The Donnersmarck Diamonds
By Amber Michelle - Chief Curator & Storyteller
The Donnersmarck Diamonds. Photo courtesy Sotheby's.

The Donnersmarck Diamonds gained fame when they were gifted to La Païva, one of, if not, the most famous courtesan of the 19th century. When I saw the Donnersmarck Diamonds at Sotheby’s in New York, they were remarkable not only for their size — one is a fancy intense yellow 102.54-carat, SI1, cushion shape and the other, an 82.47-carat, VS2, fancy intense yellow pear shape — but for the story of the woman who originally owned them.

“These are two absolutely sensational stones, not only because they are wonderful diamonds, but because they have a fantastic historical connection,” says David Bennett, worldwide chairman, international jewelry division, Sotheby’s. “These are among the most important diamonds ever offered at auction from that period. They haven’t been recut or changed. You are looking at something that was worn 150 years ago.”

Moving to Paris
La Païva

La Païva’s story started in 1819 in Moscow, where she was born Esther Lachman to working-class parents. But Esther had much loftier goals.

When she was just 17 years old, Esther married a tailor and had a child. A year after her marriage, Esther abandoned her life in Russia and made her way across Europe, eventually landing in Paris with not much more than a healthy dose of ambition. Little is known about how she got to Paris, but once she got there it was thought that she worked in the city’s red light district.  She also adopted the name Thérèse when she got to France.

Her big break came in 1841 when she was 22 years old. She went to Ems, a Prussian spa town on the hunt for a wealthy benefactor. While there, she met pianist Henri Herz, who got her an apartment, clothes and jewels. Esther went back to Paris, where she began hosting a salon. Her parties attracted musicians, writers and artists, but that was not enough for her. Herz went to America and left Esther in Paris, where she was burning through his money. While Herz was away, his family tossed Esther out of his apartment.

Ever resourceful, Esther moved to London in 1847 to seek her fortune. It was a move that paid off well for her. Shortly after her arrival in London, Esther met Albino Francisco de Araújo de Païva, a Portuguese marquis. She married him and then dumped him the next day. She finally had what she wanted: A title.

La Païva, as she was now known, continued her life as a courtesan, but now she was a courtesan with a title. And that title helped her attract suitors who were wealthy and powerful. By now she had returned to Paris, where the opulent, anything goes Second Empire was in full swing. It was a time known for its decadence, flamboyance and a new order of society in which the old-school nobility rubbed elbows with the new money gained from various enterprises. And by now La Païva was a legend.

La Païva Meets Donnersmarck

In the early 1850s, La Païva met one of Europe’s wealthiest men — Guido, Count Henckel von Donnersmarck. The two eventually married in 1871. She was much older than Donnersmarck, but he was totally infatuated with her and he showered her with gifts of all kinds, especially jewelry. The couple were frequently found at Boucheron and Chaumet, adding to La Païva’s jewelry collection. Among his gifts to her were the two yellow diamonds now known as the Donnersmarck Diamonds.

“She had one of the greatest jewelry collections in France,” says Bennett. “It rivaled the collection of the empress.”

In 1855 La Païva bought a piece of land on the Champs-Élysées, where she built Hôtel Païva, an opulent home in which she had a staircase of yellow marble that according to legend was chosen to match the two yellow diamonds. War ravaged Europe again in the 1870s and La Païva and her husband moved to a country home in an area that is now part of Poland. She passed away in 1884. The Hôtel Païva was purchased by the Travellers Club in 1904 and the building remains in its possession today.

Donnersmarck Diamonds Passed to Second Wife

The Count married Katharina Wassilievna de Slepzoff and all of La Païva’s jewelry was added to her collection. The Donnersmarck Diamonds remained in the family until 2007 when they were auctioned at Sotheby’s Geneva. They sold for $7.9 million to a private collector. The Donnersmarck Diamonds were back on the block at Sotheby’s Geneva in November of 2017 but they were not purchased at that time.