For some, a sapphire has not been their best friend
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.
After its brief television fame, the stone sat out of public view for the most part, making only occasional appearances at private charity functions. It has never been worn since.
Jack Armstrong says he was a 5-year-old living in Blair, Neb., when he first laid eyes on the Black Star. That summer, his father, an auditor, took him on a trip to Washington, where the Kazanjians had lent the stone to the Smithsonian for a display with the Hope Diamond. Armstrong said he breezed past the diamond but became fixated on the sapphire.
“It took my breath away,” he said. “It’s like you see your future in front of your eyes.”
In 2002, he was introduced to the Kazanjians and was invited to see their collection. When he saw the Black Star, he couldn’t believe he was looking at the stone from his childhood and immediately wanted to buy it.
Armstrong, a former model now in his 50s with no shortage of flamboyance, says he is an artist and a dealer of art and antiques. Attorneys have described him in court papers as a man with no discernible source of income who lived off a wealthy older girlfriend, a divorcee living in Switzerland.
“I’ve never met a personality like him,” said Doug Kazanjian, Michael’s son, who met with Armstrong about the sale. “He had this overwhelming passion to buy it.”
After the sapphire had been in the family for more than 50 years, the Kazanjians decided to sell it to fund a scholarship at the Gemological Institute of America.
Armstrong arranged to buy the stone with his girlfriend. He was so in love with it, he said, that he slept with it under his pillow and drove around with it in his jacket.
But love or no love, he was quick to slap on a price tag and offer it for sale. A month after he bought it for an undisclosed amount, he issued a press release saying the sapphire was available -- for $50 million.
“The sale of the Black Star sapphire is a huge event in the gem stone market,” Armstrong said in the press release in December 2002. “To have a stone like this come on the market is tantamount to having a Raphael painting suddenly emerge for sale; it happens maybe once, maybe twice in a lifetime.”
Gabrielle Grohe had never heard of the Black Star, and in hindsight, she might wish it stayed that way.
In her 60s and wealthy from an earlier marriage to an industrialist, she was introduced to Armstrong in 2002.
Her version of the tale, as told in court papers by her attorney, is filled with scathing accusations against Armstrong, her onetime lover. (Armstrong, whose attorneys never responded to the allegations, declined to discuss the court case.)
Within days of their meeting, Armstrong told her about the stone and pressured her to buy it. She paid the bill, and he promised to pay part of it, Grohe contended.
The next year, Armstrong moved to Switzerland to live with Grohe. Armstrong said in an interview that he went to Europe to pursue his art; Grohe contended he refused to get a job and relied on her for his extravagant living expenses.
Soon, their relationship soured. He drank heavily, became physically abusive and got angry when she brought up his promise to pay for the stone, she alleged. In September 2007, Grohe called the police, bought him a plane ticket back to the U.S. and kicked him out.
That marked the beginning of an international tussle for control of the stone.
The next month, Grohe met with a potential buyer in Canada, where the sapphire was on display at the Royal Ontario Museum, with its value then estimated at $4.1 million. Armstrong foiled her efforts at a sale, “desperate at the thought that his gravy train would end,” she alleged.
When the loan to the museum came to an end in 2008, Armstrong, who was listed as a co-owner in the museum’s records, went behind Grohe’s back and asked that it be shipped to him in Los Angeles, in care of the Harry Winston jewelry shop in Beverly Hills, according to court documents.
A few weeks later, Armstrong showed up at the shop with a woman he said was a buyer and asked for the stone. The salon director, Goli Parstabar, had learned of the dispute and refused.
Furious, Armstrong returned with police officers, but was rebuffed. Then he had an attorney send a demand letter. When that didn’t work, he sued Harry Winston for $25 million and issued press releases saying his stone was being held hostage.
“I was born in Kansas,” Armstrong told the New York Post, which ran a story with the headline “HEAVYWEIGHT GEM $CUFFLE.” “If something like this happened in Wichita, someone would have gone to jail!”
In court, the allegations escalated. Armstrong alleged that Parstabar had cost him a lucrative deal and ruined his reputation by refusing to show the stone to his client. Grohe accused Armstrong of fraud and unlawfully trying to take control of the stone, for which she contended he never paid a dime.
Doug Kazanjian wears his grandfather’s ring with a stone just like the Black Star -- only 700 carats smaller.
“It’s almost as if you’re looking into space,” he said of the stone. “It’s like having the universe on your finger.”
Last year, he was asked by an attorney in the case to identify his family heirloom.
He was ushered into a private room at a Beverly Hills bank, where attorneys, Parstabar, and Armstrong huddled around him. Before him was a tightly wrapped cardboard shipping box that had sat untouched since it arrived from Toronto. All eyes focused on him opening the box.
He sifted through bubble wrap and tissue paper until he found the velvet case holding the stone.
“It was like getting to see an old friend,” he recalled.
He inspected the diamonds, and the mounting. He scanned the graining at the top of the stone. He shined a flashlight to create the six point star.
This is the Black Star of Queensland, he wrote on a piece of paper, and signed it.
The legal dispute quietly settled out of court in a confidential agreement. According to a court document, Armstrong agreed to pay $500,000 within three months to buy out Grohe.
At 5 p.m., on the last day that he could claim ownership, a personal check from Armstrong arrived at Grohe’s attorney’s office. The check bounced.
A few months later, a judge entered a final ruling: the stone was all hers.
The Black Star of Queensland once again sits in obscurity, with its owner in Switzerland. Grohe wants to put that period of her life behind her and would rather not talk about it, her attorney said. She hasn’t decided what to do with the stone.
Armstrong, meanwhile, says it’s enough for him that he once held the sapphire he fantasized about as a child. Though he lost the court battle, the gem brought him good fortune in his work and life, he said.
He wants to make a film about the stone, he says, for “every little kid who dreams.” He says he is on the brink of a deal with a studio. He imagines it will be a tale of a princess trapped in an enchanted stone, and a boy who finds it by chance.
“It’s a magical story,” he said. “It should be told.”