High Tide

The CapeMay.com blog

Cape May Diamonds

This article originally appeared in the August 2009 issue of Cape May Magazine.

A necklace and unpolished quartz from Sunset Beach Gift Shop

My only engagement ring is a Cape May diamond. I treasure it and wear it as if it were the real deal.

Some years ago, my beau and I walked the Cape May Lighthouse beach. It was an afternoon in late May. Spring perfumed the air; the salty sea tang mingling with the smell of the first mow. We sat on a dune, lay back watching billowy clouds and fell into a deep sleep.

On waking, he said, “Let’s walk around the tip of the Cape, I want to show you some place special.” Our day ended at sunset, on Sunset Beach, overlooking Delaware Bay. There, a dozen or so beachcombers were in double-bends, peering into the sand, as though their noses were radar. Their search was for Cape May diamonds. The pebbles are quartz; the precious ones, clear as crystal, and a rare find. The more common ones appear frosted. The most desirable are tear-shaped, a beachcomber explained, are called “angel tears.” Stories were told, he said, that angels dropped tears from heaven in grief over orphan children.

Sunset Beach Gift Shop

We stopped in the Sunset Beach Gift Shop. It’s a store meant for beach lovers, with displays of sea shells, miniature lighthouses, books on shipwrecks. My beau and I went straight back to the glass cases showing a dazzling array of Cape May diamonds. “Pick whichever ring you wish,” he said. “I can’t afford a real one, but this one will be just as special until….” I was giddy as a school girl. In the trays before me, mounted on black velvet, were dozens of Cape May diamond rings. I chose a teardrop set in gold. Two carats of brilliance (even though I have to shine it up with Windex or Mr. Clean).

Still today, the gift shop remains the best place to find Cape May diamond rings, earrings, bracelets, necklaces, pins and tie tacks. The artist-in-residence, as she has been for 18 years, is Jeanette Fox Bartolomeo. The former librarian cherishes her unique fit in life. She collects the raw quartz pebbles on the beach and sifts out the sand. The best stones are selected to be sent off for three weeks of tumbling, using an abrasive to clean off residue, leaving a sparkling gem ready to be cut. At first glance, the crystals, once cut, look like real diamonds, but at a mere fraction of the cost. A genuine diamond sells for about $6,000 a carat. A Cape May diamond is $7.99 a carat!

Artist-in-residence Jeanette Fox Bartolomeo

Jeanette chooses and attaches each faceted diamond in a gold, sterling silver or platinum setting. This intricate work is accomplished in her home studio under powerful lights.

She minds the gift shop counter too, entertaining customers with the stories of Cape May diamonds while assisting the romantic and the curious in finding the gem best suited for a wedding, engagement, souvenir or gift.

“These beautiful gems we call Cape May diamonds are pure quartz crystals,” she says. “They are, in fact, semi-precious stones with a hardness of seven compared to a genuine diamond’s hardness of 10.” Like real diamonds, they are hard enough to cut glass.

Cape May diamonds are our today-connection with the Ice Age. Thousands of years ago, giant sheets of ice covered much of the East Coast. As the glaciers melted, moving northward, they deposited quartz pieces, chipped and torn from the upper reaches of the Appalachian Mountains in northeastern Pennsylvania. The Delaware was a young river then, over the millennia growing into the powerful body of water it is now, traveling 200 miles from its head waters to Delaware Bay to its rendezvous with the Atlantic Ocean. The waters sweep along the quartz pieces, breaking, buffeting, polishing the stones as they roll toward the Atlantic. Some scientists say it takes a stone 3,000 years to make the journey. The river continuously dumps quantities of the pebbles at the mouth of the bay where strong winds whip waves, tossing the stones onto the beaches. The decaying World War I Concrete Ship, the Atlantus, at Sunset Beach acts as a washing machine, the water swirling around it, and throwing up pebbles from the depths of the bay.

The swirling water around the sunken ship Atlantus helps throw pebbles up from the bay.

With luck, beachcombers find a gem dazzling in the sunlight – one that has been tumbled to the brilliance of a jewel from Tiffany’s. That is a rare find, indeed. Most appear frosted in milky white or cloudy beige. If held up to the sunlight, they are translucent. The stones range in size from a pea to an egg, though there are rare treasures that are the size of a baseball. Colors vary, but at the Sunset Beach shop, only the clear stones are available.

If the weather is right, Jeanette beachcombs a couple times a week, always for at least an hour. She runs her hand through her just-collected bucket of diamonds in the rough, and says it’s amazing how these simple stones link our ancient past and present.

The human story begins with the Kechemeche, a tribe of the Lenape of the Algonquin Nation. As the Kechemeche fished and hunted along the bay, they were the first to find the sparkling crystals on the sandy beaches from Cape May Point north to New England Creek, including areas that would later be named Higbee and Diamond beaches. The Native Americans came to believe the translucent gems possessed supernatural powers, bringing good luck and friendship. Bonds of friendship were often sealed with the best stones as gifts.

Victorian-era necklace created by Joseph Swift Hand, owned by Mrs. Clifford Newbold Large.

In the late 1600s, as the whalers from New England and Long Island came ashore, they faced little resistance from the Kechemeche, who were a curious people, not a warring tribe. They traded with the new settlers, and sometimes closed their deals with their prized beach gems as signs of peace and good will.

The greatest story told portrays King Nummy, the last chief of the local Lenape, bestowing his precious Cape May diamond on whaler Christopher Leaming as a signature of friendship. This tale has been passed down through the ages as a legend of the mystical powers of the humble pebbles found on the bay beaches.

It was an exciting day when researchers seeking the origins of the local diamonds at the Cape May County Historical and Genealogical Society library in Cape May Court House discovered documents deep in the archives proving the legend to be a true story.

A 1939 issue of the Philadelphia Bulletin reports that the diamond was, at that time, in the possession of Mrs. Genevieve Leaming Sheppard Stevens at 1019 New Jersey Avenue, in Cape May:

“While the fame of Cape May diamonds has spread around the world, the original cut Cape May diamond has reposed in the safekeeping of members of the Leaming family, who have passed it down from generation to generation. Since coming into Mrs. Stevens’ possession, the original Cape May Diamond has been safeguarded most of the time in a safe deposit box in a local bank.

This 1,800 carat Cape May diamond, one of the world’s largest, is on display at the Cape May County Historical and Genealogical Society

“This unique and exquisite, flawless jewel, a gem of its kind, like the family in whose possession it has remained from the earliest Colonial period, is inseparably interwoven with the history of New Jersey from the very beginning.”

King Nummy is described as presenting the diamond to Christopher Leaming on the occasion of his marriage [in the 1750s]. “The union… to Sarah, the daughter of Jacob Spicer, 2nd, was a festive occasion. According to the family tradition a great throng from far and near gathered to do honor to the contracting parties and to express by their presence and substantial and valuable gifts the affection in which they regarded the young people.” King Nummy, it is said, believed the Great Spirit was actually “tabernacled” in the stone.

Christopher Leaming, understanding the possibilities of the stone, sent it to Antwerp, Holland, where, “It came under the fashioning artistry of a famous lapidary, who set free its scintillating beauties and who returned this gem to its American owner in its present magnificent setting.”

A Cape May Diamond in the rough. Ring designed by Adrienne Elizabeth Scharnikow

In 1961, Karl Dickinson, the curator of the Cape May County Historical and Genealogical Society, was in search of the whereabouts of the famous diamond. He wrote Robert Alexander Montgomery, founder of the Montgomery, Scott & Co. financial house in Philadelphia, and received a response: “My paternal grandmother was a Leaming, and therefore, I am descended from the original Leaming settler in Cape May (Christopher). …Several years ago, I acquired from my cousins, Rev. and Mrs. Stevens, the so-called King Nummy Cape May Diamond that was given by said King to the Leamings about 1750. It is a piece of Quartz, Emerald cut, and resembles what would be about a 20 Carat Diamond. As a matter of fact, I have copies of a very extensive description of this stone setting that was written up in one of your local papers several years ago…”

Fourteen years passed, and on March 6, 1975, Mr. Montgomery answered a correspondence from Karl Dickinson saying, “You will be pleased to know that my wife wears the Leaming Cape May Diamond with great pride, and in due course it will be the property of my oldest granddaughter, who is now already sixteen!”

Oh, wonderful, we thought, for our renewed search for the Cape May Diamond in 2009! Mr. Montgomery was a famous Philadelphian, and chances are we can locate the diamond today, and take photos of it, and update the King Nummy legend.

The Ardrossan estate, the last-known whereabouts of the Leaming Cape May Diamond. Photograph courtesy Ryan Richards/Main Line Media News

Robert Alexander Montgomery had lived at Ardrossan, the 360-acre Radnor, Pennsylvania estate that inspired the movie The Philadelphia Story in which Katharine Hepburn played Tracy Lord, modeled after Montgomery’s sister, Hope Montgomery Scott. She was known as Philadelphia aristocracy’s most flamboyant best-dressed hostess, equestrian and shepherd of her beloved purebred Ayrshire cows that grazed the landscape.

The Montgomery family is legendary in its own right. Patriarch Robert Leaming Montgomery, “The Colonel,” was foxhunting one day in the undulating Radnor countryside. At the top of the rise his horse bucked, throwing Montgomery to the ground. The hunt and his horse rode on, leaving Montgomery sitting on his butt in the thick grass. He surveyed the landscape from the hilltop and vowed it would be this spot one day where he would live. He did just that. With the money made in his financial company, the Montgomery mansion – with its 50 rooms, walnut-paneling, exquisite antiques, Persian rugs and fine paintings – rose from the hilltop in 1911. Cole Porter himself played piano at parties. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor were guests. MGM producers found the mansion too grand as a set for The Philadelphia Story, and shot the movie elsewhere.

Hope Montgomery Scott. Photograph courtesy Ryan Richards/Main Line Media News

It is in this setting that R. Alexander Montgomery’s wife wore the famous 20-carat Cape May Diamond. Ah, but who is wearing it now? Mr. Montgomery died in 1997 at age 85. Among his survivors is a daughter, Alexandra Montgomery Estey. Certainly she will know of the diamond’s whereabouts. I located Mrs. Estey, and though charmed by the legend of the diamond and its special place in her family’s history, she had no memory of it, and no idea of where it might be. She checked with other family members. To her chagrin, the diamond was not to be found.

Both she and her brother indicated their father had fallen on some bad financial times, and at one point, was forced to liquidate personal treasures – sometimes with pawn brokers – to pay off debts. For his children, there was no trust fund legacy.

Alexandra Estey is pleased to know the story of the diamond, but sorry that its centuries-old link to Leaming descendants has been broken, for the time being. She does have hope that one day the famous family diamond will be found. Her faith springs from another family story.

Her son’s grandfather and namesake, Navy Lt. N. Minter Dial, was a World War II hero who was taken prisoner by the Japanese at Corregidor in the Philippines. He survived the Bataan Death March and three years in POW camps, but was wounded by U.S. fire on a Japanese prisoner ship. As he lay dying, he passed his 1932 Annapolis class ring to a fellow officer for delivery to his wife. Even Ripley’s Believe it or Not would not believe that the ring was saved as it was being melted at a Korean pawn shop 18 years later by a classmate of Dial’s, and returned to the family.

“Miracles do happen,” says Alexandra Montgomery Dial Estey. She cherishes the story of the Cape May Diamond and wishes to see it one day.

Sometimes real life is the greatest playwright.