American Travels Of A Gem Collector, part 2
Reprinted from the Saturday Evening Post, December 10, 1927, pp. 22–23, 172–174, 176
MEXICO has many charms for the gem expert – and not all of these are gems. As a treasury of magnificent memories of a golden past, Mexico is unsurpassed – memories of a great race which left this country richer in prehistoric records than any other part of our North American Continent. The archaeological remains of temples and other great monuments fire the imagination with stories of a people who have passed gloriously into history; and the aristocratic Mexicans of today, descendants of its early Spanish conquerors, surround the traveler with such a tradition of Old World courtesy as to send him home swearing there is no more sympathetic and gallant race on the face of the earth.
For the seeker of gems Mexico offers its treasures of jade, obsidian, turquoise and opal. Though a semiprecious stone, the reddish-yellow opal of Mexico – the finest in the world – is worth up to $1500; but as usual, it is not the price but the whole surrounding drama of their formation in Nature, their discovery, the adventure of going out to seek them, their mineralogical nature and significance, and their marketing which constitute their interest for the gem expert.
Mexico has many charms for the gem expert – and not all these are gems.
Mexico! Mexico in 1890!
There were few railroads – there were not so many in the United States at the time – and one did much of one’s traveling in stagecoaches, oxcarts, on horseback with mule packs following, or in wagons. At the Queretaro station, where I descended the train late at night I engaged an opéra bouffe officer, mustachioed and armed for any contingency, to accompany me, and was deposited safely at the local hotel – a somber, unprepossessing pile to approach at night, for there was not a light showing. But as we drove through the great, creaking gateway into the inner court, or patio, of the hacienda, I understood and forgave this, for it gleamed with many little bursts of ruddy light from open windows. The walls on the street side – for reasons known best to the Mexicans – have no windows, but all the rooms opening on this quiet, cool inner court are liberally supplied.
MY FIRST jaunt was of course to the opal mines some thirty miles distant. I thought I would be well fortified with a thoroughly American luncheon, being by this time some what fed up with the highly spiced messes of Mexico. So I explained to my landlord that I’d take a picnic luncheon. Had I asked him for his head he could not have been more surprised. I don’t know – what do they do in Mexico when they are to be all day out of reach of a hotel?
At last I got the revolutionary program through his head, and he began checking off on his fingers what he would supply me.
“ – and frijoles and goat’s cheese and stuffed peppers and chile con carne–”
“Heavens, no,” I said impatiently. “Some sandwiches and fruit.”
“Sanguiches?” he stuttered. “What may that be, señor – sanguiches?”
“Good Lord, man, haven’t you ever heard of sandwiches – bread with chicken between it, or ham?”
“Chicken – ham?” he stammered.
“My good man, go and look in your cookbook, or ask somebody – sandwiches.”
“But surely the señor will have some chile con carne?”
“No, no chile con carne.”
“But there is room under the seat for a nice pot. Surely the señor will take a little chile con carne?”
“No chile con carne?”
“No chile con carne.”
He turned limply and oozed from the room. Half an hour later he was back – six times more in all he returned, each time beaming with a new, outrageous suggestion for frijoles or beans or what not, and every one of those conversations wound up:
“And then the señor will have just a little – a very little – chile con carne?”
“No chile con carne?”
“No chile con carne!”
I explained to my landlord that I’d take a picnic luncheon. Had I asked him for his head he could not have been more surprised.
The fame of that luncheon went abroad, and when I was finally ready to depart, though it was the witching hour of one A.M., I found I had quite a little group of volunteers for the journey – men to whose ears had come tales of “los Sanguiches.” So selecting one, a particular friend of the driver’s, who seemed desolated at the thought of leaving this good man and true behind, sandwichless, we started out, followed for a little way by the respectful gallery.
And as a postscript: When I got the bill for that luncheon my landlord had charged me what would have been a large price for three days at the hotel; and when he presented me with my three days’ bill at the hotel, it was what he might fairly have charged me for the luncheon. But then, did you ever try to get sandwiches on the Riviera?
Hours, hours, limitless stretches of time, jogging along dusty roads in a springless cart – hours I mercifully lost count of winding between low, monotonous hills, rocky, covered with a stunted growth, and nothing to relieve the tedium of the view but the enormous span of the two Mexicans’ felt hats and the brilliant colors of their serapes, which no Mexican ever parts with except as a last resort across the gaming table. At last the mines!
Gems of Fire
THEY had been working these mines for a century and yet, as we looked up the height of rock, there, peering and winking at us like myriads of curious eyes, shone thousands upon thousands of these bright opals, from lucent pastel to the rich red of the fire opal. They gleamed like little electric lights flashing on and off, as the sunbeams faltered on them, flaming like beast eyes when a beam of light strikes them through the night. There at the mine I went over the hoards of opals, each one a miniature sunset as it lies in your palm, like a shower of fireworks as they pour from your fingers. It takes time to make one’s selections here, for only one stone in a thousand is a really valuable gem. I made my selections of the gems that day, and the next night started on the hot, weary journey back to Queretaro.
The heavenly play of color in the opal, possessed by no other stone, and which, in spite of unfounded superstition, makes it the preferred gem of many people, is usually due to titanium or oxide of titanium permeating it. The more transparent species contain a larger percentage of water than the others, rendering them liable to crack; those containing a smaller percentage are more stable. Many of the red and yellow opals of unusual quality which I obtained on this trip I added to the collection which eventually went to Mr. Morgan.
I remember the day we sold that collection – the second one that went to Mr. Morgan, for he bought two, with many later additions, both of which he eventually combined with the Bement Collection and presented to the American Museum of Natural History. The first collection, representing American gems in all their phases, which I was some eight years in making, was completed in 1889 and bought by Mr. Morgan while on exhibition in Paris; the second, which I was another eleven years in gathering, making a total of nineteen years devoted to this collection, was completed in 1900.
A few days before the second collection was to be packed and shipped to the exposition in Paris, Mr. Morgan, who had never seen it, was informed that I would like to show it to him before it left America. Mr. Morgan was ill at the time, it wasn’t practicable to transport so large and valuable a collection, and I feared that my plan would fall through. To make such a collection and to sell it are two different things, and no one wishes to keep a collection like that indefinitely on hand. Well, at the eleventh hour Mr. Morgan rose from his sick bed and made the trip. He spent about one hour going over the entire collection and hearing my reports on certain outstanding pieces. By the time he left I felt sure he would not let this collection – which contained examples of everything in the gem kingdom from the hardest stone, the diamond, down to the softest, amber – escape him. It exhibits the finest examples of precious stones from all over the world, as well as the beautiful semiprecious stones, and in many cases there are as many as fifty or a hundred specimens to illustrate the different forms of a single species. In all there are more than a thousand specimens.
The Mysterious Royal Stone
WHEN Mr. Morgan finally bought this collection I was naturally much pleased, for I had had my moments of doubt about being able to dispose of so formidable an affair. However, I tried never to let my uneasiness appear. Later, I remember, the gentlemen of the press, somewhat overwhelmed with this purchase, asked me how I had dared to invest to the extent represented by this collection.
“Oh,” I said, “I knew there’d be a Mr. Morgan to buy it.” I rather admired my own aplomb.
But to return for a moment to the opal. I remember the day when I received the first opal ever sent to this country from Australia for commercial purposes. Always, on the discovery of a new gem source, comes the question of its effect on the present sources of supply. Australia was reported rich in opals, but I had no fear for Mexico. I had seen those mines down there and on the score of neither quality nor quantity was I disturbed about our supplies from Mexico. Hungary was a different story. Their mines were poorer, the quality inferior. I had seen those mines, too, and realized at once what this discovery would mean to them. As I expected, in a short time the Hungarian mines closed down, but the Mexican mines still flourish.
But opals were not the only gems I obtained in Mexico. There’s jade, for example – most illusive, mysterious and intriguing of gems, as the royal stone of China has every right to be. Jade! Why must it always present the same mystery? We find it anywhere; yet we seldom know where it comes from. What is true of Mexico is true of Europe, and what is true of Europe is true of Alaska. But that part of it is another story. Here I shall only say that plenty of jade has been found in Mexico, but none in the place God put it. None. Rather is it found in wells, in ancient graves, in old churches, and in other places where men have secreted it, and none of it is newly mined, but all of it is old – very old. Thousands of years ago it was marked by the hand of primitive man, rubbed and polished and formed and clumsily carved and graven – all the jade that’s ever been found in Mexico. So intensive was the search of prehistoric man for this sacred stone that not one piece – no, not so much as a thimbleful – escaped his greedy prowling; or else we must believe what is even harder to believe – that it was brought to Mexico from China in frail Chinese junks, breasting the Pacific all those thousands of years ago. No gem ever caused the mineralogists and archaeologists quite the heartache that jade has.
Men have lived a lifetime in Mexico, searching for jade – that is what the jade fever can do to an otherwise normal man when it gets him – and have found plenty; but none that had not already passed through the hands of prehistoric man and borne his mark. Two friends of mine, Doctor Thompson, who spent a lifetime in Mexico, and Professor O’Neill, who lived there for more than thirty years, both fell victims to this malignant fever which, once it fastens upon a man, yields him up only to death. But, as the gem enthusiast sees it, both men were amply rewarded for their devotion. Jade is not always “la belle dame sans merci,” though I know of one eminent scientist who gave his whole life to its service only to have it proved after his death that all his conclusions regarding this elusive, utterly feminine gem were erroneous. But of that later. One day, in the never disappointing mail of a gem expert, I received a little box which, on opening, I found to contain a small piece of jade – nice enough I thought, but after all, why? Though it was obviously old and much worn by human hands, it had little intrinsic value. I set it aside. Then I came upon a letter from Doctor Thompson, and that put an altogether different face on the matter. The devoted man had at last achieved his reward, for he had discovered, not a few odd bits of jade but a treasure-trove that had no bottom.
Men have lived a lifetime in Mexico, searching for jade – that is what the jade fever can do to an otherwise normal man when it gets him…
To the Spirit of Water
IT IS strange, these connecting links we sometimes come across between the nations of the world – the same word in the languages of widely separated nations, the same god worshiped continents apart, an identical custom or garment or belief seeming to point to a universal cradle of mankind. And here in Mexico my friend had come upon one of these odd, connecting links. In Europe, in the Orient, in Mexico, the same prehistoric custom – a votive well. Perhaps it was to propitiate the god of water that primitive man took to throwing his most treasured possessions into the well. In Plombières, in France, is such a well; in Japan are many; and now my friend had discovered one in Mexico. So many were the bits of jade – thousands upon thousands – and so lost and buried in silt and earth, that it was a Herculean labor to unearth them. However, time meant little to a man who had spent thirty years in quest of jade, and who now had discovered the largest store of it ever found in Mexico, in a well a hundred feet deep. I carry that first little piece always with me, as much in honor of my indefatigable friend as of prehistoric man.
And O’Neill – his is another story. Equally devoted, knowing that jade was to be found only in some sacred, secret place, he bought up ancient graveyards and began excavations.
“Kunz,” said he to me one day in Mexico, “it’s a strange thing – a damned queer thing – but in all the hundreds of excavations I’ve made I’ve never found a single piece of jade – not one single piece. No, sir, I’ve never seen a gem nor a gold ornament leave a grave. But curiously enough” – his eyes began to twinkle – “plenty were brought to me from over the mountain. Invariably, whenever we had been excavating for several days, valuable ancient bits would begin to pour in on me. Never, by any chance, were they found in my graves – oh, never – and I can truthfully swear that stand for days on end as I might, watching my natives delve into those graves, I never saw them bring up a single ornament. Nevertheless, a day or so later, other natives with other faces – but often, I discovered, with the same family names – would come to me from the other side of the mountain bearing ancient treasures to sell me. And if I stopped excavations for a few days this supply would immediately cease. Well, I paid twice for my grave treasures, that’s all. But I have them.”
Many of these prehistoric bits of jade I picked up myself in Mexico, wonderfully rich in color and beautifully carved by skillful hands centuries before the advent of the white man. And here, as I found later in Russia, the finest things were not always in the possession of the wealthiest, but frequently of the poor; for here the natives dug the jade from the ancient graves, and the opals – well, there would always be someone in every little adobe village who was interested in opals and had gathered a little hoard and would gladly bring them out for my inspection – jade and opals and obsidian – a black volcanic glass beautifully worked by prehistoric man. I remember one hut that I entered which was ingeniously built of cactus plants so closely planted that they formed a solid wall, over which the roof was neatly fitted.
Loot From Peking
WHILE on the subject of jade I must speak of the Bishop Collection – the finest collection of jade that exists anywhere in the world – to which I was instrumental in adding, purely as a matter of friendship, about one-third of the thousand items. This constitutes the most comprehensive and exhaustive and, I think, most beautiful collection of a gem material in existence. Nothing more exquisite than the delicate, translucent bowls and vases and coupes, polished by the slow, ceaseless efforts of ancient yellow men, carved by tools as fine as a wasp’s sting, traced with legendary story and symbol, suggesting somehow – though these have left no physical traces – the hundred adventures of love, religion, bloodshed and rapine through which they have passed. There is, for example – and this was the piece that first aroused Mr. Bishop’s interest in jade and incited him to begin his collection – the famous Hurd vase purchased from Tiffany and Company in 1878. This vase was obtained in China by Mr. Hurd, a Boston tea merchant, and was part of the loot of the armies of the Anglo-French expedition of 1860, when the forty buildings that comprised the world-famed Summer Palace of Peking were sacked and the imperial treasures – triumphs of the lapidarian art of many centuries – were dispersed throughout the world. No finer example of jade ware exists than this imperial vase; a vase in lantern shape in many varying shades of green, carved in foliage and garden scenes, seeming to live and move when one places a lighted candle within.
Many of these prehistoric bits of jade I picked up myself in Mexico, wonderfully rich in color and beautifully carved by skillful hands centuries before the advent of the white man.
Via Sir Walter Raleigh
WHEN this collection was finally completed – when the last exquisite bit had been hunted down and set in the niche reserved for it – Mr. Bishop, who had spent thirty years making this collection, gave it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But he loved it so much that he wanted its exquisite beauty to have the same perfect setting it had had in his own home, and so he had an exact reproduction of the Louis XV salon of his house made for the museum by the great Allard of Paris, a chef-d’ouvre that has been pronounced by the greatest foreign architects to be the finest Louis XV room anywhere in the world, with the possible exception of those at Versailles and Potsdam. The identical Louis XV eases in which the collection had been kept at Mr. Bishop’s own house were transferred to the museum.
It’s rather strange that the first mention of jade in European literature should be immediately after the discovery of America in 1492, and that the name should come into our language via Sir Walter Raleigh at the time he introduced his famous “tobacco.”
“What is it, Sir Walter?” his friends inquired when he showed them the new green stone; and he answered: “Hijada – the Spanish word for colic. They use this stone over there as a cure for that ailment.”
“Do tell, Sir Walter!” they said, and went about telling their friends of this new “jade” thing not bothering with their h’s.
And in addition to all its other mysterious and mystic qualities, jade adds still another – its sonorousness. It is the only musical gem. “Full indeed is the heart of him who beats the musical stone like that,” said a passing peasant, hearing Confucius draw mournful music from his instrument of jade. A series of twelve, sixteen or twenty stones gives all the musical tones, of a silvery, bell quality, when struck with a hammer.
Not even in China, throughout all its eighteen provinces, has jade yet been found in situ – that is, in the place where Nature formed it. So venerated was this stone that men searched for it as for nothing else leaving no morsel of it unearthed. Still there are places where jade may be dug out of the rock today – but of that later. The conclusions of science at present are that wherever jade is now found though handled and rehandled by primitive man there it was originally mined, for the jade of each country differs markedly from the jade of all other countries, and no fabulous tale of Chinese junks ferrying it across the Pacific in umpty-ump B.C. is going to live that down.
The World War stimulated the demand for jade, on the principle that what we can’t get we want. As both France and Germany, where most of the semiprecious stones are worked up, were participating in the struggle and these supplies of fancy stones were therefore cut off, the Chinese found this an excellent opportunity to introduce their own gem stones into the United States.
A necklace of very fine jade of the coveted true emerald green will sell for as much as fifty thousand dollars. These beads are sometimes hollowed out to make them more emeraldlike in intensity of color and more translucent. It is better, of course, to get the jade that is naturally of this depth and intensity without hollowing it out – jadeite, or imperial jade, as it is known as distinguished from the other form of jade known as nephrite. A translucent necklace made in the length of the Oriental rosary of one hundred and four beads will sometimes sell for a hundred thousand dollars.
Opal, jade and, of course, turquoise – one can’t neglect the turquoise of Mexico. Indeed, it was one of the principal objects of my search while I was there. No more fearful and wonderful objects exist than those astounding turquoise skulls, some of which I saw in Mexico, which are real human skulls solidly paved with turquoise chiefly then obsidian and other stones. And that reminds me of one of the most amazing men I ever knew – Eugene Boban, who did more than any other one man to show us the wonders of Mexico.
Skulls are dreary things at the best, even if studded with gems, but to Boban, so saturated in archaeology that I have no doubt he thought, when he saw a pretty woman, what a beautiful skeleton she would one day make – to Boban a skull was merely an interesting ornament for a room I shall never forget my first visit to his home in Tenth Street, where I went to see a wonderful sacred painting depicting gems, the Marriage of Joseph and Mary, in life size, which he had unearthed for me from an ancient Mexican church.
A necklace of very fine jade of the coveted true emerald green will sell for as much as fifty thousand dollars.
The Changing Fashions
BOBAN’S room! A tiny cot placed between two mummified women which he had dug out of the walls of that same church, and at the foot of this bed, that he might on retiring and rising, contemplate its never-ending archaeological wonders, the head of a man which, during burial, had been transformed into adipocere, a sort of natural hard soap.
As to the gem painting Boban had for me, it still hangs on the wall of my living room. Most interesting it is to note that the ring with which Joseph is wedding the Virgin Mary contains a large diamond in its natural octahedral form; for the artist, judging rightly that diamonds would not be cut before the Christian Era, painted the natural uncut stone, quite overlooking the fact that diamonds were probably not known at all at that time. This and the many other interesting gems worn by Mary and the high priest make this one of the most unusual sacred gem paintings I have ever seen.
But to return, to our turquoise. It was mined by the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico centuries ago, but one still sees them working today and looking not so very different from what they did when, ages ago, they built fires against the rock to crack it and free the bright blue gems with which they studded their personal adornments and their household goods. With the governor of New Mexico I attended their great fiesta one fourth of August and saw these Pueblos, wearing earrings, necklaces and silver belts incrusted with turquoise from the mines of Los Cerrilos, do their age-old sun, moon and snake dances. At small value do they hold these lovely gems, for after the dance they passed among the audience offering them for the usual price – a mouthful for twenty-five cents. Yet in the old days of the Aztecs, their forefathers, when the Spaniards received tribute from them “each gem was worth a load of gold,” or approximately fifty-seven thousand dollars. Thus do fashions change!
It is the daily and not always pleasant duty of the gem expert to bear witness to the genuineness or falsity of gems. Pathetic it often is. One glance at the highly valued stone; one look into the tense, waiting face of the owner – so much depends on the answer.
With the governor of New Mexico I attended their great fiesta one fourth of August and saw these Pueblos, wearing earrings, necklaces and silver belts incrusted with turquoise from the mines of Los Cerrilos, do their age-old sun, moon and snake dances.
The Tragedy of False Gems
“IT’S QUARTZ,” one says, and the hope of a son going to college or of a much-needed operation being paid for vanishes. I have known of eases where a stone has been kept in hiding for years against a rainy day and then, when the need of money was urgent, brought to me for valuation, when it became my hard duty to reveal to the owner that it was a worthless water-worn or gizzard-worn bit of glass. I remember the case of a maiden lady who had for more than thirty years secretly possessed a stone she firmly believed to be a diamond, but which, when at last she brought it to me I instantly knew to be nothing but a crystal quartz. What a story of lifelong deception, of deferred hope, and pathos, as tragic in its way as the great De Maupassant’s story, The Necklace.
Yes, it’s every day’s work to the gem expert to examine stones brought in for determination or to be reset, and to report to the unsuspecting owner that, although he bought it as a perfect stone, flaws exist cleverly concealed by the setting or the forcing of hot oil into the crevices, which make it practically valueless; that a bit of colored foil has been placed between the setting and the stone, imparting an enhanced color to the sapphire, emerald or ruby which actually has little color of its own; that a sapphire has been so cleverly set that it seemed of deep, homogeneous color, but on being removed from its tricky setting was seen to have only a tiny tip of blue at the lower, or culet end; that a so-called black opal seemingly of great fire is really an opal of a quality too poor to be sold which has gained its color by being heated in oil, which, turning black, filled the crevices of the stone; that a string of lapis-lazuli beads is in reality composed of an agate so inferior that it has been boiled in a solution of Prussian blue which it has readily absorbed and so imitates lapis; that a supposedly valuable emerald bracelet consists of stones – mineralogically emeralds, it is true, but of wretched quality – into the crevices of which coloring matter has been forced and, in addition, the outside perhaps coated with a green chemical made to adhere to the stone by a kind of varnish; that an off-color pearl has been bleached or given a beautiful black luster by the insertion of silver nitrate.
And so on and so on till the expert is aweary and a bit heartsick for the people who have made the mistake of buying from an unscrupulous dealer. No one – we might as well state it flatly – no one not an expert can trust his eyes in this matter of selecting gems; for if all else be well, how shall he know whether a certain stone, undoubtedly genuine, is worth ten or a hundred or a thousand dollars a carat? This is a matter of expert judgment of perfection of color and quality. The amateur’s eyes may give him its beauty, his jeweler must give him its value.
However, the discovery of falseness is not always an unpleasant duty. On the contrary, the discouragement of fraud is one of the most satisfying and valuable contributions the gem expert can make to fair dealing and sound business. For example, among numerous parcels of these New Mexican turquoise which I examined on one occasion were several lots of exceptionally beautiful color – and perfection of enduring color is one of the chief requisites of this gem, which is so susceptible to alteration that even the washing of the hands with the ring on causes discoloration. The true Persian blue with no tinge of green and without inclusions of matrix is the ideal; and when this pure color is found the value of the stone is hundreds of times higher than that of the off-color stone.
However, the discovery of falseness is not always an unpleasant duty. On the contrary, the discouragement of fraud is one of the most satisfying and valuable contributions the gem expert can make to fair dealing and sound business.
There on my desk lay a quantity of perfectly colored stones – not usual from the New Mexican mines. True turquoise they undoubtedly were of the correct specific gravity, and cutting, when tried with a knife, with the characteristic soapy, ivory feel. But I had a strange feeling that this perfect color could not be genuine. So I took my knife and began scraping the back of one. Blue – blue – true blue, then suddenly a streak of green, and in a few moments I had reached the depths to which the Prussian-blue dye had penetrated, giving the whole stone a lovely blue east instead of its original green, and a gem valued at two hundred dollars instantly dropped in price to two dollars.
But how about the layman who, buying from an unscrupulous dealer, pays $200 for such a stone? If Marie Antoinette and her jewelers could be so deceived, how can the average buyer hope to escape? A magnificent set of supposedly genuine turquoise set in diamonds possessed by the Queen and included in the sale of the French Crown Jewels was later found to be merely fossil bone naturally stained by copper salts. And not the least of the harm worked by such deception as this regarding the New Mexican turquoise, is that suspicion is thus east upon any fine turquoise which may later come on the market from this country. The layman’s best, indeed, his only guaranty is to buy from a thoroughly reputable firm. It is far too easy to deceive him who judges only by the beauty that meets his eye, for in jewels, as in women such beauty is often only skin-deep.
I recall another – the most flagrant ease I have ever personally dealt with – of such deception. I had frequently heard rumors of the rarity and beauty of a necklace of colored diamonds, reputed to be one of the most remarkable in Europe, which was held for sale by a certain jeweler in Moscow. So on one occasion, being in that city, I naturally made a point of seeing this wonder and feasting my eyes upon its beauty. A string of colored diamonds is not met with every day. And though jade, or turquoise, or lapis lazuli, being comparatively soft and porous, is susceptible to dyeing, a diamond is more difficult to tamper with. So I had no doubts of the genuineness of the wonder I was about to behold.
A Prospective Customer
THE dealer, seeing in me only a possible customer, had no hesitation about bringing out his celebrated necklace. He laid it before me with an air as of one who says, “There, little father, let your eyes be blessed with this rare vision.”
And indeed I was dazzled. Lovely as were the browns, yellows and whites, the chief beauty and value of the necklace lay in its exquisite pinks, blues, aquamarines and greens, and in the blending of one tone with the next, which made it a truly masterly piece of work. The eye of the connoisseur was delighted, and, for the moment that the necklace twinkled between the jeweler’s fingers, it was almost deceived.
“Let me see,” I said, stretching out my hand, more desirous of bringing this beauty closer to me than of examining it with an expert’s jaundiced eye. But the instant I held it in my hand I had a sudden incontrovertible conviction that all was not as it seemed.
“Very beautiful,” I murmured and managed, unobserved, to dig one of the gems, which had no mounting on the back sharply with my nail. A slight, an almost imperceptible scratch appeared. I then proceeded more deliberately to examine it and all the while the jeweler, who now saw he had to do with a customer more knowing than the average, hovered uneasily near, not daring to interfere. Finally I laid it back on its velvet bed with the reverent gesture its fame deserved.
“Very pretty,” I said. “How much are you asking for it?”
The jeweler hesitated, uncertain how much I had discovered – if anything. A ticklish situation for him. Had he deceived me as he had so many others? Should he quote the price he had always quoted – not too high a value to set upon so extraordinary a necklace if it were all he pretended? Or should he, as one connoisseur to another, tacitly admit the deception and give a correspondingly lower price? A long moment – a long, bad moment for the jeweler.
To the Knowing Eye
“WELL – ” he said, and stopped.
“Come,” I said gently. “You have a price.”
“Certainly – certainly. The price is – ” and he named the figure its reputation had given it.
I looked long at him.
“Really? Well, after all, that’s not a high price for it” – I paused, the dealer beamed – “if it were genuine.” I leaned over the table, lifted and dropped the necklace disdainfully. “What do you mean by asking such a price for a flagrant forgery?”
“No use,” I said. “Look at that.” And I gave one of the pink stones a dig with my thumb nail.
He saw the game was up and laughed uneasily.
“I see the gentleman is a connoisseur,” he said. “Well, well, there’s no use trying to deceive so expert a gentleman. However, as you can see for yourself, they are genuine diamonds.”
“Yes, but what color? Wretched off-color stones cleverly doctored.”
“Well, one has a right to improve on Nature, not so? I am not trying to palm off imitation stones as genuine. They are genuine diamonds – every one. But from what would otherwise have been a collection of unpleasing, unmatched stones, I have created a thing of beauty.”
“And are asking for it many times its actual value,” I added. “That’s the point.”
Thus was disclosed the deception that had made this one of the celebrated diamond necklaces of Europe. To the back of each stone this man had skillfully applied a bit of transparent coloring matter which gave it a lovely color and glow – a trick so cleverly managed in this case that it would have fooled anyone but an expert.
There is a look about a stone which has in any way been tampered with that flashes its falseness to the expert’s eye instantaneously. No need for minute examinations and chemical tests. The true nature of the stone is revealed in that first glance, though tests must follow to prove the judgment correct. I know that for the layman it is often impossible to distinguish even between a genuine pearl and an imitation whereas to the trained eye there is as much difference between a genuine Oriental pearl and a genuine American pearl, between the pearl of India and the pearl of China, as there is between a negro and a white man. The texture, the whole look and feel of the two gems, are entirely different. Not for a moment would one be deceived. Yet even people who should know better frequently attempt to pull the wool over the expert’s eyes.
There is a look about a stone which has in any way been tampered with that flashes its falseness to the expert’s eye instantaneously. No need for minute examinations and chemical tests. The true nature of the stone is revealed in that first glance, though tests must follow to prove the judgment correct.
On one of my trips to Little Miami River where the wonderful pink American pearls were found I visited a well-known banker to see certain celebrated agate pearls which he had bought locally and which I had hopes of adding to my collections. The finest one ever found there was in this gentleman’s possession, as well as some two dozen others only less reputed. These pearls were most courteously laid out before me by my host and I immediately saw that there was not a true pearl among them. All these large, dome-shaped affairs, the smallest of which measured one-half inch across, were merely rounded mother-of-pearl objects, practically worthless. Yet this gentleman had paid a high price for them and they would have been worth an extraordinary figure had they been real.
I glanced up.
“Where is the famous agate pearl?” I inquired, thinking that surely he had kept for the last, as a surprise, this gem whose reputation f or black iridescence and special hardness had traveled all the way to New York.
With perfectly natural pride, considering the wonder he was supposed to possess, my host laid a finger on the largest of these worthless mother-of-pearl buttons.
“That is it. Don’t you consider it unusually fine?”
I gazed in amazement. How could such a scandalously obvious fraud impose upon the least sophisticated? I felt sorry indeed for this gentleman, whose pride and community spirit as well as whose purse would be so deeply injured by the exposure of this hoax, but there are no two ways about the truth. I told him what they were and left him crushed.
And then I looked up the person who had sold my banker these pearls. At first glance I was willing to grant that he, too, far from perpetrating a fraud, had likewise been taken in by the spurious glitter of these pseudo pearls. Surely an honest man, I thought, as he advanced toward me, his kindly, homely face beaming with pleasure and interest. He WM himself, he told me, the pearl fisher who had brought up these treasures from the river bed, not a middleman. And then, as his eye and hand met mine, I had that sudden electric certainty that rings a bell inside me whenever I see a false stone. Yet for one moment more his disarming naïveté made me hesitate.
The Mountain to Mohammed
“AND what do you think of my agate pearls, doctor?” he inquired heartily.
“Think?” I said. “What is there to think? There can’t be two opinions about those lumps of mother-of-pearl.”
And apropos of this digression concerning deceptions in stones, I remember the evening on which – it seems so long ago – I went to see the celebrated Li Hung Chang. There’s a noted diamond in the possession of Tiffany and Company on which no price has ever been set, as it was bought merely as a magnificent gesture by the founder of the firm and is kept as a show piece. This quite extraordinary stone measures very nearly an inch across, weighs 128.5 carats, and is the largest fine yellow diamond known. A connoisseur, after one glance into its limpid, golden depths, would as soon think of questioning its genuineness as that of the Koh-i-nur itself.
Li Hung Chang had heard rumors of the phenomenon and on one occasion expressed to me a wish to see it. It had never, for one moment, been out of the possession of the owners since the day of its purchase from the De Beers Company, and so the desire of the Viceroy of China to see this stone, he being somewhat too much of a procession to go about like an ordinary human being, was rather a problem. There was the greater-than-emperor of China waiting regally in his suite at the Waldorf, and one doesn’t lightly offend the man of whom General Grant, after a trip around the world, has said: “There are three great men in the world today – Gladstone, Bismarck and Li Hung Chang; but the greatest of these is Li Hung Chang.” It was Mohammed-and-mountain situation over again, and this time the mountain went to Mohammed.
After due conference it was decided that I should take the stone myself to the home of this greatest of Chinamen. I remember the light that leaped to his eyes when I lifted it from its velvet case and placed it in his palm. His lips parted for an astonished moment and then, with that childlike naïveté and frankness one finds in almost all truly great people, but also with a charm that was inimitably Oriental, he looked up and said, “But, my dear Doctor Kunz, it is surely not all one diamond?”
I nodded, though I thought perhaps I had not heard correctly.
Not Even a Ring
THE great man was childishly delighted.
“All one piece,” he murmured reverently, then clouded again. “You are quite sure it isn’t three or four pieces somehow stuck together?”
I laughed and reassured him, and thereafter his delight in it knew no bounds.
A love for the beauty of gems one would naturally suppose to be 80 universal that no one able to indulge it would forgo the pleasure of possessing one at least of these masterpieces of Nature; but as a matter of fact, I have more than once been surprised – shocked, really – to find that some celebrated man or woman hadn’t the slightest feeling of admiration for gems, just as one sometimes meets very cultured people who care nothing for music or painting. One of the most surprising cases I ever knew was that of Theodore Roosevelt. I wished a photograph of some ring he possessed to use as an illustration in a book. I had already obtained the impression of Woodrow Wilson’s seal ring on which was engraved his name in shorthand, and awaited the right opportunity to ask President Roosevelt for his.
The occasion presented itself one evening when I accompanied him to a club in New York where ex-Secretary Root was speaking and where the ex-President was to speak after receiving a medal for his discovery of the River of Doubt in Brazil. Mr. Root had not yet finished his address when we arrived, and Mr. Roosevelt with that lovable and characteristic modesty which I had so many occasions of noting, refused to enter the lecture hall for fear that his appearance might divert public attention – which it undoubtedly would have. I drew up a large chair in the lobby of the club for him, but before I could request him to be seated he motioned me to the chair and said, “Do be seated, Doctor Kunz, and I’ll sit here,” placing himself on the broad arm.
During this few moments of waiting I spoke to him of my desire for a photograph of his ring. He laughed.
“I don’t own even a ring, Doctor Kunz,” he said. “Frankly, I haven’t any use for jewels. I have a different hobby. Ivory’s the thing, Doctor Kunz. You can’t beat ivory. I’d go a long distance to procure an interesting bit of elephant tusk.”
So, as far as President Roosevelt was concerned, I’m afraid I’ve practically wasted my life.
Editor’s Note – This is the second of several articles by Doctor Kunz and Mrs. Ray.
For further information on George F. Kunz, see also: