scientific finds, the thrill of witnessing the stones together was reward enough for the gemologists present.

As for mere mortals, the obvious question was: which one is the most valuable?

The answer is easy, said master gemologist appraiser Martin Fuller: “They’re all priceless.”

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