An Expensive Farce
( Originally Published 1911 )
THE first decade of the twentieth century has brought to light the greatest diamond and the most audacious swindle in the history of diamonds.
In May, 1905, a Frenchman named Henry Lemoine approached Sir Julius Wernher, of the London firm Wernher, Beit & Co., a large diamond house, with a scheme for making diamonds synthetically. He claimed that he could produce diamonds by means of an electric furnace, which could not be distinguished from natural ones.
He had already had some experience in fishing with his tempting bait among smaller fry, and it is known that he had gathered in a few thousands here and there, in amounts of from one to three thousand dollars, from his dupes. It may be that greater successes had re-warded his efforts, for most men who have been swindled dislike publicity and would rather suffer the ills they have, in the solitude of their own knowledge, than expose them for the amusement of their friends; it was sufficient to embolden him to carry his scheme to a place where one might think there was the smallest possibility of success and the greatest certainty of exposure for a fraud, the heart of the diamond business. Perhaps the audacity was a convincing argument in favor of his ability to do what he claimed. The stakes were large ; millions of dollars worth could be sold, the stock market could be manipulated for millions, or the formula would be worth millions to the men who controlled the natural supply.
Whatever the arguments or apparent proofs submitted, Sir Julius became sufficiently interested to go to Paris and visit Lemoine's house in the Rue Lecourbe to see what could be done. There, Lemoine convinced his visitor that he had actually manufactured some diamonds which were found in the furnace at the conclusion of his experiments. Lord Armstrong was also invited to be present at another seance and was equally certain that they were diamonds which were produced in the furnace, and that no trick had been performed. It has been said since, that a person has been discovered who supplied Lemoine with fusible plugs, in which it is supposed the diamonds afterwards found in the crucible, were concealed.
As a result of these demonstrations Sir Julius Wernher gave Lemoine $320,000 for the establishment of a laboratory at Pau.
Previous to approaching Sir Julius in the first place, Lemoine had deposited in the Union of London and Smith's Bank, a sealed envelope which he claimed contained the formula for making diamonds.
Time moved along at its usual rate, but the pace was too fast for the diamond magician. The diamonds did not materialize with the same speed ; indeed, they were altogether wanting. Doubts followed impatience and finally developed full-fledged and active suspicions, which culminated in the arrest of Lemoine in Paris in January, 1908, at the instance of Sir Julius Wernher, charged with fraud. The mysterious envelope was called for. Sir Julius offered Lemoine an additional $8o,000 for it, but the prisoner, assisted by his counsel, Maitre Labori, strenuously resisted every attempt to obtain possession of the envelope, and Mme. Lemoine was sent to London to stop the Bank from giving it up. Sir Julius followed post haste to secure it if possible, before she got an injunction preventing. Lord Arm-strong defended the Frenchman by saying that the crystals he made were certainly genuine diamonds. It looked like a fight for millions between an inventor and capital.
The newspapers exploited the matter, and though the affair was covered with the earmarks of fraud, many believed that the envelope in London contained the great secret. In the trade, the claim had little if any influence.
Revelations came with the trial. Lemoine accused Sir Julius of conspiring with him to sell the secret to the De Beers Company for $25,000,000. The Frenchman was said to be preparing to buy De Beers shares when they dropped on the publication of stories about his success. There seemed to be more need for a press-agent and a broker, in the scheme, than a laboratory.
Lemoine was held prisoner for two months, during which the contest for the envelope was transferred to London. The Bow Street magistrate refused to allow anyone to remove it. The Court of King's Bench re-versed his decision on April 30, and authorized the Bank to hand it over to the French court. Before that decision, Lemoine maintained the attitude of a man fighting desperately to hold a valuable secret. The Paris correspondent of the Daily Telegraph sent the following to his paper :
" M. Lemoine has had a slight attack of influenza. He has, however, made some further statements which are worth noticing, and one is that the sealed envelope deposited in the London bank does not contain the formula for making diamonds, but concerns the manufacture of bort. As regards this, he says that the truth has never before been made public. There were two distinct con-tracts, one concerning the manufacture of bort, and the other that of diamonds. The second contract was never carried out. M. Lemoine offered no further explanation on this point.
" Regarding his future experiments, he will not let the public, and especially the newspapers, into the secret as to the time and place, though he allowed it to be under-stood that the time would most likely be in July. He does not wish to be disturbed by troops of reporters hanging about his door when he is engaged in the manufacture of diamonds. Of course, he will have to in-stall an entirely new workshop before he can resume operations."
The release of the envelope to the French Court drove Lemoine to an extremity. He was equal to the situation. He said he had no objection to prove his ability to the Court by actually manufacturing diamonds, but would not consent to have his secret formula read and published. That appeared reasonable. He was afforded every facility and given until June 9 to make his claims good. On the 9th he appeared in court and said that unforeseen circumstances had rendered his experiments abortive, but with the greatest confidence asked for and obtained another week's time. He did not appear then, and it was announced that he had fled. The envelope was then opened and the formula read. It was lengthy but the gist of it was " Place powdered carbon and sugar in a crucible in an electric furnace. Use a current of from 1,500 to 1,800 amperes under a tension of 110 volts, and so heat to 1,600 degrees. Then put pressure on the cover of the crucible and diamonds should be found therein." It was another, " should be," which does not happen.
The judge, after stating that he had received a let-ter from Lemoine, saying that he had failed at his St. Denis factory, but intended to continue his studies else-where, ordered the case to be sent before the Correctional Court, by which Lemoine would be given the maximum penalty of twenty years' imprisonment by default.
So ended another lesson.