This is part of our weekly series, Lost Masterpieces, about the greatest buildings and works of art that were destroyed or never completed.
One day, over five centuries ago, a miner or explorer or just a lucky wanderer in the right place at the right time pulled an enormous hunk of carbon from the earth in India.
His identity (for at the time, it was surely a man), has been lost in the vanishing winds of history. But, dusted off, professionally cut, and polished, his find gleamed with the brilliance of 137.27 carats and 126 facets of glittering greenish-yellow crystal.
The Florentine Diamond was born.
One would think a stone this large, this valuable, this spectacular wouldn’t be too hard to keep track of. But the Florentine Diamond enjoyed centuries of adventure, a slew of noble owners, and a position of prestige, before it went missing for what is likely the final time.
While its early history is a bit murky, legend has it that, as of 1477, the Florentine Diamond was in the possession of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. His Grace, the Duke of Burgundy, allegedly liked to go into battle armed with his weapons and a choice piece or two from his collection of priceless gems.
Did he think this sign of wealth would intimidate his enemies? Did he consider these pieces a good luck charm? We will never know. But, whatever his reason, even one of his finest gems couldn’t save him on January 5, 1477 when Charles was struck down by the Swiss during the Battle of Nancy.
The Duke—and his precious Florentine Diamond—were left on the battlefield where they fell.
Several days later, a man—this time one who didn’t realize his luck—wandered by. Some say he was a foot soldier, others a peasant. But whoever he was, he had no idea what he had stumbled across. Thinking the gem was just glass, he picked it up and allegedly sold it for a single florin. A game of musical owners quickly followed, some saying the list even included Pope Julius II.
While this legend is the prevailing tale of the early whereabouts of what would become known as the Florentine diamond, an alternate history has also been suggested. It’s a little less colorful, but just as dramatic.
This version of events suggests that the diamond was in the possession of the local ruler of the Indian region of Vijayanagar when the Portuguese invaded the area in the 1500s.
One of the occupiers eventually installed as Governor of Goa, Ludwig Castro, Count of Montesano, took the giant diamond from the King of Vijayanagar and gifted it to his wife.
In the early 1600s, they sold it to the Medici family.
And this is where the known trail of the Florentine Diamond begins. Whatever its early history and exploits, the diamond was confirmed to be in the possession of the powerful Medici family of Florence by the mid-17th century.
A fervent traveler and well-known gem merchant, Jean Baptiste Tavernier, documented seeing the stone in the collection of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando II dd’ Medici, in 1657.
And there it stayed until the family’s final fall when the Medici line came to an end. When the last of the powerful family, Anna Maria Luisa, died in 1743, the gem fell into the hands of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Francis I.
While the Grand Duke may have ruled over the local region of Tuscany, the Florentine diamond’s fate was decided by his wife, Maria Theresa, who was the last of the Hapsburg ruling family.
It was Maria Theresa—who enjoyed such numerous titles as Holy Roman Empress, Archduchess of Austria, and Queen of Hungary and Bohemia, along with Mother of Marie Antoinette—who moved the Florentine diamond out of the land that gave it its name and put it on display in Vienna along with the rest of the Hapsburg Crown Jewels. It was installed in the oldest wing of the Hofburg Palace, called the Schweitzer-hoff.
The London-based periodical, The Lady’s Newspaper, described its illustrious setting among the other treasures of the royal family in an article published on November 4, 1848. The passage describes the “large gallery, containing the imperial treasury, in which is deposited all the jewels, plate, vases, clocks, religious relics, gems, etc. belonging to the Austrian Crown, some of which are extremely rare and of immense value, especially the Florentine diamond, which is valued at 1,043,334 florins (£102,166. 14s.).”
It was a prize among a trove of treasures. And that may have been the cause—or curse—of its downfall. After the Austro-Hungarian Empire was defeated during World War I, the royal family fled to Switzerland, smuggling out many of their valuable possessions including the Florentine Diamond. (A decree in 1919 officially outlawed the Austrian nobility.)
“Swiss papers state on what is termed the best authority that the children of ex-Emperor Charles, who rejoined their parents last week, took with them the greater part of the crown jewels of Austria, including the famous ‘Florentine diamond.’ The value of the jewels reported taken to the ex-Emperor is said to be about 25,000,000 Swiss francs,” reported The New York Times on February 7, 1922.
While the Italian government claimed that the Florentine Diamond and other jewels originally owned by the Medici family should legally be returned to Italy, the country would never regain possession of its giant yellow gem.
The long and adventurous life of the Florentine diamond ends in exile…at least as far as we know.
As with any good mystery, especially that of the priceless jewel variety, there are many theories about what happened to this unique piece. Some say that the exiled Austrian royal family, desperate for cash, covertly sold the diamond.
Others agree, but suggest that it was first cut into smaller stones, all the better to be sold on the legal market. But a competing theory posits that a servant close to the family stole the Florentine diamond and took it to South America.
Whether its adventure covertly continues today or whether it was lost forever, the Florentine diamond—in its massive, multi-faceted gleaming yellow form—is unlikely to ever be publicly seen again.