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Jewels of the Regency: Pigot’s Diamond

Updated: Apr 23

By Julie Cooper, author of Mr Darcy’s Abducted Bride 



During the Regency era, jewellery was created for the stone, not the other way round—and wearing ‘trinkets’ was not as popular as one might think. Too much glitter meant a garish lack of modesty, to be avoided at all costs.


Avoided that is, unless one was the Prince Regent, later King George IV. At his legendarily flamboyant coronation at Westminster Abbey in 1821, his diadem was set with 1,333 diamonds, including a four-carat pale yellow brilliant in its centre.


Perhaps having such ostentatious examples before him led Mr Collins to treasure Fordyce, who famously sermonised, “Female modesty is often silent; female decorum is never bold.”


Regency cultural humility does not prevent Fitzwilliam Darcy, in my latest novella, Mr Darcy’s Abducted Bride, from desiring to purchase a fabulous jewel to grace Elizabeth’s light and pleasing fingers. The very best destination for a Regency gentleman in search of a stone? The illustrious royal jewellers, Rundell, Bridge, and Rundell.


Today, the brilliance of any jewel is enhanced by advanced cutting techniques, but during the Regency, such techniques were fairly primitive and foils were used to achieve the required sparkle. Stone sizing was not standardised, and weights were often referred to in ‘grains’ rather than carats—approximately 50 grains to a carat.


One of the most famous jewels of this period—and obviously familiar to Mr Darcy—was the Pigot Diamond, also known as the Lottery Diamond—a colourless, oval-shaped brilliant weighing in at a whopping 47.38 carats, from the Golkonda mines of India. It was obtained by Sir George Pigot during his term as British governor of Madras, the capital city of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu for the East India Company. He may have received it from an Indian prince in 1763—or from Muhammad Ali, the Nabob of Arcot.



According to Famous Diamonds, by Ian Balfour, it was described as follows: “Its form is of a perfect oval about one and a quarter inches [31.75mm] in length by three-quarters of an inch [19.05 mm] broad. The water of it is of the most pure description and there is but only one imperfection in it and that does not interfere in the least with either its colour or brilliancy and must indeed be pointed out before it can be discerned. The defect alluded to is a very small red foul (so called by Jewellers) very near the girdle or edge of the diamond. The weight of this most beautiful Jem is 187 ½ gr.”


The cutting of it was said to have taken two years at a cost of £3,000. The size of the rough stone is estimated to have been around 100 carats (20 g). At the time, it was the largest diamond in England.


On Pigot’s death in 1777 it went to his family, but beyond his nephew--brother Robert Pigot’s son, George--his sister, Margaret, and brother Hugh’s widow and five children, the records of its ownership are a little hazy. Bachelor Sir George had no legitimate children, but plenty of natural ones, some of whom might have also been heirs. (This author remains unsurprised by this tit-bit; one can envision many women hoping to one day wear a near-50 carat diamond, and it must have been a one-of-a-kind pickup line: “Doest thou wish to taketh a peek at my stone?”) 


At any rate, the diamond remained in the extended Pigot family. The joint owners tried to sell it, but the perceived value of the stone was so high, they received no reasonable offers. It was just too big and too expensive, and, as one commenter said, “There was no one ready for the possession of a thing which could only gratify taste by its beauty, and vanity by its rarity.” Or in other words, “We are all much too modest and discreet to wear a flashy diamond the size of the Regent’s nose!”


With the highest offer received (£11,000) coming in at much less than half, possibly a third of its value, it became obvious that the only way to realise its true worth was via public lottery—which required an act of Parliament. After quite a bit of opposition, a bill was agreed upon and July 1800 saw the publication of “An Act to enable Sir George Pigot, Baronet, Margaret Fisher and Frances Pigot, to dispose of a certain Diamond … by a Lottery.” A total of 11,428 consecutively numbered tickets could be sold at 2 guineas each, making £23,998.16s the maximum sum that could be realized (a guinea was £1.1s). Since the values placed on the stone by experts ranged from “£25,000” to “cheap at £30,000” it was not exactly a windfall.

 

Ads for the lottery began appearing in August. Perhaps the most remarkable marketing pitch for lottery tickets appeared in The Oracle and Daily Advertiser on November 18, 1800, a sort of early version of an astrology column: “The Goddess Fortune at the same time that she recommends the Pigot Diamond to the patronage and protection of the Ladies in the Imperial Dominion of Britain; declares likewise that it shall be given to the Fairest who of them would not therefore adventure the trifle which purchases a ticket in the Lottery for the Superb Jewel when the fortunate she who obtains it, will not only excel most of her competitors in Fortune but also All of them in Beauty as the Deity above mentioned has declared.” 


Translated from Regency-speak, this means ‘if you win it, you’re the prettiest risk-taker in the kingdom’. 


Pigot lottery fever ensued. In a letter probably written to Lady Hamilton, Lord Nelson said: “Pray, as you are going to buy a ticket for the Pigot Diamond—buy the right number, or it will be money thrown away.”


Ultimately, a lot of buyers were willing to toss their guineas away, and on March 2, 1801 at Guildhall, London, using the State Lottery wheel, ticket number 9488 was drawn. John Cruikshank, stockbroker of Birchin Lane, London; Richard Blanchford, lace manufacturer, Exchange Alley, London; John Henderson of the London stock exchange and William Thompson of Walworth were the lucky winnrs, having gone in together on the ticket. The four men, of course, were now faced with the same issue as the Pigots—how to get their money out of it? Within a year it was sold at auction by Christie’s


Christian Augustus Gottlieb Goede, a German attendee of the auction, recalls: “I attended [Christie’s Auction House] when the famous Pigot diamond was to be disposed of by this celebrated orator, [James Christie] and his rooms were so well and fashionably crowded, that I had difficulty to find a place. He opened the business of the day by a lively, pleasant, witty exordium, in which he traced the history of the diamond…. Nor did he forget to compliment the English ladies, whose ‘Superior charms robbed jewels of their value, and whose simplicity of attire disdained the aid of foreign ornament’.”


It remains uncertain whether Christie’s patter declaiming English modesty did much to raise the bidding. The hammer dropped on a sale price of a mere £9,500, to a Mr Parker of Parker & Birketts, Princess Street, London and, in what may have been the plan from the beginning, from thence to a partnership in the stone with Rundell & Co.


By 1804, Napoleon, it became known, was interested in securing a lot of jewels in preparation for his emperor-hood (obviously, he and the Regent shared a similar taste in coronation-wear) and Rundell and Parker saw their opportunity to make a killing. Unfortunately, English and French relations being what they were at the time, they had no way to present the stone to Napoleon’s agents, Lafitte & Co. Using a trusted employee of French descent, with the stone sewn into his underwear, Rundell snuck it into France.


And there it languished in the vaults of Lafitte & Co, as Napoleon was too suspicious of its origin to complete the sale. Mr Parker became very impatient, and Rundell (now Rundell & Bridge) paid him off for the sum of 8,000 guineas. E.W. Rundell went to France to fetch it after Waterloo in 1814, and then had to flee Paris when Napoleon escaped exile in Elba. It was not until after an international lawsuit or two that Lafitte & Co finally restored the stone to Rundell & Bridge in 1816.


It was reliably reported in England as late as 1821. Muhammed Ali—the self-declared Khedive of Egypt--ultimately paid £30,000 for the diamond, the sale being negotiated through Samuel Briggs, British Consul in Alexandria. The date of the sale is often given as 1830, but Briggs himself is supposed to have dated the sale to 1822, and another report says that “In 1823 he [Muhammed Ali] caused the Pigot diamond to be purchased for him of Messrs. Rundell and Bridge, of London, for 30,000£ sterling.”


Nothing is known of the stone after its Egyptian journey—Muhammed Ali reportedly purchased it for Mahmud II, the Ottoman sultan in Istanbul as a sop for keeping out of his war, and most later stories of its sighting have been disproved. 


This author prefers to think of it set upon the shelf in some private collection of a megalomaniac, after having passed through the hands of pashas and princes and terrible powers—just waiting for Bond, James Bond, to extricate it, smuggling it out in his underwear. 


For the Pigot Diamond, it wouldn’t be the first time.





Sources:




Balfour, Ian. Famous Diamonds, London: Christie, Manson & Woods Ltd., 2000. pp. 205-209, as quoted by Antique Jewelry University, https://www.langantiques.com/university/pigot-diamond/



Ogden, Jack. “England’s Largest Diamond, The Pigot” Gems & Jewellery History, April 2009, Volume 18, No 2; “England’s Largest Diamond, Part 2”, Gems & Jewellery History, July 2009, Volume 18, No 3



Image Sources (all public domain)


Royal diadem, Royal Collection Trust

George Willison, Baron George Pigot










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1 Comment


lucysmarin213
Apr 16

Very amusing! I know next to nothing about jewellery, and it was interesting to learn more about the Pigot diamond. Thank you! <3

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