Chapter 6: The Amber Room

(Tchaikovsky, “Piano Concerto #1, 1st Movement”)





I have always been fascinated about the mysteries linked to the Amber Room.

When my husband and I decided to take a trip to St. Petersburg, one of the main sites that I was eager to visit was the Amber Room located in Catherine the Great’s Summer Palace, Tsarskoye Selo, (Tsar’s Village) in the town of Pushkin, one hour outside St. Petersburg.

The Amber Room was made in the early 1700’s for Friedrich I, the first king of Prussia, for his country estate outside Berlin. But it did not remain there long, for Peter the Great admired it on a visit and in 1716 Friedrich’s son presented it to Peter as a gift to cement their Prussian-Russian alliance against Sweden.

It took almost 40 years to be shipped to Russia and installed outside St. Petersburg.
There was a total of 6 tons of amber used in the design of the room, including extra precious Baltic amber sent by Friedrich’s son. Due to the room’s unique beauty, it was sometimes dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”

But history can bring tragedies and the Amber Room was looted during World War II by the Germans as they entered Stalingrad on their “Eastern Front.” Knowledge of its whereabouts was lost in the chaos at the end of the war. It wasn’t until 2003 that it was rebuilt in Catherine the Great’s Summer Palace.

My novel,  “The Gift of Diamonds” has seen many drafts over the years. In the final and present version, I deleted information about the Amber Room and condensed the stories I fabricated about four blue diamonds. However, for the final version, I did keep the St. Petersburg diamond, which represents both a motivating and obstructing force to Mica’s journey.

I would like to include in this Back History scene, the story of the other diamonds that I created in my imagination and were in an earlier version of the ms. This extract comes from the scene when Mica and uncle Simion are at Christie’s to have their diamonds appraised by Mr. Walters, the expert in diamonds and Charles Ericson, Christie’s auctioneer and executive Vice-President:

“Traditionally, diamonds are cut into fifty-eight facets, but an unusual jeweler, who was also an explorer, by the name of Tavernier, believed that if a diamond had a lot of facets, it would reflect more light back to the viewer’s eyes. Tavernier knew more about diamonds than anyone before or after him.”

At the mention of Tavernier’s name, Mica dropped her sack of jewels. Mr. Walters was too excited to notice her alarm. He continued on.

“Tavernier hand-cut his diamonds by using a smaller, pointed diamond. He cut his diamond into sixty-two facets like this one, where the back of the diamond is flat so it’ll reduce light from leaking out of the diamond.

“There are only four diamonds in the world that have this blue color and are cut into sixty-two facets with this type of back.

“This is one of Tavernier’s diamonds!” Mr. Walters yelled, losing all semblance of self control. His horned-rimmed glasses fell off his nose and a button on his three-piece suit popped.

“It’s the missing blue Russian – the St.Petersburg. I’m sure of it. I’ve seen pictures of it, I even drew a sketch of it when I was a student. Look at its deep color.”

He was so excited he could hardly talk. He took a glass of water as he sat down and loosened his bow tie.

Mica started to shake. She knew Tavernier had existed, her father had told her so. But now hearing Mr. Walters, the American expert, say that her diamond was one of Tavernier’s, made her feel faint. She poured herself a glass of water. She opened up her jacket. She started to tremble.

“Jean-Baptiste Tavernier,” Mr. Walters continued, “traveled to visit the last Mongolian Emperor of India in the 1640’s. The Emperor showed Tavernier a huge diamond, more than two hundred carats, that came from the Kollur mine in Galconda, India. It was triangular, crudely cut and a very unusual blue color, almost violet.

“It had a strange history. The first documentation we have is from Tavernier’s own diary which he started when he was visiting the Emperor in India. This diary is real. I saw it in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.

“He wrote that a Persian leader invaded India and wanted the large diamond from the Emperor as part of the booty. The Persian conqueror had learned that the Emperor kept the diamond hidden in his turban. He invited the Emperor to have dinner with him and assured him that he wouldn’t kill him, he just wanted to socialize with him. Over dessert, however, the Persian suggested they exchange turbans to solidify their friendship. The defeated Emperor had no choice but to oblige- there were twenty Persian soldiers surrounding him.

“In turn, the Persian victor was later assassinated. The diamond went to his son who was tortured to death because he wouldn’t give up the diamond. From there it went to another son, who himself endured a few tortures, including having his head boiled in cooking oil.

“His wife, who briefly wore the diamond around her neck, was afraid of more misfortune so she decided to sell it to Tavernier, who was still in India.

“Tavernier took the diamond back to France, christened it theGreat Tavernier diamond and cut it into four separate gems. However, he didn’t pay heed to the superstition that one should not cut a large diamond into smaller ones.

“The first diamond was the one eventually named the Hope diamond. In 1668 Tavernier sold it to Louis XIV. The King of France died of smallpox or gangrene and the diamond went down the family line to Louis XVI, who took the jewel and gave it to Marie Antoinette. Some people say it caused the beginning of the French Revolution. Others say that’s why Marie Antoinette lost her head at the guillotine. Who knows what is true? In any event, the blue diamond was stolen during the French Revolution and reappeared mysteriously in London in 1830, where it was bought by Henry Philip Hope, a wealthy banker, at auction. Since then it kept going into different hands, each time causing havoc.

A Ziegfeld Follies star received the diamond as a present and was afterwards murdered by her lover. Then a Greek bought it and subsequently fell off a cliff with his wife and children. In 1908, it went into the hands of a Turkish collector who soon died in a shipwreck. Next, the diamond went into the hands of the Sultan of Turkey, Selim Habib, but he had to sell it when he found himself in the middle of a revolution.

“Pierre Cartier purchased the gem from the Sultan and sold it to Mr. and Mrs. McClean in 1911, the owners of “The Washington Post.” But still the blue diamond didn’t carry much hope. In 1912, their son was killed by a car. Years later their daughter died of an overdose of sleeping pills. The husband finished his life insane and with cirrhosis of the liver while Mrs. McClean committed suicide after losing her entire fortune.

“In 1949, the Hope diamond was sold to the jeweler, Harry Winston, but no one wanted to buy it. They were afraid. Finally, in 1958 Mr. Winston donated it to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. It’s there now, locked up…

“S-sir,” Mica interrupted Mr. Walters, “do you believe these stories?”

“Some people say they’re tales, others say they’re history. Who’s to say when a story is real or not? If you believe it, it’s real.”

“Do you think I should be superstitious?” She thought of the diamonds in her mouth, in her stomach, in her soul. She felt nauseous.

“Mica,” Simion said, walking toward her. “Are you all right? You look pale.”

She held on to the table. She thought she’d faint.

“Please, take some more water,” Charles said and handed her a glass.

“We must sell these diamonds as soon as possible,” Mica stammered. “Do you think a potential buyer will be aware of these superstitions?”

“I don’t know….” Charles answered while shaking his head. “But with the correct publicity and advertising, we can manipulate the public. Get people to see another aspect of the diamonds. Another facet.” And he smiled, pleased with his pun. “We have our ways. It’s in our interest, too.”

“Yes,” Mica responded, but she wasn’t convinced. She was also afraid to make her fears known to these men.

“Let me tell you about the second blue diamond cut from theGreat Tavernier.”

Mr. Walters was more eager to pontificate than to sympathize with Mica.

“The Bonaparte diamond is square in shape, forty-three carats. Tavernier sold this one in 1669 to the Sultan of India who in turn sold it to a Japanese samurai. The samurai got involved in a battle and had to
relinquish the diamond when he was faced with a sword between his eyes. His conqueror took the diamond without anyone knowing. To make sure that no one learned about his acquisition, he slashed a hole in his leg, stuffed the blue diamond into the wound and wrapped the leg in a bandage. He traveled to the Sea of Japan where he found a captain who agreed to sail him to Russia. Once at sea, the captain stole the stone from the Japanese soldier who had bragged about his diamond wound when he was drunk. The captain sold it to a merchant who at first couldn’t sell it to anyone because it was stolen property. Then the merchant got smart and had false papers made.”

Mica started to sneeze. Everyone turned toward her. She was nervous she’d have problems selling the diamonds. Would they say it was stolen property? She had no papers, no documents, no proof of ownership. She didn’t want to sell them to an individual the way uncle Simion had done. At an auction, she knew she’d get a higher price and they’d have to back her up, legally. Perhaps they could arrange ownership papers?

“The merchant found the captain and forced him to buy back the blue diamond. The captain took the jewel, sewed it inside one of the sail’s batten pockets and voyaged on the Mediterranean Sea toward Egypt.”

His voice lulled Mica into a trance. Before her eyes, she saw appear the image of Tavernier as an old man in rags.He was holding in his hand a fistful of diamond powder.
     “My Friend,” he addressed her, sadly. “Look how I’m finishing my life.”

He raised his hand and the diamond powder slipped through his fingers.

“I have gone blind. What good are diamonds if I can’t see their glitter? I have paid too dearly. Now all I have is dust.”

Suddenly, dozens of wild dogs jumped on him and started to bite him and eat him.

He yelled, “Help! I am suffering. I don’t want to die like this. I should have paid heed to the curse.”

The last words Mica heard from him were, “Forgive me, Lord, for I have sinned.”

    Tavernier disappeared into a cloud of smoke and the dogs barked on. He had ended his life as a source of meat for rabid dogs.
     Mica closed her eyes and tried with all her might to kill the image of Tavernier, but she kept seeing him. She couldn’t stop hearing his cries. The dogs kept barking. She knew Tavernier had truly died this way. She looked at the three men in the room to see if they had seen Tavernier, but they were all busy, examining the blue diamond.

Mr. Walters continued talking, “This Bonapartediamond came into the public eye again in 1800 France when Napoleon became Emperor. Napoleon’s men had found the diamond in Egypt, in a Pharaoh’s pyramid when he and his army were there in 1798. Napoleon took the diamond back with him to France and embedded the jewel in his sword for his inauguration in 1800. Defying tradition, Napoleon crowned himself Emperor by taking the crown from the Pope’s hands into his own. Napoleon’s bad luck soon followed after he raised his diamond sword.

“Josephine, his first wife, couldn’t give him an heir and as such, although he loved her dearly, had to repudiate her. Talleyrand, his advisor, arranged a second marriage to Marie-Louise, daughter of Franz Joseph, Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Within a year Marie-Louise gave Napoleon a son, Le Roi de Rome – L’Aiglon.

“Napoleon’s happiness did not last. He started losing on the battle field. After Waterloo, he was exiled to the island of Elba and then after ‘the hundred days’, he was exiled again to St. Helena, where he died in 1815 alone and miserable.

“Marie-Louise had returned to Vienna with the diamond, prying it from Napoleon’s sword. She was a greedy woman.”

Mica put her hand on her heart.

“Misery followed the blue diamond. Her son, called The Duke of Reichstadt by the Austrians, died in his early twenties. Some say he was poisoned by Metternich.”

Mica covered her mouth to stop herself from shrieking. Simion gave her an angry stare. Mr. Walters talked on.

“The Bonaparte  diamond stayed in Vienna with Marie-Louise until her father, afraid of the diamond’s curse, insisted she send it back to France. She listened to him, but it was too late. She had already possessed the diamond. In fact, the story goes that Marie-Louise was quite possessed -she was cursed to be a nymphomaniac.

“In 1821 she married General de Neipperg, an Austrian count. It seems he died of over extension, trying to satisfy her desires. Widowed, Marie-Louise continued to indulge herself in her favorite pleasure. One day, she was with her entourage strolling in the Viennese Woods. Admiring a young lumberjack, she approached him. ‘Come with me,’ she said.

He, thinking she was a witch, crossed himself several times and ran away. Arriving at his cabin, he met his father and his five brothers. They all saw Marie-Loiuse running after the lumberjack… It was said, she had not only him but his entire family.

“Metternich was not happy with Marie-Louise; he exiled her to Palma. But in the sun, her activities were not curtailed. He sent an envoy, the Count de Bombelles, to survey her. She did what was good for her, seduced him and then married the Count. Continuing her escapades, in 1834 she was exiled again. The Count sent her to Bad Ischl to drink the bromide waters hoping to calm her down. He posted a guard to watch her. After many guards and a lot of water, she returned home to her husband quite satisfied. One night she went to the opera. It was with a handsome tenor that she enjoyed her last song.

“Some people suggested that on her tombstone should be written, ‘Here lies a woman who started with an Emperor and ended with a tenor.'”

Everyone laughed, even Mica. Always the actress, she suppressed her fears and pretended she was an opera singer. “Do, re, mi, fa, so”  she bellowed.

Mr. Walters went on with his narration, getting more and more excited. “The French government displayed the Bonaparte  diamond in the Louvre. But when the Germans invaded Paris in 1940, the French took it to a chateau in Bordeaux where they hid it in a stone wall. The chateau was bombed but the diamond survived – it was found amid the rubble. After World War II, the diamond was returned to its place in the Louvre where it now rests out of trouble.”

Mica stopped smiling. She wondered what would happen if she couldn’t find buyers for her diamonds. Would she be forced to donate them to a museum? No, she thought to herself. Never! Not after what I went through. I’m going to get rich with them and save my parents. I can do anything I want! Just like I escaped Communism. No one else got out the way I did. I’ll show that Tavernier. I can defy the curse and create my own life. I’m not afraid. I have will power!

Mr. Walters continued talking. “The third blue diamond, theGrisha diamond, is round and weighs forty-one carats. Tavernier sold this diamond in 1670 to a Mongolian Prince who put it in the eye of an idol. When there was an uprising in Mongolia, he took his god and its eye and ended up in St. Petersburg.

“In 1774, the diamond turned up again when Prince Orlov bought it as a gift for his mistress, Catherine the Great. But bored with Orlov, she ousted him from her bed, kept the gem, and found pleasure elsewhere.

“Legend tells us that Prince Orlov wrote Catherine a letter informing her that the diamond had a mate – another round shaped blue diamond from Tavernier’s original one,
a little less than forty carats. He called it the St. Petersburg diamond. If she’d agree to take him back, he’d give her the mate. Catherine refused. She preferred her freedom to the diamond, enjoying her other mates. Somehow, she got the St. Petersburg as well.”

“The diamonds were passed down to her heirs, the last Romanovs. Czar Nicholas paid dearly for Catherine’s treasures.

“It was Gregori Rasputin, the mystical monk, who precipitated the final curtain. Rasputin was a vulgar peasant who indulged in every cardinal sin, especially orgies. He had his way with women, including Czarina Alexandra. Her only son, Prince Alexis, suffered from hemophilia. Rasputin, by giving the Prince herbs from Tibet, convinced the entire family that he could control the disease. Somehow the herbs worked.”

Mica thought of herself, remembering how her mother used to give her herbal teas to soothe her colds. Then quickly, she dismissed the parallel – Alexis had died!

“What people don’t know is that Rasputin had a friend, a Jewish jeweler by the name of Aaron Simanovich, who controlled him. They met every day in St. Petersburg, always in secret, so Simanovich could coach Rasputin on how to act with the Czar and Czarina. In return for his advice, Rasputin agreed to be Simanovich’s business partner. The Czarina loveddiamonds. But she was stingy and had an aversion to paying. Simanovich gave her credit.

“Rasputin needed money to continue his debaucheries. He and Simanovich plotted to steal the Imperial diamonds and substitute them with imitations. But the scheme backfired – just one of the reasons why the aristocrats got angry at Rasputin and wanted him dead. “

Mica stood up. She put her hand to her throat and started to cough. Then she sat down. Mr. Walters looked at her oddly, but he continued on.

“When the Romanovs were assassinated in Sverdlovsk, it was said that the Czarina wore so many diamonds on her chest, that the bullets ricocheted throughout the room. The only way to destroy the last Romanov was to shoot her in the head.

“The Bolsheviks took over the Czar’s palaces and turned them into museums. The Grisha diamond went to the Hermitage which was the Winter Palace and the St. Petersburg diamondstayed at the Summer Palace in the countryside. The Communists were very happy to display the Imperial diamonds as an example of the Czar’s dissolution. In the 1930’s, Stalin sold many of the jewels and diamonds to the American Attaché and his wife, Marjorie Merriweather Post, as a way of getting hard currency and wiping out Russia’s past.”

Suddenly Mr. Walters shouted, “This blue diamond is the St. Petersburg diamond that was in the summer palace’s Amber Room. I know it! Listen to me!

“The Germans believed the Amber Room was theirs. The Amber Room was designed in 1716 by German artists for King Frederick’s country estate near Berlin. But Frederick’s son and heir was more than happy to give it away as a gift to Peter the Great, who in turn, put it in his summer palace in the countryside of St. Petersburg.

“The Amber Room was a marvelous treasure,” Mr. Walters said trying to control his emotions. “It was a series of large wall panels inlaid with tons of carved amber. Some of the panels had Italian mosaics made of semiprecious stones.”

Mr. Walters picked up the blue diamond and held it to the light. His face was flushed with excitement and Mica noticed his hand was shaking. In between his narration he kept mumbling, “This is fantastic. Fantastic. We’re witnessing history.”

He kept turning the facets in the overhead light. Mica’s eyes burned from the effervescent light so she turned to the diamond’s shadows on the white wall that looked like pointed swords. But Mr. Walters continued talking as if he was in a trance.

“In 1941 the Nazis stole the ‘Amber Room’ and took it to Königsberg in East Prussia. I remember reading that it was last seen in 1943. Some people believe it was destroyed by Allied bombings. Others say the Nazis hid it in a cave. Whichever…” and Mr. Walters’s voice rose with even more excitement. “The Germans dismantled the room, took the panels that were decorated with amber and semiprecious stones. They also took a hundred treasured objects that included paintings and precious jewels. Even colored diamonds.”

He rolled the blue diamond in the palm of his hand as if it were dice and he was ready to roll his lucky number. “The Amber Room has become a symbol of how war can destroy art.”

Mica looked down and in a bare whisper said, “This diamond survived.”

“Yes!” Mr. Walters shouted, laughing. “This is the missing St. Petersburg diamond that was in the Amber Room. It has the famous sixty-two facet cut. It’s classified as a type IIb diamond which phosphoresces a strong red color after it’s exposed to short wave, ultra-violet light. I’ll demonstrate what I mean.”

Mr. Walters took some instruments from a wall cabinet.

“Look at the red color!” he almost screamed. “Only Tavernier’s blue diamonds phosphoresce red. Look at the color meter. The diamond is turning as red as blood!

“This is the missing diamond,” he yelled. “I’ll show you pictures.”