Sunday, February 17, 2013

The diamonds

Diamonds are impossible to photograph. No image ever really captures the astonishing effects of color, fire, and light in motion that are produced by these most fascinating stones—lumps of pure carbon, compressed into atomic hardness by colossal pressure deep inside the earth’s crust and at huge temperatures tens of millions of years ago. A colleague recalls witnessing the funeral procession of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and the moment when, making the wide turn from Clarence House onto the Mall, hard by his office in St. James’s Palace, Her Majesty’s gun-carriage and catafalque, which was surmounted by the queen-consort’s crown, caused the famous Koh-i-noor diamond mounted in front to project an almost blinding searchlight-flash across the same wide arc, and caught him by surprise. Yesterday we installed and secured the Manchester tiara, and it was thrilling to observe a similar effect, but this time further exploited by the master craftsmen of Cartier, ca. 1903. For the central portions of the principal up-thrusting forms of this sumptuous jewel—actually flaming hearts of catholic dogma—consist of stones artfully suspended in groups of three so that the slightest motion will set the entire jewel alight. It is as if the light emanates from within each stone, instead of simply bouncing off or passing through it. In a world that especially for young people increasingly knows no tangible difference between physical reality and virtual substitutes, it is heartening to think that there is in the museum experience an opportunity to reach for the ungraspable, and enjoy a visual experience that cannot happen any other way. Magnificent jewels may also prompt ruminations upon the astounding excesses of elite consumption, but this is also healthy. I daresay many New Englanders will judge the Manchester tiara to veer dangerously towards a region of high vulgarity that is difficult to approach without the crampons and heavy lifting gear afforded by immense wealth. I tried to imagine what it must have felt like to wear this spectacular jewel, as the Duchess of Manchester undoubtedly did. At least satisfying, I should think, and probably exciting too. Good looks, decent teeth, clear skin are simply irrelevant when you have something as visually amazing perched on top of your head. However, I suspect I may be old-fashioned in attaching rather more importance to the purely aesthetic impact of this great jewel. It consists, after all, of hundreds of old-cut diamonds, dozens of them whoppers—strobing, glinting, flashing out of the colorless clarity of their hand-made facets bright and paradoxical little murmurings of green, orange, yellow, and blue. Nothing better captures the supreme self-confidence of a ruling elite than the Manchester tiara. Through the Edwardian decade that aristocracy knew it was dancing on the rim of a volcano, and I suppose there were no better or surer guarantees attaching to their self-confidence than today’s Wall Street plutocrats presume they too enjoy.

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