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Gemspedia >> Famous Gemstones >> Jean Baptiste Tavernier

Jean Baptiste Tavernier

By Diana Jarrett, GG

You’ve heard all the recent chatter lately about the Hope diamond. Its 50 anniversary at Washington DC’s Smithsonian Institute is celebrated by an exhibit showing this rare blue diamond in its un-mounted state. Later the Hope will have a modern new setting which was chosen by the public from votes cast on the Smithsonian’s’ website.

Part of Tavernier’s success as a gem merchant lie in his ability to become close friends with those in the Asian countries where he traveled. He dressed like and identified with those in the Far East.

Edward, the "Black Prince." Illustration from Cassell (1902).

But who found this unique blue diamond in the first place? By the 17th century, European aristocracy developed quite an appetite for bling—the diamond kind. So gem traders and explorers sought to answer that call by embarking on journeys which took years. Today dealers hop on a plane, arriving at exotic destinations to hunt for gems in what—a couple of hours? In those days each expedition took years, as those early traders made their way across Europe to Asia and India—and back.


Although the exact date of the Hope’s discovery is not known, gem trader Jean Baptiste Tavernier is thought to be the earliest buyer of this stone and who succeeded in getting it from India and back to the French royalty who contracted his services.


He wasn’t the first man to do this job, but he’s the most well known because of the many years in which he conducted these exploits and for the legendary stones which he secured for his benefactors. Let’s look back briefly at Marco Polo’s time–that’s the 13th century. He wasn’t just looking for spaghetti—or fire crackers, although those Chinese trophies made for interesting dining and entertainment. He was an early jewel purveyor. Ditto for Genghis Kahn and Alexander The Great. Massive baubles filled the camel sacks they brought home along with all things exotic from distant lands. Since ancient times, traders went in search of rare gems to satisfy the appetites of European nobility. Men (not women) were bejeweled up to their crowns in those days. Their appetite for bling puts to shame the modern hip-hop mogul who adorns him/herself with oversized chains featuring rude words spelled out in diamonds.


To meet Europe’s voracious diamond appetite, adventurous explorers set out for parts unknown in search of exotic jewels to grace the robes of royalty. In so doing, they graced their own lives with super-star status in their day. The Portuguese, and later the Italians trekked across Europe, through Russia, down into Persia and finally to India in search of the largest and finest jewels mined in Golconda, India: the worlds’ first diamond site.


Enter Frenchman Tavernier. In the 17th century, he set himself apart as a prince of a jewel trader. Jean Baptiste Tavernier undertook six voyages, which carried him all the way to the East Indies and Java. This intelligent man spoke all the known languages of Europe at the time. Known for his honesty and good character, he was embraced in the Orient. There he amassed a fortune in the trade of precious stones. Later portraits of him reveal a robust elder statesman in full Oriental garb, complete with a splendid turban, wide pantaloons, and curl-toed slippers.


Ennobled in 1669 by French King Louis XIV, Tavernier assumed the title baron d’Aubonne after an estate he bought near Geneva. It is said that he died on a seventh journey which was to take him to Asia by way of Russia. His book, beloved by gem historians, Six Voyages en Turquie, en Perse et aux Indes (1676-77) contains invaluable information and has been reprinted in several languages.


Romantic tales say that Jean-Baptiste Tavernier stole the blue Hope stone from the eye of a Hindu god statue, and because of that theft, the diamond was forever cursed. It claims Tavernier was then bilked out of his fortune by a nephew and mauled to death by a pack of wild dogs in India.


N-a-a-h—I don’t think so; a good story though. The diamond in question made its first documented appearance in 1642 when Jean-Baptiste Tavernier purchased a blue diamond weighing 112 3/16 carats, and was believed to come from Golconda. Tavernier was not cheated out of his fortune and he lived to the ripe old age of 84. While there remains no account of how he died, one imagines he was quite the raconteur back at the castle in his final days.

The legendary gem merchant Tavernier, used the phrase “gem of the finest Water” in describing the best diamonds and pearls he saw on his six voyages to India. Although he is long gone, his impact on the way we communicate gemstones remains.


In the 21st century, one can find a copy of the Dictionary of Gems & Gemology published by GIA. In it, gemologist Shipley defines water as a term occasionally used “as a comparative quality designation for color and transparency of diamonds, rubies and other stones.” Color and transparency together equal “water.” Tavernier had a gift for acquiring and communicating about gems. We owe him and his peers a debt of gratitude for introducing the world to the timeless beauty of gems. Now that’s romancing the stone.

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