Reflections on a collection of Golconda and Brazilian diamonds
When Shakespeare in 'Pericles' speaks of the "diamonds of much praised water" worn by kings and queens in their "golden palaces" he may well have been inspired by stones like these. Each is a poem in itself, remarkable in shape, cut and colour, conjuring up romantic visions of their former owners.
Although their names are lost to us we do know something of the circumstances in which these stones were mined and sold, thanks to the seventeenth century French jeweller, Jean Baptiste Tavernier, who recorded his travels in search of diamonds in the book, 'Voyage en Turquie, en Perse et aux Indes' (1679). His journey to the five centres - Raolconda, Gani, Soumelpoor, Golconda and Visapour - situated on the East side of the Deccan plateau of India was surprisingly easy. He was not plagued by lions, tigers and robbers, but on the contrary found the road "free of these wild creatures and the people very loving and courteous." In some places the diamonds were extracted with hooked iron instruments from fissures in sandstone rocks and elsewhere material excavated from river gravels was gathered into a walled enclosure, crushed, immersed in water and finally sifted into baskets and sorted by hand. Before the operation began it was blessed by a priest who brought a statue of a Hindu divinity and all the low caste men, women and children employed, after prostrating themselves before it several times, would eat a plate of rice with melted butter and sugar. The primitive methods which Tavernier describes had obviously remained unchanged for centuries - no doubt dating back to the age of the mine itself?
What intrigued him was the manner in which the great merchants drove their bargains. Their appearance was generally unprepossessing, and he was able to acquire a diamond weighing 48.50 carats and of fine water from a miserable looking individual, clad in a dilapidated loin cloth. However, when he removed his turban, there, hidden away in his long flowing locks, was this magnificent stone which he then preceded to sell. Like all transactions this took place in silence, with no talking on either side. "The buyer and the seller sit before one another like two Taylors and then one of the two opening his girdle the seller takes the right hand of the purchaser and covers his own hand and that with his girdle under which in the presence of many merchants who meet together in the same hall the bargain is secretly driven without the knowledge of any person. For then the purchaser nor seller speak neither with their mouths nor eyes, but only with the hand, as thus: When the seller takes the purchaser by the whole hand that signifies a thousand, and as often as he squeezes it, he means so many thousand Pagods or Roupees according to the money in question. If he takes but half to the knuckle of the middle finger that's as much as to say 50. The small end of the finger to the first knuckle signifies 10. When he grasps five fingers it signifies 500 if by one finger, one hundred. This is the mystery which the Indians use in driving their bargains. And many times it happens, that in the same place, where there are several people, one and the same parcel shall be sold seven or eight times over and no person know that it was sold every time in that manner."
Tavernier only mentions one other source of diamonds besides India and that was Borneo, where, as he said, there were very few stones ever offered for sale as the Queen of that country refused to export them. The first real threat to the long preeminence of India did not come until 1725 with the discovery of mines in the Minas Gerais province of Brazil. There, thousands of negro slaves collected huge quantities of dry clay earth from the deep ravines on the mountain slopes which they then removed to a higher level and washed out by hand in shallow wooden baths, supervised by overseers holding whips and guarded by Portuguese soldiers. Such was the strength of the Golconda legend that to sell these stones they had to be sent to Goa before re-exporting to Europe so they could be presented as of Indian provenance. There was some reason to believe in the superiority of the Indian diamond in so far as the largest stones still came from there as well as the purest white and prettiest fancy coloured specimens. However, for the smaller stones it was impossible to see any difference between them.
How did these diamonds get to Europe? There had always, since Roman times been enterprising individuals who managed to overcome the dangers of transporting them away from India but few are recorded until the late sixteenth century. Ever since Vasco da Gama sailed to India via the Cape of Good Hope the Portuguese had been active gem traders, importing stones from their port at Goa into Lisbon and from thence for cutting in Antwerp. Elsewhere in India the East India Company exercised a monopoly that was difficult to enforce. Venice was another centre and one who took advantage of the opportunities there was the young Paul Pindar (1565-1650) while employed as factor to a London merchant. After eighteen years trading in stones he moved to Aleppo and from 1611-20 was ambassador in Constantinople. Returning to London he was knighted in 1620 and spent the rest of his life in a splendid mansion in Bishopsgate. The diamonds he sold were renowned for their quality and always known as "Pindars". Trading continued in a haphazard way until 1664 when the East India Company relinquished the monopoly and permitted outsiders to deal. This change of policy coincided with the arrival in London of Portuguese Jewish merchants who brought their own gemmological and financial skills to the business which for the first time was organised on a professional basis. They exported silver, coloured stones, amber and coral to India and imported uncut diamonds which they forwarded to Amsterdam for cutting and polishing. As a result of their expertise London became the centre of the international trade so that by 1695 the merchants could declare in a petition to the EI company that "diamond business formerly driven by way of Italy or Portugal has become almost a sole English trade". London maintained this position after Brazil replaced India as the main source of supply and because of the strength of the home market became an important centre for cutting the brilliants replacing old rose cuts.
This development which put the trade in diamonds on a professional basis did not bring a different pattern of ownership. As before, they were reserved for the most powerful and richest members of society. Just as Louis XIV appeared before his court at Versailles positively glittering with diamonds and so did the Emperor Napoleon on all his official engagements. Then the diamond lost some of its mystique with the discovery of mines in South Africa which produced stones in such quantities that the market could not absorb them. The price dropped dramatically and by 1884 the novelist J.K. Huysmans in 'A. Rebours' remarked that "Diamonds have become so commonplace that even shopkeepers wear them on their little finger."
A major casualty was the French Crown Jewels the superb state collection of stones and pearls established by Francois I in the 16th century and most recently brought up to date by Napoleon III and the Empress Eugenie. Out of sheer political spite the Third Republic decided to divest itself of these symbols of monarchy "devoid of usefulness and moral worth" and all was sold at auction in 1887. In this depressed market what was a disaster for history and art proved a financial blunder too, and the great treasures of the royal house was dispersed at bargain prices. The diamond - except for the very largest - was dethroned from its supremacy and gave way to the pearl which was so much rarer. The great age, to which these exquisite Golconda and Brazilian stones belong had come to an end.
(Diana Scarisbrick is the author of Jewellery in Britain 1066-1837 and Chaumet 1995)
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