Fire in the Earth: The Story of the Diamond – James Remington McCarthy



For they marvel that any men be so foolish as to have delight and pleasure in the glistering of a little trifling stone, which may behold any of the stars, or else the sun itself.

THE diamond as a fashionable ornament did not become popular until near the end of the dreary Middle Ages. Until then it was a “male” stone, considered as a king’s jewel. Diamonds were generally mounted in scepters, crowns, scabbards, and other royal raiment and equipment, or placed in a vault as a prized possession. As an adornment for women the diamond was unknown until the middle of the fifteenth century, when a lady named Agnes Sorel, mistress of Charles VII, appeared in public wearing a number of diamonds in a necklace.

She was the chief lady-in-waiting to Isabel of Lorraine, who was closely identified with the royal family. In the year 1444 a series of magnificent festivals at Nancy engaged the attention of the French court and Agnes Sorel was the center of them. She so successfully had embellished her person with fabulous finery that she attracted the attention and ardent admiration of the king, eventually becoming his “favorite.”

Born of a family of a lesser nobility, but beautiful, accomplished, and an acknowledged leader of fashion, her sponsorship of diamonds for feminine rather than masculine adornment, while a daring innovation, gave new dignity to the jewel. Her career at court was as brief as it was brilliant.

Within six years she had been laid to rest with a king’s tears. But the diamond-wearing vogue had been taken up in earnest and soon such queens as Isabella of Spain were accumulating large collections of diamonds and other precious stones. It was Isabella, of course, who even pledged her private jewels to raise the necessary funds to finance the voyage of Christopher Columbus across the Atlantic in search of a short route to India, resulting in the discovery of a new world.

In France the use of diamonds by women for decorative purposes increased in popularity. Eighty-three years after Agnes Sorel’s death we find the French court being treated to an incursion of Italian jewelry brought in the trousseau  of little fourteen-year-old Catherine de Medici, who came from Florence to be the bride of the future Henry II. It is doubtful that Catherine did much to stimulate diamonds, however.

She brought few with her from Italy because the cutting of diamonds, at that time, had not been developed fully in Florence. Yet she certainly needed a bright appearance to attract the attention of her spouse because Diane de Poitiers, ten years the young king’s senior, reigned in his heart as the real queen and even had obtained possession of the crown jewels of France. After the king’s death, however, Catherine came into her own, wrested the jewels from the now banished mistress, and began to effect a new elegance in dress.

Her new importance was in part due to the official position of her children: She became the mother of four kings and a queen. All types of jewelry and various expensive fabrics and ornaments, even in interior decorations of he  home, began to be popular. One of her children, Margaret de Valois, became a leader of fashion and finally the queen of Henry IV.

It took another Medici, however, to bring sartorial magnificence to the French court. She was Marie Medici, who followed Margaret de Valois as the wife of Henry IV and long outlived him. It is Marie’s many portraits, painted by the master Flemish painter, Rubens, and others, which depict this queen with jewels in her curled hair, on her forehead, at her throat, and in her ears. She even wore rings on her thumbs.

In olden days, incidentally, long velvet sleeves were sometimes slashed to show bracelets, and gloves had small holes to reveal rings. Besides introducing additional Italian jewelry into the French court, Marie became mother of Louis XIII and ancestress of those half-brilliant, half-mad, Louis’, whose women-folk, whether queens or mistresses, founded the tradition of French elegance.

Fashions in France remained more or less dormant after that and until Louis XIV was married at the age of twenty-one to his cousin, the Infanta Maria Theresa. This little lady came to him from a country which already was a treasure-house of jewels.

Yet it soon became evident to those within the royal palace that Louis’s queen was fond neither of him nor of his diamonds and other jewelry. She must have known, too, that the three most important women in his life (Louise de la Valliere, Madame de Montespan, and Madame de Maintenon) were dictating the fashions of the day, ignoring her in spite of her natural desire for quiet beauty.

She was jealous of them. But it must be admitted that they did much to affect the fashion not only of the French but of the world. For a century and a quarter laces, satins, brocades, and ribbons embellished the feminine form. Flower forms rose to the height of their  popularity and diamond jewelry began to reflect the same feeling for petals and garlands. The square decollete’ of this period allowed for the wearing of deep necklaces with many pendants, while the illumination of a thousand candles in the ballroom at Versailles encouraged the wearing of diamonds for their reflected sparkle.

Indeed, Louis XIV made it the duty of the grandees of France and Spain to wear “the whole value of their lands and forests upon their own and their wives’ apparel when they appeared before his eyes.”

During the next reign, that of Louis XV, the vogue for diamonds became so great that Joseph Strasser made a fortune by the invention of a lead glass which could be cut in forms resembling the rose-cut diamond. This substitute, known as French paste, was the forerunner of our present-day rhinestones. It was no wonder that glitter should become so popular since during that time there lived the Marquise Jeanne Antoinette le Normant d’Etioles, better known as Mme de Pompadour, and Countess Jeanne Bocu du Barry. Both were mistresses of Louis XV in the order named.

Under Pompadour, hair was brushed back from the forehead and the tendency was toward the high coiffure; eventually powdered hair was soaring to such fantastic heights that it was necessary to balance the headdress by long earrings—and thus diamond pendants came into vogue.

Under the influence of du Barry, flower garlands, cupids, and lover’s knots were rampant throughout all decoration. The rose and the bowknot, which mean so much in today’s jewelry, stem from this period and from the succeeding reigns, particularly that of Marie Antoinette and her husband, Louis XVI. While Louis XV was giving his candle parties at Ver-