If ever fate has lent a hand in determining the course of a diamond‘s story, it is this one. Just a few seemingly random events combined to influence its path through history, including a beginning that would have been much different, had its original owners not suddenly become interested in diamonds. Acting on their new found interest, these novices of the diamond trade would purchase and bring this diamond to America. Once here, this stone would enjoy the somewhat contested distinction of being – up to that time – the largest diamond ever cut in the U.S. In a curious twist it would not be named for anyone who owned it, but rather for the winner of a hotly contested Presidential election. An abortive effort to present the diamond as a gift to the winner of that election would lead to the diamond winding up in – of all places – show business. Initially becoming the property of a flamboyant and – to put it mildly – eccentric New York theatrical agent, the gem would eventually find its way to his wife — one of the most popular leading actresses of the time. So attached would she become to her beloved diamond she was hardly ever seen without it – even during her performances! Alas, even a diamond that size cannot overcome the human frailties of a doomed marriage and, after a nasty divorce, fate would allow the fabled stone to be subjected to a failed raffle and highly suspect auction during which it simply vanished. Its whereabouts remain a mystery to this day. Such is the saga of the Cleveland diamond.
This story begins with an attorney-at-law working in 19th century America. Diamonds were probably the farthest thing from lawyer David S. Dessau’s mind when he received, as payment for services rendered, a bag of nondescript, nearly worthless diamonds. Little did he realize that this event would change his life. One day, while fiddling around with the diamonds, he used one to scratch a window in his office. Intrigued by the fact that the diamond could mar glass with ease he started to explore other uses of these seemingly worthless stones. Upon discovering that there were practically unlimited industrial uses for such an abrasive he abandoned his law practice to begin manufacturing glass cutting tools — and in the process made himself a fortune. It was David Dessau who would single-handedly create a market in the United States for all those unwanted poor quality diamonds being mined abroad.
With his interests now firmly established in the diamond industry, David Dessau brought his son Simon into his business. It was Simon and his father, along with a man connected to show business by the name of John R. Rogers, who would purchase a South African diamond weighing somewhere (accounts vary) in the neighborhood of 100 odd carats in 1884. Although Simon had trained as a diamond cutter, it was decided to bring in someone with more experience and John Weiner was commissioned to perform the cutting. He fashioned the large rough stone into a cushion-shaped diamond weighing just under a still impressive 50 carats (conflicting accounts report the weight as 42 1/2 carats). It would enjoy the status of being either the first or second largest diamond (again, accounts vary) cut in the United States up to that time. A contemporary magazine article described the diamond as being
…white, without a flaw or fault of any kind…” 1
As it turned out, cutting it was the easy part, naming the freshly cut stone was another matter. Father and son could not agree on a name for their diamond. They also couldn’t agree on a candidate for the upcoming presidential election. It was finally decided they would wager the naming of the diamond on the outcome of the election – with the new President of the United States becoming the namesake of the stone. When the election results came in the diamond’s future identity was decided by one of the narrowest margins on record. Because of a difference of less than 26,000 votes the Dessau’s diamond avoided being named the Blaine diamond and forever became associated with the new 22nd President of the United States, Grover Cleveland.
It was an association that a group of wealthy New York businessmen wanted to take a step further by purchasing the diamond and presenting it as a gift to the newly elected President. However, their plan never really materialized and it was probably just as well as Cleveland had publicly proclaimed during a bitter, nasty campaign that he would not accept gifts while in office. The closest Mr. Cleveland ever came to his namesake was by photograph. According to a report from the New York Times, Cleveland was “highly delighted with it” when shown a picture of the diamond.
With the Cleveland episode now in the past, the Dessaus and co-owner John Rogers searched for a new owner who would eventually be the popular stage actress Minnie Palmer. A contemporary newspaper article described Miss Palmer as a
…pretty, pert, petulant, pouting bit of humanity with the step of a fairy, the carol of a bird and the exuberance of a schoolgirl…2
There are various accounts of how she came to acquire the Cleveland diamond.
One scenario, based on an article written in 1887 for the Sydney Mail, states Miss Palmer purchased the rough diamond from a London dealer for £8,500 and, after having it cut to a weight of 42.5 carats, it is described as being larger in diameter than a shilling. The story goes on with its description:
This has been mounted in claws of gold, with a reversible frame on a moveable pin; at one time it forms the centre to a gold rose about three inches across, and by a touch of the wearer the rose centre turns back and reveals the gem in all its beauty. In addition, there is an independent setting, the border of which is like a large dahlia of white enamel on gold, with a centre which is fitted with a mechanism exactly like that of a watch. Into this the Cleveland gem fits, and the machinery being wound up, the gem revolves for 12 hours. This is worn at the right side of the waist, in front and shines with unwonted brilliancy.3
Another story has Miss Palmer receiving the diamond as a gift from one of her many admirers, a certain Simon Dessau, one of the owners of the Cleveland diamond, and an acknowledged theatre aficionado.
However, verified documentation tells us Miss Palmer’s path to ownership of the Cleveland diamond begins with the other part owner of the gem, John Rogers. A theatrical booking and actor agent by profession, Rogers enjoyed dabbling in the diamond business as a sideline. It’s that sideline that propelled Rogers into a partnership with the Dessau family in purchasing the rough stone that was destined to become the Cleveland diamond. Eventually buying out his partners, Rogers becomes the outright owner of the stone and is seen wearing it in public. Meanwhile, he has cultivated an infatuation with his main client, Miss Minnie Palmer. Although Rogers is almost twenty years her senior they discover they share a common passion beyond the theater — that of fine jewels.
Throughout her illustrious career, Minnie Palmer enjoyed a reputation as a collector of fine gems and jewelry. But for Minnie collecting was not enough. While most actresses wore paste and faux jewels during their performances, it was not uncommon to see Miss Palmer give her audiences a special treat by wearing her own collection of spectacular gems on her costumes as she performed on stages all over the world. Over Minnie’s mother’s objections, Rogers and Palmer marry. Later, the love-struck Rogers has the Cleveland diamond fitted into a brooch and gives it to Palmer who promptly adds it to her collection of fine jewels that she flaunts on stage (whether Rogers’s gesture is done out of love or more as a publicity stunt to further Palmer’s career is up for debate).
Unfortunately, it’s not long before Rogers starts living up to his reputation as having a very serious streak of jealousy and a temper to match. In addition to those shortcomings, Rogers gains notoriety for a couple of other oddities, like crossing the Atlantic 111 times, being a fanatical threatening letter writer, and never, ever drinking water. It finally becomes all too much for Minnie when, in one of Rogers’ infamous jealous rages, he assaults her with a foot long carving knife. Much to the chagrin of the invidious and no doubt chronically thirsty Rogers, Miss Palmer seeks a divorce. Desperate to rid herself of the combustible Rogers, Palmer agrees to – among other things – divide their fabulous jewelry collection into equal halves. With her lawyers still working out the details of the divorce, a relieved Miss Palmer sails off to England, leaving behind her estranged husband – and the Cleveland diamond.
With Palmer overseas, Rogers continues working — now without his most famous client. By the end of 1891 or early 1892, he finds himself in financial difficulties and uses the Cleveland diamond as collateral to secure some badly needed loans. While Rogers is busy wrestling with his finances, an organization called the Actor’s Fund is planning to raise money to assist their struggling and aged members by holding a fair at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Recognizing a chance to make some money and get out from under his newly acquired loans, Rogers offers to the Actor’s Fund officials the Cleveland diamond as the prize of a raffle to be held during the fair. In return, Rogers requests his loans against the stone be paid off by the Actor’s Fund and that he receive half of the raffle’s profits. Officials of the Actor’s Fund agree to Rogers’s proposal and it’s not too soon after that that things start going wrong. Unbelievably, the Cleveland diamond fails to generate the kind of tickets sales both parties were hoping to achieve. Then, to add to their frustration, when the winning ticket is picked it’s an unsold ticket! Unlike today when an incident like that would just cause another raffle ticket to be drawn to determine a winner, contemporary rules stipulated that the diamond revert back to its owner. With that, the Actor’s Fund and Rogers agreed to auction off the diamond and split the earnings.
Leaving the auction organizing to the board members of the Actor’s Fund, Rogers sets sail for England on a mission to reconcile with his wife. Somehow he succeeds and Palmer abandons her efforts to divorce him. However, the reconciliation is short-lived and it is Rogers this time who initiates divorce proceedings making all kinds of wild claims against his wife in the process. Finally, they are granted a divorce.
With the distraction of his star-crossed relationship with his wife gone, Rogers realizes he has yet to be paid for his share of the sale of the Cleveland diamond by the Actor’s Fund’s auction and files a lawsuit against the organization. The lawsuit makes it all the way up the legal chain to the New York State Supreme Court. During the trial, a convoluted tale is spun by the members of the board of the Actor’s Fund claiming they had, as agreed to, auctioned off the diamond and had given half the profits to Rogers. Yet Rogers insists he had received no payment. It certainly must have raised a few eyebrows in the courtroom when the Actor’s Fund officials, pressed for details of the auction, could not recall any – including that of forgetting the name of the auctioneer! Despite the obvious, that the Cleveland diamond was the victim of some kind of shenanigans by someone associated with the Actor’s Fund, the case eventually disintegrated into something of a “he said, he said” standoff. Covering the lawsuit the New York Times noted
…there was no evidence that there ever was an auction, and nothing to indicate what became of the stone after the raffle.4
Considering there was such a lack of evidence, the court had little choice but to dismiss the case and with it any concentrated effort to locate the missing Cleveland diamond.
Hoping to dull the sting of his lost lawsuit, a defeated Rogers returns to England for another attempt at wooing back the beguiling Palmer. This time, a wiser Minnie rebuffs his overtures. Nevertheless, upon returning to the United States without her, the hapless Rogers clings to a belief – and tells all who will listen – that they are back together. Rogers lives to the age of 92, passing away in 1932 without ever reconciling with Palmer. Minnie would follow him in death four years later at the age of 76. Both would die without either one of them ever knowing what had become of the Cleveland diamond.
In 1966 efforts were made by Stephen Dessau, grandson of Simon, to locate the Cleveland diamond, reacquire it, and present it to the Smithsonian. His attempt was unsuccessful. The present whereabouts of Miss Palmer’s beloved diamond remain unknown.
Dessau Diamond is still in business today and continues to sell diamond infused tools.
- Balfour, Ian. Famous Diamonds, Woodbridge, Suffolk: Antique Collectors’ Club Ltd., 2009. Pp. 56-57.
- Copeland, Lawrence L. Diamonds… Notable and Unique, United States: Gemological Institute of America, 1974. Pp10.
- Dessau International, Inc., © 2008. Dessau Diamond
- Russell, Daniel. “The Cleveland Diamond: Mugwumps, Madness, Marital Mayhem and Mystery.” November 20, 2008. The Mystery of the Cleveland Diamond
- “’Cleveland Gem’ Mystery.” The New York Times, October, 27, 1903:16.
- “Miss Minnie Palmer’s Diamonds.” The Sydney Mail, January 8, 1887: 80.
- “Suit over ‘Cleveland Gem’.” The New York Times, October 24, 1903:16.
- “The Actors’ Fund Sued.” The New York Times, April 13, 1901: 9.
- “The Art of Cutting Diamonds.” The New York Times, August 7, 1885: 8
- “The Cleveland Gem: The Largest Diamond Ever Cut in this Country.” The New York Times, November 23, 1884: 3.