Precious Stones


6. The Braganza

If the stone which is known by the name of the "Braganza," or the "Regent of Portugal," is a diamond, it is undoubtedly the largest that was ever found in either ancient or modern times. But then it is by no means certain that it is a diamond at all. It would be quite easy to establish the fact by submitting the stone to the examination of experts, but apparently the Royal House of Portugal holds that the Braganza, like Cæsar's wife, should be above suspicion. At all events the fact remains that this monster diamond has never been seen by any independent expert whose judgment would be accepted without appeal. When the learned are in doubt it would ill become us to decide; therefore, without offering an opinion, we shall, provisionally at least, class the Braganza among the diamonds of this series; and when its true character is established beyond dispute we shall know whether to call it the Monarch of Diamonds or only a vulgar impostor.

The stated weight of the Braganza reaches the astounding figure of one thousand six hundred and eighty carats. Of course this is in its rough state, for the giant gem has refused to trust itself to the hands of any cutter however skillful. Yet this weight exceeds by more than double the weight, in the rough, of the next largest diamond known to history, namely, the Great Mogul. When we think of the price of the Regent--over six hundred thousand dollars, while weighing only four hundred and ten carats in the rough--and then turn to the Braganza with its sixteen hundred carats, the mind staggers before the money-value thus suggested.

All the other famous diamonds of which we have treated have been Asiatic; but the Braganza, like the Pelegrina Pearl, hails from the New World. Consequently its history does not reach back into those misty past ages whither we went groping after the Orloff and the Koh-i-nûr. The Braganza is a diamond of yesterday, hence the account of its finding is clear, minute and accurate.

Here it is. The speaker is Joseph Mawe, a geologist, merchant and traveler who visited Brazil in the first decade of this century and whose book on the countries which he saw is our best authority on that part of South America.

"A few leagues to the north of the Rio Prata is a rivulet named Abaité, celebrated for having produced the largest diamond in the Prince's possession, which was found about twelve years ago (namely 1797). It may be allowed me in this place to relate the particulars as they were detailed to me during my stay at Tejuco. Three intelligent men having been found guilty of high crimes were banished into the interior, and ordered not to approach any of the capital towns or to remain in civilized society on pain of perpetual imprisonment. Driven by this hard sentence into the most unfrequented part of the country, they endeavored to explore new mines or new productions in the hope that sooner or later they might have the good fortune to make some important discovery, which would obtain a reversal of their sentence and enable them to regain their station in society. They wandered about in this neighborhood, making frequent searches, in its various rivers, for more than six years, during which time they were exposed to a double risk, being continually liable to become the prey of the Anthropophagi, and in no less danger of being seized by the soldiers of the Government. At length by hazard they made some trials in the river Abaité at a time when its waters were so low, in consequence of a long season of drought, that a part of its bed was left exposed. Here while searching and washing for gold they had the good fortune to find a diamond nearly an ounce in weight.[G]

"Elated by this providential discovery which at first they could scarcely believe to be real, yet hesitating between a dread of the rigorous laws relating to diamonds and a hope of regaining their liberty, they consulted a clergyman, who advised them to trust to the mercy of the State, and accompanied them to Villa Rica where he procured them access to the Governor. They threw themselves at his feet and delivered to him the invaluable gem, on which their hopes rested, relating all the circumstances connected with it. The Governor astonished at its magnitude could not trust the evidence of his senses, but called the officers of the establishment to decide whether it was a diamond, who set the matter beyond all doubt. Being thus by the most strange and unforeseen accident put in possession of the largest diamond ever found in America, he thought proper to suspend the sentence of the men as a reward for their having delivered it to him. The gem was sent to Rio de Janeiro, from whence a frigate was dispatched with it to Lisbon, whither the holy father was also sent to make the proper representations respecting it. The sovereign confirmed the pardon of the delinquents and bestowed some preferment on the worthy sacerdote."

[G] "This is either a misprint or a gross mistake. For as there are one hundred and fifty carats to the ounce it would be more correct to say 'nearly a pound in weight.'"

Such was the finding of the Braganza about ninety years ago.

The Prince referred to in Mawe's account, was John VI., who, in 1792, was declared Regent owing to the mental derangement of the Queen Maria Isabella, his mother. He was a great diamond-collector, not so much from love of the glittering gems themselves as for the wealth they represented. As Brazil was rich in diamonds, and as all the proceeds from the mines were submitted to His Highness before being sent out of the country, he had ample opportunity of forming an extremely good collection. According to Mawe it was the Regent's practice to retain for himself all the large stones, with the result that his treasure-chests contained the most splendid collection of diamonds known in modern times.

In 1809, Napoleon, by one of those pithy orders of the day which so delighted his armies, declared that "the house of Braganza had ceased to reign," and the house of Braganza forthwith proceeded to give truth to the declaration by withdrawing itself from Portugal. On November 9, John VI., the former regent, who had become king upon his afflicted mother's death, sailed for Rio Janeiro. And he remained there until 1821, when the clamors of his European subjects compelled him very reluctantly to come back to them.

It is probable that in this not over-valiant flight to safer climes King John carried the Braganza back to its native land. But whether in Lisbon or Rio Janeiro the Braganza was more a wonderful legend than an actual stone, for it was always kept secluded in the strongest safe of the Treasure Chamber. The Prince showed some of his diamonds to Mawe, but the latter in an emphatic foot-note says "I did not see this diamond (the Braganza) when in Brazil." On gala days John wore the royal gem around his neck, and for the purpose of suspension it had a small hole drilled through the top. A large rough diamond nearly a pound in weight, hanging from the neck by a string of gold, would seem to our thinking to be rather a barbaric ornament for a civilized monarch to wear.

The diamond mines of Brazil, which were discovered in 1727, yielded an extraordinarily rich harvest during the first years of tillage. In 1732, no less than eleven thousand ounces of these precious stones were shipped from Rio to Lisbon. But this influx of diamonds created something like a panic among the merchants of Europe, and to save their precious goods from a disastrous fall in price they formed a league of defamation. All kinds of reports were circulated about the new comers--that they were defective, that they were ill-colored and finally that they were not diamonds at all. These reports gained belief, and purchasers refused to buy the Brazilian gems. The malicious libels of the European merchants were cleverly defeated by the crafty Portuguese. Since Europe would have none but Indian diamonds Brazil must needs furnish none other. The diamonds from Sierra do Frio were secretly conveyed to the Indo-Portuguese settlement of Goa; then they were sent inland, made up in the recognized Indian style as parcels of Oriental gems, and thus doctored they appeared in Paris and London. There a credulous public eagerly bought them up at the high prices due to undoubted Indian diamonds. Once the western gems were fairly accepted, the Portuguese threw off the mask, no doubt laughing heartily at the stupidity of the out-witted merchants, and Brazilians are now treated as fair and honorable diamonds. All that is to say except the tremendous Braganza which is persistently sneered at and doubted by many writers.

Mawe describes at great length the diamond diggings of his day, and as human nature varies little, it is probable that his picture would be recognized even now as a truthful likeness of those localities and their inhabitants. He says that, notwithstanding the rich produce of the ground the inhabitants are mostly poor and wretched. Many of them drag out their lives in misery and idleness in the hope, which is never realized, of one day finding a great diamond which shall make them rich and happy forever. The actual work is done by slaves under the eye of overseers, who are supposed to be of unimpeachable integrity and sleepless vigilance. The traveler gives some astonishing details by which the measure of the former quality may be taken. He observes that as the produce of the mines was all Government property and there being the severest laws against smuggling, he expected to see (at the mining district) no gems except those in the official treasury. This expectation however was quickly dispelled, for he found diamonds to be the current coin of the place. Even the mere word grimpiero (smuggler) seemed to throw the inhabitants into a sort of fit; they writhed about, smote their breasts, called upon the Virgin and all the Saints to bear witness to their horror of this the greatest sin possible to a human being. Yet they all smuggled diamonds, from the slave at the washing-trough to the priest officiating at the altar. Mawe, who had considerable influence at court, was the first mere traveler who ever visited the mines, and it is probable that he was the only person who ever went there without smuggling. He remarks that he found it safer to see nothing of that which passed under his very nose.

In order to encourage honesty among the slaves, the finders of large diamonds were rewarded in different degrees according to the size of the stone. The finder of an octavo (seventeen and one half carats) was crowned with a wreath of flowers and carried in procession to the administrator who gave him his freedom and two new suits of clothes. The fortunate negro, moreover, then received permission to work in the mines on his own account.

During Mawe's stay at Tejuco a negro found a very large diamond, which with much eagerness he took to be weighed.

"It was pleasing to see the anxious desire of the officers that it might prove heavy enough to entitle the poor negro to his freedom, and when on being delivered and weighed it proved only one carat short of the requisite weight all seemed to sympathize in his disappointment."

Even now after all these years one cannot help feeling regret for the high hopes of that humble slave so sadly blighted. But those who build their fortunes on diamonds are sometimes bitterly disappointed. Harken to this anecdote from the pen of the same traveler in Brazil. He was waiting for an escort to the mines and had meditated taking a couple of soldiers, when a singular occurrence furnished him with two miners who were appointed to attend him, and whose conduct he pleasantly says deserved every commendation. A free negro from Villa do Principe, some mine hundred miles from Rio Janeiro, wrote to the Prince Regent that he had in his possession an amazingly large diamond which had been bequeathed to him by a friend. The negro was desirous of personally offering it to the Prince whose fondness for diamonds was pretty well known. The Prince commanded the negro to come to the capital immediately, and as the recognized owner of an immense diamond must not travel meanly, he had a carriage and escort given to him. After twenty-eight days of traveling, during which time he was the envied of all beholders, he arrived at Rio Janeiro and was straightway brought to the palace and speedily thereafter into the presence of the Regent. His Highness, well accustomed to large gems, since he used to wear the Braganza around his neck, was nevertheless astonished at the size of this new diamond. Everybody stood with bated breath to hear what he would say, while a few clever ones estimated its value in unheard-of millions. A round diamond was of itself an almost miraculous thing, nobody having ever heard of the like before.

However, it was sent under guard to the treasury, and the next day Mawe was invited to inspect the great novelty and to give his opinion upon it as a geologist. Armed with letters and permits the distinguished stranger went to the treasury and was solemnly introduced into its innermost recesses. He was politely received by the treasurer who explained everything to him, showing him the jewel-chests each fitted with three locks, the three keys of which were held by three different officials.

"One of these chests being unlocked an elegant little cabinet was taken out from which the treasurer took the gem and in great form presented it to me. Its value sunk at the first sight, for before I touched it I was convinced that it was a rounded piece of crystal. It was about an inch and a half in diameter. On examining it I told the governor it was not a diamond, and to convince him I took a diamond of five or six carats and with it cut a very deep nick in the stone. This was proof positive. A certificate was accordingly made out stating that it was an inferior substance of little or no value, which I signed."

Then the geologist went home and wrote a letter setting forth this unwelcome fact as delicately as he could, for he knew that his letter would be shown to His Highness, and it is at all times an uncomfortable task to tell disagreeable news to a king. However the Prince Regent was high-minded enough not to be angry with him. But great was the disappointment of the unlucky negro. For years he had been building hopes upon that round diamond, and now to see them vanish before the geologist's "deep nick" was trying indeed. Instead of being fêted and feasted and loaded with rewards, he returned home unescorted and empty-handed to be possibly laughed at by those very persons who had formerly envied him.

As a set-off to the deep disappointment suffered on account of this supposed diamond we may mention the finding of another South American stone which was attended with far different results. A negress working at the mines of Minas-Geraes in 1853 picked up in her trough a stone two hundred and fifty-four and one half carats in weight, which proving to be an undoubted diamond obtained freedom for the woman, and afterwards a life-pension. Her master sold the diamond for fifteen thousand dollars, and the buyer immediately obtained one hundred and fifty thousand dollars for it. After being cut by Voorsanger, the same workman who manipulated the Koh-i-nûr, it proved to be a white stone of uncommon beauty and lustre. Under the name of the Estrella do Sud[H] (Star of the South) it attracted much attention from amateurs and was eventually bought by an Indian rajah for one hundred and forty thousand dollars.

[H] The naming of diamonds is an art wherein there may lie fitness as well as unfitness. Historic stones frequently bear the name of their first well-known owner, as for example the "Regent," the "Orloff," the "Braganza," and many others. Again they may bear names indicative of their character as "Austrian Yellow," "Dresden Green," "French Blue," or yet again their names may be purely fanciful. Of this latter class there are numerous examples. The above "Estrella do Sud" is one, the "Koh-i-nûr" is another. When fanciful names are given we hold emphatically that they should always be in the language of the person who bestows it. As a historian we protest against needlessly confusing the already intricate annals of diamonds by giving to American gems fine names fetched from Persia. The largest diamond found in the United States weighed in the rough twenty-three and three fourths carats and rejoices in the appellation of Oninoor (Sea of Light.)

Notwithstanding the lofty attitude of judicial impartiality which we endeavored to assume at the beginning of this article, a lurking suspicion remains in our mind that had the Braganza, like the round stone before described, been subjected to the keen scrutiny of Mawe's scientific eyes, it would no longer be classed among the most remarkable diamonds of Europe.

Considerable difference of opinion exists as to the fate of the Braganza after King John's death. Did he give it to Don Miguel his second son? or was it a crown jewel and as such did it devolve upon Don Pedro the eldest along with the kingdom of Portugal? Don Pedro preferred the young empire of Brazil to the old kingdom of Portugal, which he gave to his little daughter Donna Maria da Gloria for whom he contracted that unnatural marriage with his own brother. The house of Braganza was divided against itself for many years during the first quarter of this century and very nearly came to destruction thereby. The diamond which goes by the family name did not meddle in these politics, but lived in modest retirement, wherein it differs remarkably from the other diamonds with which we have already become acquainted.

Indeed the Braganza stone leads so secluded a life that its very form is not distinctly known, but is said to be octahedral, a type of crystallization frequently met with in diamonds and topazes. Its color is likewise subject to variation; some writers declare it to be white, and others again aver that it is deep yellow. As to its valuation--that is mere guess-work under the circumstances of ignorance in which we all flounder. Romé Delisle raises his estimate to the enormous figure of fifteen hundreds of millions of dollars, while Jeffries lowers his to the more modest sum of twenty-five millions. Even this latter amount is a good deal to be locked up in so small an article as a stone eleven ounces in weight.