Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Reflections from the diamonds at the Great Exhibition



I have fought through a phalanx of crinolines, and I have won the glittering sight—stars of earth in a firmament of purple velvet—sparklings of light ad infinitum, enhanced by a golden halo of fabulous cost, eloquence of splendour, which has enthralled the daughters of Eve in all ages—the dark-eyed beauties of the East, sunk into ignorance and steeped in sensuality, and the bright-eyed intelligence of educated English women.

I am fascinated by the sight; I am bewildered by a conflict of ideas. I venture to ask the very impassive and gentlemanly person who stands as guardian of the show-case, the price of a certain parure of diamonds? the reply is vouchsafed in an off-hand business voice—a reply which should have been dignified by trumpets and salvoes of cannons—sixty thousand pounds!

I evolve myself from the meshes of the crinolines; I struggle to a vacant seat near the experimental Venus of Gibson. “Sixty thousand pounds!” I mutter to myself, pondering the whole matter, till in the end my reason stubbornly denies the testimony of my eyes and ears, and vehemently declares the whole affair of the diamonds to be a delusion.

I naturally hesitate for awhile before renouncing my eyes and ears, and then my reason grows vehemently argumentative.

In the first place, it denies that the parure of diamonds could ever be offered for sale; in the next, that, if offered for sale, it would ever be bought.

I confess I was rather amazed by the boldness of my reason; but, nevertheless, I felt bound to listen to the arguments it advanced in support of these propositions.

“Sixty thousand pounds,” observed my reason, “is, if invested at five per cent., 3000l. per annum; but, if invested in diamonds, the interest is nil: be good enough to bear that little word, ‘nil,’ in mind, while we proceed to analyse the various elements represented by this sum of sixty thousand pounds.

“We will, in the first place, consider the case of a person buying land to re-sell; now, however long he may hold the land, it pays him a certain interest for the money he has invested, and inasmuch as he has received that interest, he can afford to re-sell the land at the price which he originally gave; but if the person had purchased diamonds, instead of land, he must, in addition to the cost price, be repaid for the loss of interest he has sustained during the period the stones remained in his hands.”

“Now,” said I to my reason, “I think I have bowled you out! Why do picture-dealers buy pictures? Pictures don’t return any interest for the money invested in them! Hullo, old boy! that’s a shut up; isn’t it?”

My reason reflected for a few moments—it was not in the slightest degree irritated by my derisive tone, and it replied with the utmost calmness:

“Pictures, you must observe, are purchased by dealers on the supposition that the value they give will, at a future period, be so largely increased as to cover both the original cost and the accumulated interest. We have innumerable examples of the immense difference in price which the works of a great painter commanded at the commencement and at the termination of his career. The fame of a great man out-distances all accumulations of compound interest on the original price of his early and perhaps finest works—for one grudging buyer of the work of an unknown genius, there are hundreds who, at the end of a decade, will gladly buy, at almost any price, the works of the great artist of the age; so the one who bought very cheaply is rewarded for his sagacity by the eagerness of hundreds.

“And further than this, there is that great extrinsic element of value which essentially belongs to all works of genius, limitation in supply in opposition to increased demand,—for the weakness of old age must come, and the spontaneity of thought will be dulled, and the right hand will lose its cunning—the possibility of the best work is at an end, and presently the possibility of all work is ended; for brain and hand are resting for ever in the rest of death. New genius may be rising up, but the old greatness to which men were accustomed,—no fresh tokens of that; no more sunsets of the Téméraire: no more sunrises of defiant Ulysses; no more sweet rendering of beauty and grace by the tender hand of Reynolds or of Gainsborough. The future will doubtless bring us good things, but nought can be added to the store of the past, and men pay higher prices to an immortal fame than they ever did to the living artist.

“A well-vouched story is told that Reynolds asked three hundred guineas for his pictures of the Cardinal Virtues, and he refused the offer of three hundred pounds, saying that he would rather die with the Cardinal Virtues in his possession, than part with them for less than the price he had named.

And Reynolds did die with the Cardinal Virtues in his possession; and the Cardinal Virtues were sold at Christie’s, in the days of old Christie, for fourteen thousand pounds!

“Not thus with diamonds—their value can never fluctuate in any degree to compensate the holder for loss of interest; it may, indeed, rise or fall with the value of gold and money, or in accordance with the slow laws of supply and demand, but there is no incentive to purchase the diamond out of love and admiration for the labour and thought bestowed upon it. They say there are famous diamond-cutters at Amsterdam, among the Jews there, but who ever heard of a diamond-cutter’s name? Can we entertain one spark of enthusiasm for a human intellect reduced to a continuous creation of angles? It is impossible to cut fame and sympathy out of adamant! The labour bestowed upon a diamond may have been immense, but there can be no enthusiasm created by purely mechanical work, that men should pay marvellous sums for it, as they pay for the high thought and genius which is evidenced in the labour of a great work of art.

“Just think of it,” exclaimed my reason warmly, “sixty thousand pounds for the parure of diamonds, and in the whole of that sum not one atom of feeling excited for the men who have laboured in the preparation of the stones, neither by the perfection of their work, which is only mechanical perfection, nor by failure here and there, which may touch our sympathy by its evidence that the strong hand and thinking brain have grown weary in their toil—a material at once too hard for any impress of man’s greatness or man’s weakness.

“As we are comparing,” continued my reason, “the value of diamonds and pictures, I will just mention an additional value which pictures possess—namely, ‘historical value.’ We may observe that historical value has no connection with the beauty of any given object—it is simply the interest which men attach to the remains of the past; an interest which, in its abuse, often amounts to an absurd superstition; but, at the worst, expresses a deep-rooted desire in mankind to possess something beyond mere verbal record of the past, something which may render the past tangible and visible to present hands and eyes. The veneration for relics exhibits this feeling in its debased form, but in its noblest condition it associates us with the efforts and thoughts and affections of great men long passed away—supplementing the history of any given period, and showing us the application and result of the feelings and sentiments which history records. But the diamond in itself is without a history—it is never old in the common decay of ordinary matter—its lustre represents an eternal youth without one reminiscence of the past, a perpetual newness though it has been in wear for hundreds of years.

That given diamond may have belonged to Charles the Fifth, or have been ‘loot’ from Delhi; it may have formed a portion of the necklace with which Herr Boehmer sought to fascinate Marie Antoinette, or it may have been ground from the rough in the grinding-lathe of ‘Hunt & Roskell’ at this Exhibition of ’62.’ There is no possibility of affirming—the past is wholly lost in the refracted light of the present. It is certainly true that there are some few stones which possess a history, but the interest here is no higher than the interest which is attached to the lowest order of historic value—mere relic interest. In this matter the poor onyx-stone holds its own triumphantly against the diamond; it is elevated to such a value by the hand of man, that it has been deemed worthy of the choicest setting—a setting in which diamonds are only used as auxiliaries to its beauty—its beauty, the genius of fine workers in past times. When the dazzle of the diamonds has satisfied the eye, examine, at Hancock’s stall, the Devonshire gems (cameos and intaglios) which were mounted for the late Lady Granville to wear at the coronation of the Emperor of Russia. Every stone enshrines some artistic creation, it tells some tale of the art and faith or incidents of classic times; perhaps perpetuating, as a reduced copy, some great work of sculpture long ago destroyed—appealing at once to the lover of art, the antiquary, and the historian by its intrinsic beauty and its high historic value.

“I trust,” continued my reason, “that I have convinced you that diamonds are not subject to that condition, which, in the case of pictures and fine works of art, may be reasonably anticipated to guard the dealer from loss of interest, while the property remains in his possession. The jeweller must, therefore, from the very first, place such a price on the parure of diamonds, as will guarantee him from that loss of interest on his capital pending the sale.”

“Of course he must,” said I to my reason; “every tradesman must do that, whether he trades in diamonds or penny whistles.”

“Certainly,” replied my reason, “but recollect the old adage—Quick returns, short profits—the penny whistles appeal to an immense area of customers, the sixty thousand pound parure to a very small number. How small that number must be we shall consider presently—the chances would, therefore, be in favour of a very slow sale of the diamonds, and consequently the profit must be proportionably large.

“But when we add to the slowness of the sale, the fearful risk of holding property so costly, so easily conveyed away, the very identity of the stones destroyed with the destruction of the setting—what profit can we suppose would remunerate any one for dealing in so dangerous an article? If a tradesman may reasonably look for a profit of 15l. per cent. per annum upon his capital invested in ordinary goods, could we in any fairness assert that he was very exorbitant in demanding 30l. per cent. upon the risk and slow sale of diamonds? Now thirty per cent. on 60,000l. is 18,000l.—so the purchaser is placed in this extraordinary position, he pays 60,000l. for a commodity, which, the moment it passes into his possession, stands at a market value of nearly one-third less than the purchase money—that is, for the 60,000l. he has paid, he could only command in return 42,000l.—the large sum of 18,000l. being his immediate loss on the transaction.

“But if the case of the buyer appears a bad one, the case of the tradesman, if he fails to obtain a purchaser, is still worse. We allowed that 30l. per cent. profit was necessary to render the transaction profitable to the seller; a year has passed away and the diamonds remain unsold. Diamond alone can cut diamond, it is said, but there is a worm with sharp adamantine teeth grawing at the stones; behold, it has devoured the 15l. per cent. legitimate trade profit on the year, and there only remains 15l. per cent., out of the original 30l. per cent., to remunerate the jeweller if he succeeds in selling during the second year. Alas! in this second year a more terrible worm, with still sharper adamantine teeth, is hatched—compound interest—and at the end of the second year, the whole original profit of 30l. per cent. is eaten up. Those two worms have positively more than devoured 18,000l., the legitimate trade profit for two years on 60,000l. The position is fearful! What shall the unfortunate tradesman do to redeem his loss during the third year? Shall he add the loss to the original selling price, and charge 78,000l. instead of 60,000l., or, in other words, sixty per cent. more than the market value of the stones. Desperate, but vain hope! if the purchaser were not forthcoming at 60,000l., how shall he be found at 78,000l.? But day and night those two terrible worms are at work; they have clean picked off every atom of profit, and with eager voracity they are gnawing at the very value of the stones. It now becomes an anxious effort with the unfortunate tradesman to preserve the sum he had originally paid for the stones, and it requires no great effort of the imagination to realise the terrible time when the market value of the diamonds becomes less than the accumulated interest lost upon their cost price.

“The longer we dwell,” observed my reason, “on the question of money value, the more wonderful does the matter become; but we must now consider the still more wonderful question as to the class of persons who buy these diamonds.

“We will quote the case of a very rich man; we will suppose that he possesses a fine house in Belgravia, and a magnificent historical mansion, surrounded by a fine park, in the country,—that he possesses chariots and horses and companies of footmen, and stalwart tenants, and great parliamentary influence, and first-rate shooting, with a large staff of keepers, &c.—in a word, that he is the greatest man in all that country side. But even this man could not afford to buy those diamonds, for he enjoys all this magnificence on 30,000l. per annum, and nothing short of foregoing his income for two years (the landed property is entailed, so he cannot sell a slice of that) would enable him to purchase the diamonds. Now, if the owner of 30,000l. per annum is debarred from becoming a buyer, just consider how excessively restricted the number of purchasers must be. We have heard, indeed, of some extraordinary passions for the acquisition of land—that men have borrowed money at five per cent. to buy land which could only pay from two to two-and-a-half per cent.—but it is impossible to suppose that anybody would borrow money at five per cent. to purchase a commodity which could not return the slightest interest, and which would confer on the purchaser neither parliamentary nor county influence.

“It is of course to be admitted,” continued my reason, “that in this rich country there are certain persons whose wealth is so enormous that they might well afford to fling away 18,000l., as ordinary persons throw away an odd hundred or so in mere tradesman’s profit on some nicknack. For instance, there are some few individuals who are reputed to live magnificently on the interest of the interest of their property, and manifestly, to persons of this class the loss of 18,000l. in the gratification of a whim would count as nothing. But though we may concede the ability of purchasing to this very limited class—we have no right to assume that the desire is concurrent with the ability. The Latin grammar teaches us the great moral principle, “Crescit amor nummi,” &c., and persons who exhibit such an extraordinary abstinence with regard even to the simple interest of their fortune, may be held, primâ facie, to possess a sound knowledge of Quid pro quo in all commercial transactions. But we must add to all this, the enormous temptation not to spend 60,000l. in diamonds—a sum which, devoted to a noble purpose, the patronage of art, for instance, could command the genius of the greatest men of the day, and, through their handiwork, would create a reputation for magnificence of taste which a king might envy. Think what a splendid gallery of modern art 60,000l. could furnish!—remember that with the 18,000l. utterly and immediately lost on the purchase of the diamonds, you might command three works of the class of Holman Hunt’s great picture. Or it may be that 60,000l. spent in some wise scheme of charity, shall assure you the gratitude of posterity. And against all this,” urged my reason, “what do we find—the glitter and pure water of the diamond?”

“Not that alone,” I answered; “the reputation of enormous cost—a marvellous quintessence of value which must be positive intoxication to the possessor, but concerning which, you, my sober reason, can know nothing—try to imagine the delight of -wearing the value of a fine landed estate on your bosom—a thrilling passion of splendour, which Cleopatra felt when she drank the costly pearl.”

“One moment, with regard to that question of value,” replied my reason. “It is asserted that paste stones may be so cunningly fashioned as to deceive, save on very closest inspection, the best judges. If this be the case, that ‘glitter and pure water’ must stand by themselves for what they are worth—cost is not necessarily united with those qualities—those qualities, for all purposes of ordinary display, may be represented by bits of glass at a few pounds value for workmanship; consequently, that halo of fabulous cost, which is felt to lend such splendour to the diamonds, rests upon a mere assertion. That glistening of refracted light may be equally the result of an expenditure of sixteen pounds or sixty thousand. It is an old story of family diamonds being pawned, and paste stones worn in their place with exactly the same effect on the spectator as the real stones.”

I began to feel irritated with my reason, a proof, possibly, that my reason had got the best of the argument. “I firmly believe,” said I, in an angry tone, “that parures of diamonds are bought and sold—I shall stick to facts.”

“Facts have nothing to do with me,” replied my reason, calmly, “my province is to afford explanations, and I only regret that in this matter of the diamonds it is out of my power to give you any assistance.”

G. U. S.