The best of historical fiction begins with the real life of an extraordinary person whose escapades have been lost to history and then recreated by an author. The French Blue, written by Richard W. Wise, is the story of Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, the son of a map maker who became a gem merchant during the 17th Century. Over nearly forty years, Tavernier made six voyages from Paris across Europe through Persia and on to India, along the way engaging in military, political and romantic exploits as he became a well-known gem trader.
On his first voyage to Constantinople and Persia in 1631, Tavernier was searching for exotic things that he could bring back to Paris. He noticed the “turkey stone” that Persian noblemen wore in their sword hilts. With the help of an engaging young boy from a family of turquoise miners who acts as interpreter, he makes his way to the mines in Madam where the best angustari turquoise is mined. His intrepid guide educates him in the fine art of negotiating with the village sheik for the best quality stones at the lowest price. First the buyer would be shown the lesser quality stones and quoted a high price, the buyer was to walk away and return the next day. This dance continued until the sheik and the buyer agreed to a price without either of them losing face.
The Frenchman learned the ways of his Middle Eastern hosts, the cups of tea and the specially prepared foods that were all a part of the negotiations. Tavernier learns everything he comes to know about the gem trade from Sheik Arash and from his cousin Pierre Torreles a respected diamond cutter in Paris. On his subsequent five voyages, Tavernier seeks the finest pearls, diamonds and gemstones to bring back to Paris where the jewels command high prices. He becomes a wealthy man. Cardinal Richelieu sends him to India to purchase diamonds.
The voyages last for years. Tavernier saw more of the known world in the mid 1600’s than most. The voyages were long and treacherous, by sea and overland by pack animals. Tavernier maneuvers among the British, the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the Swedes. The exotic cultures of North Africa and India are truly foreign to the sophisticated Frenchman. Much of the narrative is based on Tavernier’s own journals; he is opinionated, ethnocentric and a womanizer, the epitome of the European explorers who traveled the world imposing their values and taking the wealth of the regions back with them.
It was on his last voyage that Tavernier acquired a magnificent 116 carat blue diamond. He called it The French Blue and decided that the only buyer worthy of it was King Louis XIV, the Sun King. Louis would buy the diamond and give Tavernier a title. Louis XV would have the diamond re-cut and set into the Jewel of the Golden Fleece; it would later be re-cut again, stolen and recovered. Thus begins the journey and the legend of what is now called The Hope Diamond.
The French Blue is part palace intrigue, part spy thriller (complete with assassination plots) and part romantic bodice-ripper. But it is mostly an entertaining romp and instructive view of the gem trade in the 17th Century. Illustrated with engravings that are Tavernier’s own, it describes in detail how gems were mined and cut in the 1600’s, the acquisition of gemstones by the rulers of the day and the fabulous wealth and excesses of the Persian, Indian and Parisian empires.
Written by Richard W. Wise, himself an international gem dealer, The French Blue is a must read for the gem enthusiast and historical fiction lover. Wise's first book, The Secrets of the Gem Trade is a fascinating account of modern gem collecting. The French Blue is published by Brunswick House Press and is available from Amazon.
by Marylouise Sirignano Lugosch