Billionaire accused of vandalism for recutting Dh60m Wittelsbach Blue

A British jeweller enrages German historians and gem experts by recutting one of the world's most famous diamonds, the Wittelsbach Blue.

The Wittelsbach diamond, one of the largest blue diamonds in the world, before it was repolished and reduced to 31.06 carats.
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BERLIN // A British jeweller has enraged German historians and gem experts by recutting one of the world's most famous diamonds, the Wittelsbach Blue, a crown jewel of the Bavarian royal family for more than two centuries. Laurence Graff, the London-based chairman and founder of Graff Diamonds International, is being accused of destroying a piece of Germany's national heritage by changing the 300-year-old rose-shaped cut of the flawless blue gemstone named after the House of Wittelsbach.

Mr Graff bought the diamond at Christie's in December 2008 for £16.4 million (Dh60.2m), the highest price ever paid for a gemstone at an auction. He had his master cutters give the stone a modern polish with additional facets to highlight its blue colour, which reduced its weight by about four carats to 31.06. The repolished stone was unveiled on January 28 at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, where it will be on display until August. Germans say Mr Graff has also added insult to injury by renaming it the Wittelsbach-Graff diamond.

"This is barbarism. You cannot begin to describe the damage he has done. The stone may look a bit more lively and sparkling, but its history has been destroyed," Dieter Hahn, one of Germany's leading diamond cutters, said in an interview. "It's like buying a Rembrandt and repainting it." Jürgen Evers, a diamond expert who has researched the history of the Wittelsbach Blue, said Mr Graff had intensified its blueness by lengthening the path the light takes through the gem.

"His aim of course was to increase the price, and he may have increased the material value of the stone. But its symbolic value has been ruined. He shouldn't have done it," Mr Evers said. "He's a billionaire who's creating a monument to himself at the expense of others." Coloured diamonds, known as "fancy diamonds", are extremely rare and were favoured by European royalty as symbols of wealth and power.

The Wittelsbach Blue, which matches Bavaria's heraldic colour, is one of the world's largest known blue diamonds and ranks alongside the Hope Diamond, a 45.52-carat blue diamond that once belonged to the French royal family and is also on show in the Smithsonian museum. Both are believed to have come from the Kollur mine in the Indian Muslim sultanate of Golconda, near Hyderabad. According to an article in Gems & Gemology magazine, they may have been brought to Europe by Jean Baptiste Tavernier, a French diamond dealer who made several trips to India in the 17th century.

Experts who examined the diamond had praised the original 300-year-old polish, believed to have been carried out in India, as strikingly smooth. Mr Graff said in an e-mail that the repolishing had allowed the diamond to achieve its full potential. "It had many imperfections. Besides wear marks, it was chipped and it had an extra large culet," or flat base, he said. "Although the risk was enormous, I had all the confidence I needed in my craftsmen and decided to remove the chips and imperfections and reduce the culet size." Throughout the process, "great care and attention was taken to retain its original features", he added.

That will not assuage critics in Germany. Hans Ottomeyer, the president of the German Historical Museum who has researched the history of the Wittelsbach Blue for 30 years, said Mr Graff had "vandalised" the stone. "He's flattened it like a boiled sweet." Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, one of Germany's leading newspapers, wrote: "Eternity has been abolished." Gabriel Tolkowsky, regarded as one of the world's best diamond cutters, described the repolishing as "the end of culture".

Despite all the bluster and outrage, there is nothing Germany can do about the matter. The Wittelsbachs secretly sold the gem in 1951 to raise cash, and the state of Bavaria as legal successor to the Bavarian crown missed its chance to buy it back in the 2008 auction at Christie's. That is hardly surprising given that spending a vast sum of taxpayers' money on a gemstone is not so politically acceptable.

The Wittelsbach Blue came into the possession of the Austrian House of Habsburg in 1666 as a dowry and passed into the House of Wittelsbach in Munich in 1722, again as part of a wedding gift. It can be seen adorning a hair ornament in a bridal portrait of Archduchess Maria Amalia painted in 1722, in honour of her marriage to the Bavarian crown prince, Charles Albert. When the kingdom of Bavaria was founded in 1806, the stone took pride of place on top of the newly crafted crown where it was set in an orb under the cross.

The Bavarian monarchy was abolished in 1918 at the end of the First World War and the Wittelsbach treasures were turned over to a foundation. The Wittelsbach Blue was secretly sold in 1951 to an unknown merchant. A few months later, an Antwerp diamond dealer Romi Benjamin Goldmuntz bought it. After his death in 1960, it was offered to the Wittelsbach Foundation, which refused to buy it. After spending some years in jewellery stores in Lucerne, Hamburg and Düsseldorf, it was bought by Helmut Horten, the ageing owner of one of Germany's largest department store chains. Legend has it that he pulled it out of his pocket and handed it to his young bride, Heidi Jelinek, a secretary 32 years his junior, at their wedding party in Cap d'Antibes on the French Riviera in 1966.

She put it up for sale in 2008. "Its history, its size, its colour, its age, its old cut made this stone unique," said Mr Hahn, who owns Ph. Hahn Söhne, Germany's oldest diamond-cutting business. "It's still a very special stone, but it has now lost a lot if its flair." However, the controversy may end up increasing the fame of the Wittelsbach Blue as most of the world's most precious stones have troubled histories. The pale pink 182 carat Darya-I-Nur, or "Sea of Light", part of the Iranian crown jewels, was seized in a raid on Delhi in 1739 in which hundreds were slaughtered.

The pale yellow 55-carat Sancy, on display in the Louvre, was at one point found in the stomach of a murdered courier. The Regent Diamond, another classic shown in the Louvre, was smuggled out of a Golconda mine by a slave who hid it inside a leg wound. He was later killed for it. And the 105-carat Koh-I-Nur, meaning "Mountain of Light", now among Britain's crown jewels, is rumoured to be cursed whenever it is not in the possession of a woman.