The early origin of this exquisite jewel – perhaps the fourth largest of cut diamonds – is shrouded in mystery. The exact date of the entry of the Orloff into the history of nations and into the lives of men is debated by world authorities. By some it is thought to be the Great Mogul – the fabulous stone but once seen by European eyes – whose present location is unknown.

Orloff Diamond mounted in the royal scepter

Orloff Diamond Mounted In The Royal Scepter

The known history of the Orloff began when it served as the eye of an Indian idol. It is now among the financial reserves of one of the world’s most powerful nations.

The story of the journey of this gem to the Occident from that vast Oriental jewel box India, is of more than passing interest. Near Trichinopoly in Mysore, a native state in Southern India, there is in the river Cauvery an island called Srirangen. Near the Western shore of the island there stood a Hindu temple, enclosed within seven walls. Within the innermost shrine of the temple stood the idol of the presiding deity. Its eyes were two great gems – one of these the Orloff. This was a massive diamond, of the shape of half an egg, and in weight almost 200 carats.

A French grenadier – a deserter – lived in the neighborhood of the temple. He learned of this treasure and devoted many years of his worthless life to gaining possession of it. He must have embraced the Hindu faith for no Christian was admitted beyond the fourth of the seven enclosures of the temple. The grenadier obtained employment within the walls, and after many years of carefully planned labor, he was admitted as a frequent worshipper at the inner shrines because of his apparent devotion to the God and to the priests.

The French soldier laid his plans carefully. The moment for which he had waited came. A stormy night. The idol in fitful shadows. He pried one diamond eye from its socket. Then he lost his courage. Leaving the other diamond behind, he fled. He successfully scaled the walls and swam the river. In a raging tempest, he escaped through the jungle to the English army – Madras (now Chennai) – and safety.

At Madras, the ex-soldier was last heard of when he found a purchaser for the diamond, at $10,000, in the person of an English sea captain. The skipper sold the stone for $ 60,000 to a Jewish merchant who in turn sold it to a notorious Persian scalawag named Khojeh.

This was in the year 1775. At this time, the court of Russia was gay and extravagant. Khojeh determined to travel to the Russian court to find a buyer for the jewel. He was fortunate: In Amsterdam, while on his journey to the court, Khojeh met the Russian prince Gregory Orloff. The prince had been the lover of Catherine the Great, Empress of the Russias. But at the time, he was out of her favor.

Catherine had a passion for gems; her emeralds formed one of the finest jewel collections in the world and her love for Amethysts has become legend. Orloff knew her love for gems, so it was an easy matter for Kojeh to sell him the great diamond. By presenting it to Catherine, Orloff hoped to win back her favor. The Persian was able within a single day, to sell the diamond to Orloff for about $450,000 and an annuity of $20,000.

The prince presented this gem to Catherine; and while it is recorded that she returned other valuable gifts, nevertheless Orloff never regained his former high estates. Catherine had the diamond – now called “Orloff” after its donor – mounted in the royal scepter, and it became the symbol of sovereignty of a vast empire.

There is legend in Russia that as Napoleon was approaching Moscow, the Orloff diamond was secreted in the tomb of a priest in Kremlin. When Napoleon entered Moscow, he ordered that the gem be sought. Its hiding place was learned. Napoleon in person, accompanied by his bodyguard, proceeded to the Kremlin to seize the stone. The tomb was opened and the great stone lay before the despoiler. One of the bodyguard extended a hand to take the Orloff, but before he touched the jewel, the ghost of the dead priest rose and cursed the invaders.

Napoleon and his bodyguard were then supposed to have fled from the Kremlin. But there seems to be sufficient reason to suppose this incident untrue. It is doubtful that the little Corsican general who had put most of Europe at the feet of his conquering armies would flee before the ghost of a single dead priest.

The Orloff survives in the Diamond Treasure of Russia in Moscow. Data released by the Kremlin give the Orlov’s measurements as 32 millimetres x 35 millimetres x 21 millimetres, its weight being 189.62 carats (37.924 g). The weight is just an estimate – it has not formally been weighed in many years. It is still mounted in the scepter of Romanoffs, but the royal hands of this once mighty family will never again wield the diamond as an emblem of sovereignty.

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