A Regency Bicentennial:   The Francillon Memo

Two hundred years ago, this coming Wednesday, a London jeweller signed and dated a memo which included a hand-colored drawing and a description he had just completed of a large blue diamond never before seen in England, certainly not publicly. That brief document is the very first evidence known of the return to circulation of a famous blue diamond which had gone missing in Paris almost exactly twenty years earlier. We now know that "new" stone was all that remained of the famed diamant bleu de la Couronne de France, known to history as the French Blue.

Not long after the passing of George IV, this same diamond was purchased by a wealthy London banker and remains known to this day by the family name of that man, Henry Philip Hope …

King Louis XIV of France bought a rare and stunning blue diamond of 115 carats, in 1669. Though of a rich blue color, it was crudely cut in a triangular shape with only a few facets. Beginning 1678, the court jeweler, Sieur Pitau, took nearly a year to re-cut the blue diamond into an approximate heart-shape, weighing 69 carats, but with many more facets which released its glittering blue light. In 1749, King Louis XV had the blue heart-shaped diamond set into an ornate pendant of the Order of the Golden Fleece, designed in part by his chief mistress, Madame de Pompadour. When King Louis XVI inherited the French crown jewels, the French Blue was still set in the Golden Fleece pendant, and he wore it on a number of state occasions.

During the French Revolution, the revolutionaries kept the king and his family in the Tuileries Palace and the crown jewels in the Royal Repository, in Paris. On the night of 11 September 1792, a band of thieves broke into the repository and over the course of five days made off with nearly all of the French crown jewels, among them the Golden Fleece pendant into which was set the French Blue. It would never be seen again. It is believed that the thief who stole the Golden Fleece pendent fled north, eventually travelling to London. But it was a distinctive gem, so it would have been hard to sell, even if hundreds of French émigrés had not already been glutting the market, selling off their jewels to every jeweler in the city in order to support themselves. Whatever the reason, neither the Golden Fleece pendant nor the French Blue surfaced anywhere, in England or on the Continent, during the remainder of the eighteenth century.

There had been so much looting and pillaging of crown property during the French Revolution that in 1804, after he came to power, Napoleon set a period of twenty years for the statute of limitations on any royal property stolen during those years. Perhaps he did so to avoid a deluge in the courts, should all those people be apprehended. Or, perhaps he was not all that sorry to see the symbols of royalty and kingship swept away so that he could establish his own version of empire in their stead. Regardless of the reason, this twenty-year statute of limitations soon became widely known in France, then spread across the Continent and eventually to England. Those who held stolen French royal property had only to wait.

The statute of limitations on the theft of the French crown jewels expired on 17 September 1812. Two days later, John Francillon, a London jeweler and naturalist of Huguenot ancestry, drew and described a large "new" unset blue diamond which belonged to his friend and fellow jeweler, Daniel Eliason. This diamond was a slightly irregular square cushion shape, and weighed 45.5 carats. Francillon first traced around the diamond with a pencil in order to get its exact shape. He then drew in the facets to complete the view of the diamond in plan. Below that, he drew the diamond again, in elevation, also delineating its facets, both above and below the girdle. Francillon then colored the drawing of the diamond in plan using blue water-color to approximate as closely as he could the deep blue color of the gemstone. Just above the drawing of the diamond in plan Francillon wrote:   "Weight 177 grains." A grain was a unit of measurement used for gem stones during the Regency, and 177 grains is equal to 45.5 carats. A photograph of Francillon’s two drawings can be seen here.

Francillon went on to describe the blue diamond in a brief memo, which reads in full:

The above drawing is the exact size and shape of a very curious superfine deep blue Diamond. Brilliant cut, and equal to a fine deep blue Sapphire. It is beauty full and all perfection without specks or flaws, and the color even and perfect all over the Diamond. I traced it round the diamond with a pencil by leave of Mr. Daniel Eliason and it is as finely cut as I have ever seen in a Diamond. The color of the Drawing is as near the color of the Diamond as possible.
Dated: 19th September, 1812. John Francillon, No. 29 Norfolk Street, Strand, London.

The drawing was pasted to the paper on which the memo was written, just above the paragraph of text. Photos of the memo can be seen here and here.

Though the drawings and description of the large blue diamond were made in September of 1812, the document remained unknown for well over a century. What is now known as "The Francillon Memo" did not come to light until the early twentieth century, when the American mineralogist and gem expert, George Frederick Kunz, was browsing through the rare books in Quaritch’s Antiquarian Bookshop in London. Kunz was flipping through a 1762 edition of Jean Henri Prosper Pouget’s Traité des Pierres Précieuses et de la Maniere de les Employer en Parure (Treatise on Precious Stones and the Manner of Employing Them in Fine Jewelery). Tucked in between the pages, Kunz found The Francillon Memo, perhaps the first person to see it in at least a century. How did it get there? Had that book belonged to John Francillon himself? Had he tucked the memo between its pages in the previous century, where it remained forgotten until Kunz came upon it? Based on its subject matter, it was a most appropriate book in which to place a document about a magnificent blue diamond. Or had Francillon given his memo to the owner of the blue diamond in 1812, Daniel Eliason? As a jeweler himself, Eliason might also have owned a copy of Pouget. Did he slip the document his friend had made into that book, perhaps planning to refer to both when he was ready to create a setting for the large blue diamond? We may never know how the memo got into the book, but the fact that it did preserved the document in almost perfect condition for perhaps a century.

George Kunz recognized the stone in the drawings on the memo as the famous "cursed" blue diamond which had recently been purchased by the wealthy American, Evelyn Walsh McLean. Kunz bought that copy of Pouget’s book which contained The Francillon Memo and it remained in his personal library until his death, in 1933. At that time, the book and the memo became the property of the United States government. Kunz had bequeathed his collection of books on mineralogy and gemstones to the United States Geological Survey Library, based in Reston, Virginia. That book remains in the USGS Library collection to this day, and according to government sources, The Francillon Memo is still kept within its pages, except for those times when it is taken out for study or display.

Though The Francillon Memo certainly documents the presence of the blue diamond in London on that Saturday in September 1812, it provides no information on where, or with whom, it spent the previous two decades. Nor does it shed any light on when, or who, cut it down from the heart-shaped, 69-carat French Blue. Had someone cut it down before Eliason acquired it? Did Eliason himself cut it down, to obscure any connection with the famed French Blue? The diamond had been cut down by a skillful diamond cutter, skills Eliason certainly possessed. Did he show the "new" blue diamond to his friend Francillon to see if any comparison was made to the missing French Blue before he made it more widely known that he had such a stone?

A number of historians of what came to be known as the Hope Diamond believe that not long after Francillon had drawn and described the diamond, Eliason either sold or loaned it to the Prince Regent. Thus, it dropped out of sight again for almost another twenty years. It is known that the Prince had a great pendant made for his own Order of the Golden Fleece which contained a large blue diamond that may very well have been the Hope. There are no records of any other blue diamond that large anywhere in England or even in Europe during the Regency or the reign of King George IV. And what better way to obscure a unique and precious gemstone than to add it to the collection of a man who already had so many of them?

The blue diamond did not surface again until after the death of George IV, in 1830. It was considered to have been part of the king’s personal collection of gemstones, rather than Crown property. A discreet sale was very probably arranged by the Duke of Wellington, one of George IV’s executors, to raise money to pay the dead king’s massive debts. Wellington was acquainted with Henry Philip Hope, a well-known, wealthy gem collector who could certainly afford the magnificent blue stone. Thus, this extraordinary blue diamond acquired the name it carries to this day, and began its odyssey to become the most famous gemstone in the world. But two hundred years ago this week, on a September Saturday in London, it was known by only two men, Daniel Eliason, who owned it and John Francillon, who drew and described it.

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
This entry was posted in Bibelots and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A Regency Bicentennial:   The Francillon Memo

  1. Pingback: 1812:   The Year in Review | The Regency Redingote

  2. Pingback: Did Wellington Save the Hope? — Part Two | The Regency Redingote

  3. Pingback: Did Wellington Save the Hope? — Part Two | The Beau Monde

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