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For some, a sapphire has not been their best friend

The 733-carat Black Star of Queensland is at the center of an L.A. legal squabble that centers on allegations of deception, unkept promises and a lover’s betrayal.

January 05, 2010|By Victoria Kim

The boy brought home a dull-colored half-pound stone he found on the hillside, and his father, Harry Spencer, thought of the perfect place for it. They would use it as a doorstop.

The year was 1938, and their home was a modest shack in a sparsely populated, dusty stretch of gem-mining territory in central Queensland, Australia. The stone sat at the backdoor for 10 years, until a jeweler recognized its potential and brought it across the Pacific. In Los Angeles, it was polished to reveal a six-pronged, mesmerizingly beautiful star -- or so goes the story that is passed down about the largest-known star sapphire in the world.

The Black Star of Queensland would make its way around the world, weaving in and out of spotlight and obscurity, with stops in the Smithsonian in the '60s, on Cher's neck in the '70s, and at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto in 2007. It would capture the fantasy of a young boy, who would dream of one day owning it. It would be mounted on white gold and 35 diamonds added around its rim.

Some profess the stone has a certain magic, bringing luck to the fortunate few who have touched it. One owner said it brought on the darkest period of her life, leaving memories she never wanted to revisit.

Eventually, as many prized things do, it landed in L.A. County Superior Court, at the center of allegations of deception, unkept promises and a lover's betrayal.

Harry Kazanjian learned to polish stones because of an eye infection. About 1908, his family fled from Turkey to France to escape the persecutions that preceded the Armenian genocide. When they tried to board a ship bound for the United States, guards wouldn't let young Harry on because of his eye. As his family sailed across the Atlantic, Harry stayed behind in Paris and apprenticed for his stonecutter uncle.

Kazanjian discovered he had a knack for envisioning a gemstone in the rough, the way sculptors see a finished work in a slab of marble. When he reunited with his family, he persuaded his brother James to go into the gem business with him.

The brothers traveled the world buying rare and valuable stones. The Spencer family had sold them many blue and yellow sapphires. One day in 1947, Harry Kazanjian saw a pile of black stones at the Spencers' home that they had thought worthless. He asked to inspect them, thinking they might be star sapphires. Spencer told his son to go get the doorstop.

In the fist-sized stone, Kazanjian spotted a copper-colored glimmer, a hint of the impurity that sometimes grows along a sapphire's crystals to create the star, an optical effect known as an asterism. He bought it, reportedly for $18,000, and brought it to the shop he ran with his brother in downtown L.A.

Amid the whirring of grinding wheels and hissing of polishing machines, Kazanjian studied the stone for weeks before cutting into it. Over months, he worked, bent over a copper wheel impregnated with diamond dust, gently carving away to create a dome.

"I could have ruined it a hundred times during the cutting," Kazanjian told a Times reporter at the time.

In 1948, the Black Star of Queensland debuted in New York. Actress Linda Darnell cradled the egg-sized stone in her fingers and held it up for the cameras. At 733 carats, it was far larger than the Star of India, a 563-carat blue star sapphire previously known to be the largest.

It was valued at $300,000, but the Kazanjians "declared emphatically" that it wasn't for sale.

Michael Kazanjian, Harry's nephew, spent his summers and weekends as a child at the shop, trying to emulate his uncle's craft on less-valuable gems. He had watched in awe as his uncle polished the Black Star.

To him, the stone was like a member of the family. He would occasionally visit it at the family vault and talk to it, and it would talk back, he said.

"The stone had a lovely personality," said Michael, who took over the family business in the 1970s. "Very dramatic, very powerful."

One day, in 1971, he saw an opportunity to show it off when a Hollywood manager called him with an odd request: "Can you put a few million dollars of jewelry on Cher?" By then, Sonny and Cher had seen their fame ebb. After a failed film venture and lackluster album sales, they were taking a stab at something new: a television variety show. In the premiere, they planned a sketch where Cher would be decked out in valuable gems, and security guards would keep Sonny away as he sang "Close to You."

Cher's first stop had been Tiffany's. But when the show's producers learned insurance would cost $8,000, they looked for another option.

Instead of insurance, Michael hired half a dozen police officers to escort him and the Black Star to the studio. The stone was tied on by hand with a flimsy wire to a necklace with about 100 carats of diamonds.

A few hours into the taping, he panicked. Cher was dancing. Michael jumped up on stage and stopped the take, fearing the stone would drop and shatter.

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