Review of The Sancy Blood Diamond: Power, Greed and the Cursed History of One of the World’s Most Coveted Gems. Susan Ronald. TLS May 5 2005

This is a pretty good example of the capsule reviews I started out contributing to the TLS.

Capsule reviews impose a certain discipline on the reviewer – longer word counts allow more opinionating and grandstanding. With a tighter word count, everything has to serve a purpose. It is good practice to “kill your darlings.”

The Sancy Blood Diamond: Power, Greed and the Cursed History of One of the World’s Most Coveted Gems. Susan Ronald. John Wiley & Sons, 2005.

Susan Ronald was born into the diamond trade; this book is dedicated to her father, a diamond merchant “who taught diamonds to sparkle.” Faced with the bland surroundings – with only a perfunctory description and outline of its story – in which the Louvre displayed the Sancy diamond, she was so offended that she wrote this book to reclaim its colourful history – for the diamond itself, one feels, as much as for readers and museum-goers.

For the 55.32 carat Sancy, although little known outside specialist circles, is one of those jewels which have sparkled through history. Its story is soaked in blood and war, and unsurprisingly it has been said to be cursed. Like many of the most famous diamonds, it comes from the Golconda mines of India; Marco Polo wrote that “in no part of the world there is found fine Adamants but there.”

The first known owner was Valentine Visconti, daughter of the duke of Milan John Galeazzo di Visconti. On her marriage in 1398 to Louis, Duke of Orléans and brother of Charles VI of France, the Sancy was inventoried as part of her dowry. In due course, amidst much bloodshed, the diamond ended up with her mortal enemy, John the Fearless, duke of Burgundy and Flanders. Thus the pattern was set for the gem’s subsequent history, which Ronald narrates with great verve.

Powerful men and women such as Jacob Fugger, Elizabeth I, Cardinal Mazarin, Louis XIV and Napoleon feature in what acts, incidentally, as a sort of primer of European history from 1400 to 1800. Ronald is unsentimental about the nature of the Sancy’s attraction to the powerful. In its various incarnations and settings, it had tremendous economic value. Again and again we read of a desperate monarch or diplomat trying to hawk it to fund a campaign or simply clear national debts.

Its final private owners – the admirable Indian magnate Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy and his son, and the less sedate Astors, who at least didn’t start any wars – showed no evidence of being cursed. In 1976 the diamond was acquired by the Louvre from the Astor family and displayed in the manner so eloquently decried by Ronald at the conclusion of this very readable history.

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