The jeweller of Simla

Nov 18 2012, 01:24 IST
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SummaryIn the scandal that rocked the Raj in 1891, a notorious curio-dealer from Simla offered to sell the world’s largest brilliant-cut diamond to the Nizam of Hyderabad.

of the many myths that outlived Jacob. Using the money he had saved in Hyderabad and his keen eye for a bargain, he bought his first diamond for a pittance. He then sold it for more than a 100% profit to an English collector. “From that moment on his ambition was fixed,” wrote Frederick Heath, recounting what Jacob had told him. He left Hyderabad and went to Delhi where “he boldly entered into competition with the finest jewellers of the East but, fearing nothing and with sublime faith in himself, he soon acquired a position of influence, and rapidly made money”.

It is doubtful whether Jacob had such a smooth ride. Much of the domestic market was firmly in the hands of banias, a caste of Gujarati traders who still dominate the diamond trade today. European jewellers had a long-established foothold as well. Ralph Fitch, one of the earliest British travellers to reach India in 1583, wrote that one member of his party, a man by the name of William Leader, remained behind to serve as a jeweller for the King of Cambay. Thomas Pitt, Governor of Madras in the early eighteenth century, sent vast quantities of rough diamonds to Europe where they were sold at a huge profit. Europe’s largest jewellery firms sent their agents to India to procure precious stones which were cut and set in contemporary settings.

Jacob had certain advantages. His apprenticeships at the court of the Nizam and in Calcutta at Charles, Nephew & Co had taught him the basics of the trade. Years of travel in the Princely states had taught Jacob the special place gems and jewellery occupied in the minds and lives of Indians. Precious stones were never seen as being purely decorative. Every ornament—from a crude nose-ring made of gold worn by a poor peasant woman to the largest diamond—had an element of magic and mythology, an underlying esotericism. Among Muslims, necklaces, girdles, armlets or buttons often had a case to hold a talisman. For Hindus, jewellery was highly auspicious, with different stones having the power to bring health, wealth and happiness, but also grave danger if worn incorrectly.

“In the East, precious stones are looked upon as actual personalities—direct emanations from God, almost—nay, quite—alive,’”wrote Edmund Russell, when explaining how Jacob’s understanding of the lore of gems was crucial to his success... Russell recalled Jacob pointing out the significance of the different stones in

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