Quite the gem dandy

Once over­looked, now breath­tak­ing in its beauty, a 733-carat sap­phire has a his­tory wor­thy of its weight.

Los Angeles Times - - Front Page - 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 six­pronged, 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

Hwould 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. arry 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 563carat 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 $50mil­lion.

“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.”

vic­to­ria.kim@la­times.com

CBS/Lan­dov

ON SONNY AND CHER’S SHOW: Cher is adorned with the Black Star of Queens­land on TV in 1971.

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