WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Smithsonian’s three-month summer exhibition of seven privately owned, rare diamonds opened in Washington late last month with a splashy dinner filled with diamond executives and plenty of cutting conversation.

The Israel-based Steinmetz Group of Companies contributed $250,000 to sponsor the event and Nir Livnat, Steinmetz’s president, explained its timing. “We wanted to wait until after we launched the Steinmetz pink diamond in Monaco in June, and we have to end the show Sept. 15 so the De Beers Millennium Star can be featured at the opening of the De Beers LV store in Tokyo in October,’’ he said.

His company was chosen by De Beers to cut the Millennium Star, which at 203 carats is considered to be the largest colorless diamond ever discovered, and is a centerpiece of the Smithsonian show. De Beers began its foray into retailing in 2001 with the creation of De Beers LV, a joint venture with LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton to launch a line of co-branded jewelry at company-owned retail stores. The company is also planning to use the Millennium Star at its New York store opening, Livnat said, although as reported that launch has been postponed until 2004.

One executive who did not make the dinner at the National Museum of Natural History was Ronald Winston, chairman of Harry Winston Inc., who donated the orange-colored Pumpkin Diamond to the show. Winston’s last-minute decision to skip the dinner triggered speculation among the Steinmetz camp that Winston might resent the retail competition from De Beers LV.

Winston, when contacted by phone, said: “I am very shy and I don’t like to make public appearances.” When asked specifically about the speculation among the Steinmetz group, Winston said: “They are going to throw rocks of both kinds at us,” meaning more great diamonds coming onto the market from De Beers and more industry gossip.

Noting that he left the De Beers system in 1980 when he took over as chairman of the company his father started, Winston added that “there are lots of sharp elbows under the basket. I thought it was better to let the stone speak for itself.”

His absence was particularly notable since the exhibit is being held at the Harry Winston Gallery at the Smithsonian, the permanent home of the Hope Diamond.Winston may have chosen the orange-colored stone, worn by Halle Berry when she won the best-actress Oscar in 2002, to hint at his own upcoming high-profile fall launch.

“I’ve designed a brooch from very unusual red pearls I acquired from a remarkable woman I’ve come to know in Japan, Susan Hendrickson,’’ Winston said, referring to the the amateur paleontologist who discovered a Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil in 1990 in South Dakota. “They are sublimely unusual. Just as the red diamond is in a class of its own as the rarest of diamonds, so too is the red pearl.’’

He declined to give much detail about this new collection, but said other pieces will likely be forthcoming.

Among the most noteworthy aspects of the show, which already has long lines, is the speed with which it was organized. Steinmetz signed the contract to fund the exhibition just two months ago, and dinner invitations for the opening party were rushed out about 10 days before the event. That was also when L.A.-based actress Jenna Elfman got the call inviting her to wear the Steinmetz pink diamond at a press conference prior to the dinner for 110 guests in the museum’s rotunda. Elfman, who had to return the pink diamond to its place in the show after the press conference, donned her own diamond pendant to go with her borrowed Valentino dress.

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