Victoria Kim / Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES — 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 foot of the back door for 10 years, until a jeweler recognized its potential and flew it across the Pacific. In L.A., 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. Superior Court, at the center of allegations of deception, unkept promises, and a lover’s betrayal.
A keen eye
Harry Kazanjian learned to polish stones because of an eye infection. In about 1908, his family fled to France to escape the persecutions that preceded the Armenian genocide. When they tried to board a ship bound for the U.S., guards wouldn’t let young Harry on because of his eye. While his family sailed across the Atlantic, Harry stayed behind in Paris and apprenticed for his stone cutter 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 convinced 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, Kazanjian saw a pile of black stones at their home that the Spencers had thought worthless. He asked to inspect them, thinking they might be star sapphires. Spencer told his son to go get the door stop.
In the fist-sized stone, Kazanjian spotted a copper 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.
It was valued at $300,000, but the Kazanjians “declared emphatically” it wasn’t for sale.
Michael Kazanjian, Harry’s nephew, spent his summers and weekends as a child at his uncle’s shop, trying to emulate his 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 series. In their premiere show, 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.”
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.
Up for sale
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, D.C., where the Kazanjians had loaned 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 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. 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 the stone, 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 news 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 have wished 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 her one-time 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 footed 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 ticket back to the U.S., and kicked him out.
That marked the beginning of a transnational 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, then 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 .” “If something like this happened in Wichita, someone would have gone to jail!”
Fierce court fight
In court, the allegations escalated. Armstrong claimed Parstabar had cost him a lucrative deal and ruined his reputation by refusing to show the stone. Grohe accused Armstrong of fraud and unlawfully trying to take control of the stone, which she contended he never paid a dime for.
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.