Byline: Robert Murphy

PARIS — Calling it “the biggest single exhibit of diamonds ever held under one roof,” Anthony Oppenheimer, executive director of De Beers Group, christened the “Diamonds” exhibit at the Museum Nationale d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris at a party on March 7.
De Beers loaned more than 70,000 carats in diamonds for the exhibit, which opened March 10 and runs through July 15, staying open until midnight most days. Apart from featuring a Brink’s truckload’s worth of impressive jewels, the exhibit also traces the history of the diamond trade over the last millennium.
“Diamonds have fascinated over the ages,” said Gary Ralfe, managing director at De Beers. “The stone has symbolized so many things over the centuries: love, power and impeccable taste. To see so many spectacular stones under one roof is the stuff of dreams.”
A large part of the exhibit lays the groundwork of diamond history. That story is traced to ancient times, when it was widely believed that the diamond supply was limited to a single mine in India. In the 14th century, adventurer Marco Polo is said to have believed a myth that the only way to extract diamonds was with raw meat, to which the diamonds would mysteriously stick.
In the early 18th century, diamonds were discovered in Brazil, then a Portuguese colony. The country has produced its own cache of noteworthy stones, including the crown jewels of the Portuguese court. In 1938, a 900-carat diamond — showcased in the exhibit — was discovered by three garimpeiros, or gem hunters. It is known as the President Vargas and currently figures in the collection of jeweler Robert Mouawad, who is also the exhibit’s principal sponsor.
Mouawad, renowned for having owned 20 of the world’s largest diamonds, loaned some of the most spectacular gems in the show, including the 245-carat Jubilee diamond and the 60-carat Idol’s Eye. The latter is legendary for having once adorned the forehead of a sculpture of Shiva in a Hindu temple in Benhazir, India. Like many of the diamonds in the show, it is steeped in intrigue. About 50 years ago, it disappeared, only to mysteriously reappear recently.
Other stones tell stories of love. The 70-carat Taylor-Burton diamond — a $1 million gift from Richard Burton to Elizabeth Taylor — was so precious that Taylor, for insurance reasons, could wear it only 30 days each year.
The exhibit also features other gifts, including a spectacular necklace Napoleon gave his second wife, princess Marie Louise of Austria, when she gave birth to a male heir. Napoleon wed Marie Louise — shown wearing the jewels in an 1812 painting by Robert Lefevre — after Josephine failed to provide him a son.
The history of the modern diamond trade dates to 1866, when the first stones were discovered in South Africa. By 1888, Cecile Rhodes, the founder of Rhodesia and the De Beers company, had consolidated most of the mines in Kimberley, South Africa, in effect founding what was to become the world’s foremost diamond-trading company. Today, De Beers controls about 60 percent of the market for rough diamonds, estimated to be worth about $60 billion worldwide.
That legacy is set to change. In January, De Beers sealed a joint venture with French luxury giant LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, which will seek to establish the De Beers name as a leading prestige jewelry brand.
Alain Lorenzo, the venture’s chief executive officer, said, “With the De Beers name, we have a winning formula. Creativity will be our guiding principle.”
He said the partnership will move ahead with its plan to open De Beer’s branded stores as soon as a European Union commission approves the deal.