Precious Stones


2. The Orloff

"Diamonds," says an old writer, "have ever been highly valued by princes. To a sovereign," he argues, "who can command the lives and property of his subjects by a word, the ordinary objects of human desire soon lose that stimulating interest which rarity of occurrence and difficulty of acquisition can alone keep. The gratification of the senses and of unrestricted sway soon palls upon the appetite, and War and Diamonds are the only objects that engross the attention; the former because it is attended with some hazard and is the only kind of gambling in which the stake is sufficiently exciting to banish the ennui of an illiterate despot; the latter because the excessive rarity of large and at the same time perfect specimens of this gem supplies a perpetual object of desire while each new acquisition feeds the complacent vanity of the possessor."

According to this philosophy we should expect to find that the most despotic princes would be the most addicted to the vanities of War and Diamonds. Whether this conclusion be true as regards war may be open to doubt. Russia, without contention, is the most despotic monarchy of Europe, and yet the one which can show the shortest list of wars. With regard to diamonds, however, the deduction holds in all its force. The Russian regalia is richer in precious stones than that of any other Asiatic country. Besides numberless sapphires, rubies and pearls it possesses an immense quantity of diamonds.

This passion for gems which characterizes the Russians was early observable among them. It is no doubt an inherited Asiatic taste, brought with them from the steppes of Siberia and the plains of Thibet, just as they brought thence their high cheek-bones, their flat noses, their dull skins, and the strong tendency to long hair and flowing beards.

As early as the time of Peter the Great the diamonds were a notable feature of the Russian crown. But it was in the reign of Catharine II. that the most splendid gems which Russia now possesses were added to her treasures. First and foremost stands the Orloff. With the exception of the very dubious Braganza of Portugal the Orloff is the largest diamond in Europe. It outweighs the Regent by more than half a hundred carats, reaching as it does the astonishing weight of one hundred and ninety-three carats.

The origin of this gem is absolutely lost and its early history is involved in obscurity and contradiction. It appears a stone of ancient date. It was known in India for generations before it was transferred to Europe. Three Fates--a slave, a ship captain, and a Jew--seem destined to preside over the advent of each great diamond into our Western world. Nor were they wanting in this instance--except that a soldier was substitute for the slave.


The date, however, is not so easy to discover as the circumstances of its entrance into European history. It was, at all events, at some time prior to 1776 that a grenadier belonging to the French army which garrisoned the French possessions of Pondicherry deserted from his flag and became a Hindoo. This conversion was not the result of deep inward conviction, but of far-sighted craft. The Frenchman had heard of the great Sringer[=i]-matha, the most holy spot in all Mysore. This temple, situated on an island at the junction of the Cavery and the Coleroon, was one of four especially sanctified monasteries founded in the eighth century by Sankar[=a]cárya. This man, a strict Brahmin, restored the glories of the old religion somewhat dimmed by Buddhism, and planted a monastery in each of the four extremities of India to keep alive the faith of Brahma. The one at Srirangam was noted, and the resort of pilgrims. It consisted of seven distinct inclosures, many lofty towers, and a gilded cupola, besides which it was furnished with a perfect undergrowth of dwellings for the many Brahmins who served at the altar.

Now the object of the grenadier's metamorphosis was that he might be received into these sacred precincts and become a priest of Brahma. And why? Because Brahma had a diamond eye. As the French historian puts it, "the soldier had become enamored of the beautiful eyes of the deity." European heretics were not allowed to penetrate further than the fourth inclosure. If the grenadier was to gaze at the eye of the god it must be as a Hindoo.

Being, then, externally a Hindoo, the Frenchman proceeded to gain the confidence, and even the admiration of the priests by the extraordinary fervor of his devotion. The ruse succeeded, and he was eventually appointed guardian of the innermost shrine.

One night, on the occasion of a great storm, the Hindoo-grenadier believed the moment propitious for his grand enterprise. Being alone with the god he threw off his disguise, climbed up the statue, gouged out the Wonderful Eye, and made off with it to Trichinopoly.

Here he was safe for the moment among the English troops encamped at that place. But soon he journeyed on to Madras in search of a purchaser for the Eye. He of course met an English sea-captain, the middle figure of the indispensable trio of Fates, and to him the grenadier sold the diamond for two thousand pounds ($10,000). After this the grenadier falls back into obscurity.

The sea-captain went to London and there speedily fell in with the Jew, the third Fate. The name of this Fate was Khojeh Raphael, and his character was that of "a complete old scoundrel." He seems to have traveled all over Europe in his character of Jew and merchant and to have left a not altogether immaculate record of himself. Khojeh Raphael paid twelve thousand pounds ($60,000) for the stone and then in his turn set about hunting up a purchaser. But this proved no easy matter. The splendid Catharine of Russia, it is said, rejected it though fond of diamonds and not slow to spend money, because the price asked was too high for her. It remained for a subject to buy it and present it to her as a gift. This then is the history of the Orloff diamond in India according to the most trustworthy accounts.

Having brought the diamond to Europe we no longer deal vaguely, but are instantly face to face with an exact date.

"We learn from Amsterdam that Prince Orloff made but one day's stay in that city where he bought a very large brilliant for the Empress his sovereign, for which he paid to a Persian merchant the sum of 1,400,000 florins Dutch money."

So says a gossipy letter dated January 2, 1776; and as further we are informed of the value of the "florins Dutch money" in English pennies, we learn that the price paid to the "complete old scoundrel" of a Khojeh Raphael was one hundred thousand pounds ($500,000). The Prince Orloff mentioned in the letter is no other than Gregory, the favorite of Catharine II., a man of such singular fortunes that a few words may well be spared to him.

Orloff's grandfather first came into notice in an extraordinary manner. In 1698, when Peter the Great barely escaped assassination at the hands of his body-guard, the renowned Strelitz, he resolved to destroy the corps altogether. This he performed effectually by cutting off their heads by scores and hundreds. The Czar aided in this bloody work with his own hand and decapitated many of his mutinous soldiers on a big log of wood. One young fellow, Jan nicknamed Orell (eagle), annoyed at finding the severed head of a comrade exactly in the spot where he had decided to lay his own neck, kicked it aside with the remark, "If this is my place I want more room." The Czar, delighted with the congenial brutality of the observation, pardoned the soldier and gave him a post in his new regiment of guards.

Slightly altering his nickname "Orell" into "Orloff," the respited victim founded a family destined to become renowned in Russian history. His son was taken into the ranks of the nobles, and his famous grandson Gregory, born in 1734, became a soldier early in life. Gregory Orloff was a man of ability, but his fortune was undoubtedly due to his personal beauty. He was tall and handsome with a well-earned reputation for audacious courage, always alluring to the mind of a woman. His first appearance in the world of fashion reflects little credit upon him and still less upon the Russian society in which he lived. He was on the point of being sent to Siberia to think over his misdeeds at his leisure, when a hand was extended to him which afterward raised him almost to the summit of human greatness. The Grand Duchess Catharine interested herself on his behalf and rescued him from Siberia. Orloff rapidly advanced in her favor, and it may have been he who first inspired her with the boundless ambition which he afterwards aided her in gratifying.

At all events Gregory Orloff and his brothers were the prime movers in that military insurrection which overthrew Peter III., a feeble, drunken imbecile, and set up in his place his wife Catharine, a handsome imperious strong-willed woman. The revolt took place on July 9, 1762, and the new Empress instantly ordered her vanquished husband into confinement. Let us trust that she ordered not his death. Catharine II., often called the Great, and sometimes the Holy, has enough for which to answer without the addition of the deliberate murder of her husband to swell the account against her. Be this as it may, the fact remains that a fortnight later Peter III. was strangled by Alexèy Orloff, brother of Gregory the favorite of Catharine.

Thus left in undisturbed possession of the throne the Czarina loaded with riches and titles the brothers who had aided her. But nothing was sufficient for the ambition of Gregory Orloff. Not content with the position of First Subject he aspired to that of Master. Catharine, who seemed unable to refuse him anything, was several times on the point of recognizing him officially as her husband, and he had reason to suppose himself on the verge of grasping the great prize of his ambition when it was snatched away.

In 1772, being then absent upon a mission to the Turks, Orloff's credit with Catharine was utterly destroyed by his rival Potemkin. Hurrying back in such desperate haste that he had not a coat for which to change his traveling cloak, in hopes of repairing his evil fortunes, Orloff was met by an order to travel abroad. It was thus that Catharine always relieved herself of the presence of favorites whose company had become irksome.

Orloff, maddened with rage, set out on his travels and wandered all over the north of Europe. It was during his exile that he heard of the wonderful diamond that Khojeh Raphael had for sale. Knowing how fond Catharine was of all jewels and especially of diamonds, he hoped to propitiate her by a unique gift of the kind. Catharine took the gift, but refused to receive the giver back into her favor. Her fickle affections were engaged by another handsome face, and Gregory Orloff spent the remaining years of his life in aimless journeyings varied by an occasional visit to St. Petersburg. He died mad in 1783. He used sometimes to address the Empress, calling upon her by the pet-name of "Katchen"; or again he would taunt her with her unkindness.

Such was the life and death of Gregory Orloff. The diamond to which his name was given although accepted by Catharine seems not to have been worn by her as a personal ornament. It was mounted in the Imperial Sceptre where it has ever since remained undisturbed. In its latter state of tranquil splendor it differs signally from the Regent whose European career, as we have seen, has been a singularly stormy one. As the sceptre is used only at coronations the history of the Orloff becomes one of long repose and seclusion, diversified by transient re-entrances into grandeur as successive Czars appear upon the scene to be crowned.

The most singular coronation which has ever been performed was probably that which followed the death of Catharine and preceded the consecration of her son and successor. Catharine died in 1797 after a reign of thirty-five years. But before she could be buried there was a ceremony to be performed, the like of which had never been seen.

Her son Paul, a taciturn individual who seems never to have forgotten his father's miserable death, performed an expiatory coronation in his honor, seeing that that ceremony had been neglected in Peter's life. For this purpose the body of the long-dead Czar was disinterred and was dressed in the Imperial robes. The ornaments of the coronation which had been fetched expressly from Moscow for the purpose were then disposed about the mouldering figure. It must have been a grisly sight--the crowned skeleton of the murdered Peter lying beside his wife's body with Orloff's diamond banefully glittering on his bony hand. Nor was this all. With a genius for grim appropriateness the new Czar summoned the two surviving murderers of his father to attend as chief mourners. These were Prince Baratinsky and Alexèy Orloff. The former overcome by the horror of his recollections fainted away many times; but Orloff, with iron indifference, stood four hours bearing the pall of the man he had strangled with his own hands thirty-five years before. After performing this public penance both men were banished from Russia.

The coronation of a sovereign is always a stately ceremony; but the installation of the Czars of Russia is elaborate almost beyond description. The ceremonial invariably followed is that used at the coronation of Peter the Great and his Empress. The ritual is largely religious, as the Czar is Head of the Church as well as Emperor. The sceptre of course plays an important part and is taken up and put down a bewildering number of times. The following extract from a work entirely devoted to the explanation of the many comings and goings and uprisings and downsittings will give a slight idea of what a performance the coronation is:

"The Metropolitan having received the Sceptre from the hands of the noble bearer carries it to the Emperor who takes it in his right hand. The Metropolitan says, 'Most pious, most powerful, and very great Emperor of all the Russias, whom God has crowned, upon whom God has shed His gifts and His Grace, receive the Sceptre and the Globe. They are the symbols of the supreme power which the Most High has given thee over thy peoples, that thou mayest govern them and obtain for them all the happiness they desire.' And the Emperor takes the Sceptre and sits upon the throne."

But this is not nearly all. The sceptre, which is graphically if somewhat grotesquely called the Triumph-stick, is held only for a brief time. The Emperor at the end of the prayer, lays it upon a velvet cushion and upon another he places the globe or Empire-apple as it is termed. Then he calls to himself the Czarina and crowns her with his own imperial diadem. But the consort is not invested with any imperial power, therefore she does not receive either the sceptre or the globe. After having crowned his wife, the Czar again seats himself upon his throne holding his Stick and his Apple in either hand. Cannons roar, bells clang and multitudes shout "Long live the Father!" while all present bow low before the monarch in adoration. Then the new Czar and Czarina receive the communion with more stately movings about from place to place. Finally the Te Deum is sung, the crowned Emperor, sceptre in hand, walks forth, and the intricate ceremonial is thus brought to a close, having been in continuance some four or five hours.

The Regalia, which includes seven or eight crowns, is kept in the Kremlin in an upper room "where," says a traveller, "they [the crowns, etc.] look very fine on velvet cushions under glass cases." The Czars are always crowned in Moscow, the ancient capital of Russia.

Paul, having performed the weird ceremony already described, then had himself duly and solemnly crowned. His reign was a short one however, and in 1801 he gave place to his successor Alexander, in the orthodox Russian manner--that is to say he was strangled.

In 1812 the Orloff and its magnificent companions had to fly from Moscow. In the beginning of September in that terrible year, finding that the mountains of slain on the bloody field of Borodino could not stop Napoleon, the Russians sullenly retired before him. On the third of the month the Regalia was carried out of Moscow and lodged in a place of safety in the interior. This flight was followed by that of everybody and everything that was portable. When Napoleon entered on the fourteenth it was to find an absolute desert in Moscow, only a few stragglers, prisoners and beggars having been left.

Alexander I., strange to say, died peacefully in 1826, leaving the throne to his brother Nicholas. Nicholas has been aptly called "the Iron Czar." He was the third son of his father, but his elder brother, Constantine, having no taste for the perilous glory of a crown renounced his rights in favor of Nicholas. There was some delay in crowning the new Czar owing, says the Court Circular with decorous gravity, to the illness and death of the late Emperor's widow who survived her husband but five months. In reality, however, the delay was caused by events more serious to the peace of mind of the new sovereign. A revolution, which seems an indispensable accompaniment to a change of rulers in Russia, exploded after the accession of Nicholas and came near to costing him his life. This event seems to have further hardened a nature that was already sufficiently severe, and when Nicholas went to Moscow in August, 1826, his coronation progress was not meant to gladden the people but to make them quake. When the Czar left the Cathedral of the Assumption, his crown upon his head and his sceptre in his hand, "his face looked as hard as Siberian ice." So wrote of him an eye-witness, who further says the people were too frightened to cheer--they dropped on their knees with their faces in the dust. It was a gloomy coronation notwithstanding all the diamonds and glitter of the pageant. There was but one redeeming incident that spoke of human kindliness and affection. When the Czar had been crowned his mother, the widow of the murdered Paul, advanced to do homage to him as her sovereign, but the Czar knelt before his mother and implored her blessing. After the Empress Mother came Constantine, the elder brother, who had waived his rights to the crown, and he was in turn affectionately embraced by Nicholas. This exhibition of fraternal affection in Russia, where brothers had been known to strangle each other in order to grasp the much-coveted sceptre, was considered as something quite unprecedented. The Court Chronicler of the day speaks of it with emotion as a sight to move the hearts of gods and men.

Nicholas died in the middle of the Crimean War and Alexander II. reigned in his stead. The extraordinary pomp of his coronation has never been surpassed. He in his turn held in his hand Orloff's great diamond as the symbol of absolute power. Yet he, who could deal as he chose with the lives of all his subjects, had not power to save his own from the hand of the assassin. The murder of Alexander II. by Nihilists in March, 1881, is fresh in memory as also the succession of the present Czar. The Orloff was then once more taken from its repose in the sumptuous privacy of the Kremlin to enhance the splendors of an Imperial Coronation. Within a short time the Orloff has served to grace yet another splendid ceremony. On the occasion of the recent installation of the Czarevitch as Hetman of the Don Cossacks, the sceptre as well as the crown and globe, were exhibited to the admiring multitudes of Novo Tcherkask.

Such is the career of the imperial diamond given by Gregory Orloff to his Empress. In appearance the gem differs materially from the Regent. It is essentially an Asiatic stone, presenting all the peculiarities of its Eastern birthplace. It is variously described as of about the size of a pigeon's egg or of a walnut. One writer expresses disappointment at it, remarking that the sceptre resembles a gold poker, and the Mountain of Light (a name sometimes given to the Orloff) "which we had pictured to ourselves as big as a walnut was no larger than a hazel-nut!" Never having seen this diamond the present writer cannot speak of its apparent size; but if the drawings are reliable it is certainly a monstrous "hazel-nut" of a diamond.

The cutting of the Orloff is purely in the Eastern style, being what is known as an Indian rose. Asiatic amateurs have always prized size above everything in their gems. The lapidaries therefore treat each stone confided to them with this object mainly in view. A stone is accordingly covered with as many small facets as its shape will allow, and no attempt at a mathematical figure, such as that presented by our European diamonds, is ever ventured upon by them. Cardinal Mazarin was the first who intrusted his Indian rose-diamonds to the hands of European cutters in order to have them shaped into brilliants. The fashion thus set by him has been generally followed throughout Western Europe. Russia, however, true to her Asiatic traditions, keeps to Indian roses, most of her imperial diamonds being of that cut.

The Orloff is now back again safe in the Kremlin, where let us hope it may long rest undisturbed either by rumors of invasion or a demand for a new coronation with its probable attendant assassination, universal terror and judiciary retribution.