Orlov Diamond

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Origin of name

the Orlov diamond gets it's name from Count Grigory Grigoryevich Orlov, one of the lovers of Empress Catherine the Great (1762-96), who purchased the diamond for a staggering 1,400,000 florins equivalent to 400,000 rubles, and presented it to the Empress, with a view of regaining her love and favor. Even though the Empress accepted the present, his wishes did not materialize, but the Empress in return gifted him a marble palace at St. Petersburg, in the same spirit of generosity she showered on all her lovers. Empress Catherine named the diamond after Count Orlov, and got it mounted on the Imperial Scepter, in which setting it is preserved up to this day, among the treasures of the Kremlin Diamond Fund.

The Orlov Diamond in the Imperial Sceptor

The Orlov Diamond in the Imperial Sceptor

Characteristics of the diamond

The Orlov is a white diamond with a faint bluish tinge, weighing 189.62 carats. The dimensions of the stone are 47.6 x 34.92 x 31.75 mm. The clarity of the stone is typical of the finest diamonds that originated from the Golconda mines of Southern India. The shape of the diamond was described as resembling half a hen's egg. The stone still retains it's original rose-style cut, with the upper surface marked by concentric rows of triangular facets, and corresponding 4-sided facets on the lower surface. There is a total of around 180 facets on the diamond, with a slight indentation on one side.

Copy of the Orlov Diamond in "Reich der Kristalle"museum in Munich

Copy of the Orlov Diamond in "Reich der Kristalle"museum in Munich

Early History

The unique Indian rose-cut of the diamond, and the color and clarity of the stone, provides ample evidence to show that the diamond is of Indian origin. The diamond undoubtedly originated in the Golconda mines of Southern India, the only source of high quality colorless diamonds in the world prior to the early 18th century. Thus, there is no dispute about the origin of the diamond, but the date of it's discovery at the Golconda mines is not known.

The next question that arises is, how the diamond that was discovered, cut and polished in India, eventually found it's way to the court of Catherine the Great (1762-96). There are two popular versions as to how this came about.

Drawing of the Orlov Diamond from the book Precious Stones by Max Bauer

Drawing of the Orlov Diamond from the book Precious Stones by Max Bauer

According to the first version the Orlov diamond once served as an eye of the presiding deity of the temple of Srirangam, Lord Ranganatha, in the Tamil Nadu State of Southern India. Srirangam is a town in east-central Tamil Nadu State, situated on an island formed by the bifurcation of the Cauvery River, about 3.2 Km north of Tiruchirapalli City. The northern branch of the river is known as the Coleroon River.

Srirangam is one of the most popular and holy pilgrimage centers of Hindus in Southern India. The main temple in Srirangam, the Ranganatha temple, is a Vaishnavite temple dedicated to the God Vishnu, but is also venerated by Saivites, the devotees of Lord Shiva. The temple built on the site of an older temple during the Vijayanagar period (1336-1565), is composed of seven rectangular enclosures, one within the other. The outermost rectangle has a perimeter of more than two miles (3 Km). One of the most remarkable features of this ancient temple is the massive hall of a thousand pillars with it's colonnade of rearing horses.

As the story goes, a French soldier who was serving as a Grenadier in the French army during the Carnatic wars of the mid-eighteenth century, decided to desert his regiment, and eventually found employment in the vicinity of Srirangam. While living in this area, he learnt from the local people, about the famous temple, and the celebrated idol of Lord Ranganatha, whose eyes were made up of two large priceless diamonds. When the Frenchman learnt about the valuable diamonds, he thought he could make a quick fortune if he could lay his hands upon them. But, getting into the interior of the sacred temple posed serious problems, as non-Hindus were not allowed entry beyond the 4th of the seven enclosures. To surmount these problems and gain easy access to the sacred temple, he devised an elaborate plan that would take months or perhaps years to accomplish. The first step in this plan was to adopt measures towards gaining the confidence of the Brahmin Priests of the temple. This involved his conversion to the Hindu religion, followed by frequent visits to the temple as a devotee. After demonstrating his sincere attachment to the new found religion, he was able to gain employment within the walls of the temple. He gradually cultivated the confidence of the unsuspecting high priests of the temple, and as a frequent worshipper was allowed free access to the inner shrine of the temple, because of his apparent veneration for the deity situated therein. Finally he was appointed a guardian to the innermost shrine within which lay the object of his attention.

So far the Frenchman's plan had worked out successfully, without arousing anybody's suspicion. Then came the crucial moment when he decided to make his final move. A severe storm hit the Srirangam area one night, and he was all alone in the temple. He immediately swung into action. He laid his hand on the deity entrusted to his care, and prised out one of the diamonds from it's socket. After having achieved his goal partially, he lost courage and fled the scene leaving behind the other diamond. He scaled the walls of the temple, swam across the river, and escaped into the surrounding jungles, towards the safety of Trichinopoly, where the English army was encamped. The storm raged throughout the period of his daring escape.

The Frenchman eventually reached Madras, and sold the stolen diamond to the Captain of an English ship for £2,000, a ridiculously low amount, considering the immense hardship undergone by him, during the execution of the long-term plan, to take possession of the diamond. The Captain of the ship brought the diamond to London, and sold it for £12,000 to a Jewish diamond dealer. The diamond then passed from merchant to merchant, it's price also escalating after each transaction, until it was purchased by a Persian or Armenian diamond dealer by the name of Shaffras, based in Amsterdam.

The above account of the journey of the Orlov diamond from India to the west, even though very colorful is not authoritative. The narrator may have used his discretion to bring in unsubstantiated events into the story to make his narrative more interesting. But, the Russian authorities have brought to light records which indicate that around 1768 the Orlov diamond had indeed passed into the hands of an individual named Shaffras, from whom Count Orlov purchased the diamond.

The second version of the journey of the Orlov from India to Russia, is even more colorful, but contains shocking details of several murders purported to have been committed by Shaffras, in his attempt to acquire the valuable gem. The narrator had allowed his imagination to run riot, to produce a narrative, that was quite captivating but highly untenable.

According to this version, the Orlov diamond belonged to the Mogul rulers of India and eventually passed down to Mohammed Shah who ruled between 1719 to1748. The diamond was part of the loot carried away by the conqueror Nadir Shah of Iran in 1739, after the sacking of Delhi and Agra, which also included other famous diamonds such as the Koh-i-Nur, the Darya-i-Nur, and the Peacock Throne of Shah Jahaan. Nadir Shah was assassinated by his own troops in 1747, and immediately after this an Afghan soldier who was in his service, stole the Orlov diamond, together with some other expensive jewels and escaped to the city of Bassorah, a large town situated on the Shatt-al-Arab, about 112 Km north of the Persian Gulf. Bassorah was founded by Caliph Omar in A.D. 636, and was situated about 13 Km from the modern city of Basra.

The Afghan soldier contacted an Armenian merchant by the name of Shaffras, and tried to sell the stolen jewels. Shaffras was astonished to see such valuable jewels in the hands of a poor soldier, and postponed the transaction as he did not have sufficient funds. But the Afghan became suspicious of Shaffras, and left the city for Baghdad, where he met a Jewish trader to whom he sold the stolen treasurers for 65,000 piasters (about £500) and two fine Arab horses. The Afghan soldier instead of returning home after the sale, went on a spending spree in the city of Baghdad, and in the middle of his revelry in the city, he met Shaffras for the second time, who was determined to purchase the jewels he showed him previously, at Bassorah. Shaffras was highly disappointed when he learnt that the jewels had been disposed of, and he inquired from the Afghan about the whereabouts of the Jewish trader, who purchased the jewels. Shaffras hastened to see the Jewish trader, and offered him double the purchase price for the jewels, but the trader declined the offer.

Having failed to acquire the diamond by fair means, Shaffras and his two brothers decided to achieve their goal by foul means. They killed the Jewish trader and stole all the jewels, but later realized that the Afghan could implicate them in the crime. They committed a second murder, and the two bodies were placed in a sack and dumped into the Tigris River by night.

But, the murders did not end there. When the time came for the division of the plunder, all three brothers insisted on having the diamond, and none of them were prepared to waive his claim. Shaffras was left with no choice, but to eliminate his two brothers, in the same way he eliminated the Jew and the Afghan. He committed a double fratricide and dumped the bodies into the Tigris. After the spate of killings, Shaffras decided that his stay in Baghdad was no longer advisable. He therefore decided to move to Europe, where he could find a buyer for his diamond. At first he found his way to Constantinople (Istanbul) in Turkey and from there he moved to Hungary, then Silesia in Poland and finally to Amsterdam. Here he set himself up as a dealer in precious stones.

Thus both versions narrated above, agree on Shaffras, the Persian or Armenian diamond dealer in Amsterdam, as the intermediary through whom the diamond passed into Russian hands, even though they differ widely on other details, and as stated earlier Russian records authenticate the fact that a person by the name of Shaffras was indeed in possession of the Orlov diamond.

Modern history

Shaffras made contact with several European rulers, through intermediaries, with a view of finding a suitable buyer for his priceless gem. One such ruler was Catherine the Great of Russia, who was apparently impressed by the description of the great diamond, and invited Shaffras to her Capital at St. Petersburg. Shaffras obliged, and while in St. Petersburg was introduced to the court jeweler Lazarev, who initiated negotiations for the purchase of the diamond. But, negotiations did not make any headway, as the price quoted by Shaffras was considered to be too exorbitant, and he was not willing for a downward revision of his price.

Having failed to sell the diamond to the Empress, Shaffras left the Russian Capital, and moved to Astrakhan, a city situated in south western Russia, in the delta of the Volga River, about 100 Km from the Caspian Sea, which was once the capital of the Tartars of Russia. The Russian court learnt about his presence in Astrakhan a few years later, and sent an intermediary to re-open negotiations for the sale of the diamond. Apparently even after these negotiations a deal could not be finalized, and Shaffras appears to have changed his base of operations to Amsterdam again. It was then that Count Grigory Grigoryevich Orlov, the former lover of Catherine the Great learnt about the great diamond in Amsterdam, and Catherine's great wish to own it. He then decided to re-kindle their forlorn romance by offering her the diamond which she had longed to possess, as a present, a gesture that Orlov thought would perhaps remind Catherine of the vital role played by him, in her accession to the Russian Throne. Orlov purchased the diamond for a record sum of 1,400,000 florins, equivalent to 400.000 rubles. He presented the diamond to Catherine. She accepted it and had it set in the Imperial Scepter designed by her jeweler C. N. Troitinski, but Orlov failed to regain her affections. Instead Catherine bestowed him with many gifts including a marble palace in St, Petersburg.

Orlov Grigory Grigoryevich (1734-83) joined the cadet corps in 1749, and became an artillery officer in the Russian army. He fought in the Battle of Zondorf in 1758, during the seven years war (1756-63). In 1759, he escorted a Prussian prisoner of war to St. Petersburg, and was introduced to the Grand Duke Peter and his wife, Catherine. Leading a riotous life in the capital, he caught the fancy of the Grand Duchess whose husband was supposed to be impotent, and eventually became her lover in 1760. When Empress Elizabeth died on Jan 5, 1762, her son Grand Duke Peter, ascended the throne as Peter III of Russia and moved into the new Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. Catherine thus became the Empress consort of Russia. Just 6 months after ascending the throne, on July 14, 1762, Peter III was ousted in a coup d'etat organized by Catherine's lover Grigory Orlov and his brother Alexei Orlov, and Catherine was proclaimed the Empress of Russia. Three days after his deposition on July 17,1762, Peter III was murdered by Alexei Orlov, apparently on the orders of Catherine, who was determined to eliminate all potential claimants to the throne.

In 1772, Orlov ceased to be Catherine's lover, and she took Grigori Alexandrovich Potemkin as her new lover in place of Orlov. This sudden change in attitude of the Empress offended him very much and was a cause of great mental agony for Orlov. It was while in this desperate situation, that Orlov purchased the famous diamond in Amsterdam, with a view of winning back her affection. But, Catherine was not the type of woman who would be tied down to a single man. Throughout her long reign, she took many lovers, often elevating them to high positions for as long as they held her interest, and then pensioning them off with large estates and gifts of serfs.

Count Orlov left Russia in 1775 and in 1777 married his cousin, but following her death in Lausanne in 1782, he became mentally deranged and returned to his estate in Russia, but died the following year.

Let us now consider the merits and de-merits of the two versions of the journey of the diamond from India to Europe.

According to the second version the Orlov diamond belonged to the Mogul rulers of India. There seems to be an element of truth in this statement, because when Jean Baptiste Tavernier visited Delhi during the reign of Aurangzeb (1658-1707), the last of the great Mogul Emperors of India, he was shown a massive rough diamond that weighed 787½carats, which he referred to as the Great Mogul Diamond. Aurangzeb entrusted the cutting of the Great Mogul to an Italian cutter, Hortensio Borgio, who eventually turned out an Indian rose-cut diamond having the shape of half a pigeon's egg and weighing only 279 carats. Aurangzeb was displeased with the cutting, especially the loss of over 500 carats of the massive diamond, and instead of rewarding the cutter for his services, fined him 10.000 rupees.

Tavernier had made a drawing of the finished Great Mogul diamond, which he published in his book "The Six Voyages of Jean Baptiste Tavernier", published in 1679. If one compares Tavernier's drawing of the Great Mogul with photographs and drawings of the Orlov, a striking similarity is immediately apparent between the two. This is in respect of the shape of the two diamonds. Both diamonds have strikingly similar shapes resembling the shape of half a pigeon's egg. Secondly, both diamonds are high-crowned rose-cut stones, with similar pattern of facets. The third similarity is the existence of a slight indentation at the base of the Orlov, which seems to correspond with the slight "crack and flaw"at the bottom of the Great Mogul, as described by Tavernier. Finally the color and clarity of the stones are also similar, both being white diamonds with a slightly bluish tinge and an exceptional clarity, characteristic of stones originating from the Golconda mines. The above striking similarities coupled with the fact that the story of the Great Mogul has no known ending and that of the Orlov has no clear beginning, strongly suggests that the Great Mogul diamond and the Orlov diamond are probably one and the same diamond.

The only evidence that seems to go against this conclusion is the discrepancy between the weights of the two stones. While the Great Mogul weighed approximately 280 carats, as recorded by Tavernier, the weight of the Orlov diamond is almost 90 carats less than the Great Moghul at 189.62 carats. But, this discrepancy experts believe, has more to do with errors committed by Tavernier in recording the accurate weights of the diamond as he did for the Great Table Diamond, than an actual difference in the weights of the two diamonds. Moreover, we cannot exclude the possibility that during the Orlov diamond's long history, a slight re-cutting might have taken place at some stage , in order to get it's present dome shaped top and to improve it's brilliance, thus causing a considerable reduction in it's weight.

A Soviet Gemologist by the name of Alexander E Fersman, who did an extensive study of the Crown Jewels of Russia from a gemological point of view, also concluded that there was no doubt that the Orlov diamond and the Great Mogul Diamond represented one and the same stone. If One accepts that the Orlov diamond is the same stone as the long lost Great Mogul Diamond, the second version of the stone's journey to the west acquire more credibility, sans the spicy narrations of alleged murders committed by Shaffras in his attempts to acquire the valuable diamonds. Shaffras was a wealthy and well established businessman of repute and might not have stooped down to the level of a murderer for the sake of acquiring a diamond. Thus the stories of alleged murders committed by Shaffras does not hold ground.

An increase in credibility of the second version is necessarily accompanied by a decrease in credibility of the first, beginning with the eye of the idol, unless the Great Mogul traveled southwards from the seat of Mogul power in the North, at Delhi, until it was lodged in the eye of the sacred idol at Srirangam. The chance of this happening was extremely remote, considering the fact that the Mogul rulers were Muslim rulers, and the possibility of a diamond belonging to them getting lodged in the eye of a Hindu idol, was far-fetched and perhaps abominable, given the fact that the two religions, Islam and Hinduism are poles apart ,with respect to idol worship.

Moreover the Ranganatha temple at Srirangam was built between the 14th and 16th centuries, long before the Great Mogul diamond was discovered in the middle of the 17th century, and perhaps by that time two unknown diamonds would have already adorned the eyes of the sacred statute, leaving no room for a third.

The first version starting from the eye of the idol is only a legend, with no recorded evidence to support it. The only factual evidence that seems to support the eye of the idol version, is the striking shape of the Orlov diamond, which could have easily fitted into the eye of an idol. But yet, if we assume this version to be the correct one, then the Orlov diamond and the Great Mogul diamond , become two separate entities, each having it's own origin, and independent history. only the present whereabouts of the Great Mogul diamond becomes a mystery, as there are no famous diamonds existing today, other than the Orlov, that corresponds to it's unique characteristics. A few candidates have been mentioned, such as the Darya-i-Nur, and the Koh-i-Nur, two famous diamonds that may have been derived from the Great Mogul.

As for the Darya-i-Nur, the color of the diamond itself disqualifies it as a possible contender, because the Darya-i-Nur is light pink in color, where as the Great Mogul was a white diamond, with a slightly bluish tinge. The Canadian experts from the Royal Ontario University, who examined the Iranian crown Jewels, concluded that the Darya-i- Nur was derived from the Great Table diamond, which was indicated as No. 3, in Tavernier's set of drawings.

The evidence for identifying the Koh-i-Nur with the Great Mogul is somewhat stronger. The color of the two stones seemed to match each other and even the diameter of the Koh-i-Nur approximates that of the Great Mogul. But, there was a discrepancy in the weights. the Great Mogul weighed approximately 280 carats, but the weight of the Koh-i Nur was only 186 carats, a difference of about 94 carats. This discrepancy was explained by Mineralogist James Tenant, as caused by the removal of the upper portion, and two portions from the sides, and the re-grinding of four facets on the upper surface, of the Great Mogul diamond. But, historical evidence did not seem to support this argument, as the Koh-i Nur was always identified with the Babur diamond, which had a history much older than that of the Great Mogul diamond. According to recorded history the Babur diamond was known since 1295, when Sultan Ala-ud-din Khalji acquired the stone, but the great Mogul diamond was discovered only in the middle of the 17th century, around 1650.

Present owners of the diamond

The Orlov diamond is the most celebrated and historical diamond among the great collection of gems and jewelry belonging to the Kremlin Diamond Fund, established in 1719 by Emperor Peter the Great of Russia. The diamond was set on the top of the Royal Scepter of Catherine the Great, with it's domed top facing forward, in which setting it is still preserved up to this day.

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