The Jacob’s Diamond is the most-repeated story when it comes to the Nizam’s Jewels. The 185-carat diamond, which ranks amongst the seven largest polished diamonds in the world (the Kohinoor is a mere 105.6 carats), was an object of disappointment for the sixth Nizam Mir Mahboob Ali Khan. Purchased from the dealer Alexander Malcolm Jacob in 1891, to be used as a paperweight, the Nizam found the South African diamond smaller than expected and stowed it away in a slipper. If you needed proof to confirm the fabulous wealth of the Nizams of Hyderabad State or the ‘Time’ cover that called the last Nizam the wealthiest man on earth, look no further.
This is one of the 171 jewels to go on display at the National Museum in Delhi from February 18. The two-and-a-half month long exhibition titled ‘Jewels of India – the Nizam’s Jewellery Collection’, curated by Sanjib Kumar Singh will bring the jewels back to public view after 12 years. You might call them India’s answer to Britain’s Crown Jewels, but if you’ve seen both, the Nizam’s jewels outshine them by miles. Huge Columbian emeralds, diamonds in all shapes and sizes, a ring of Alexandrite, one of world’s rarest gem stones, which changes colour from red to green depending on the light, satladas or seven stringed pearl necklaces, sarpeches, belts, paazeeb, necklaces… And as Singh points out, “This is just one section of the Nizam’s jewellery.”
The government of India acquired 173 jewels in 1972 from a jewellery trust created by the seventh and last Nizam Mir Osman Ali Khan to hold some of the rarest and finest pieces of jewellery he owned, though it was only in 1995 that a price was settled upon. These are the dynastic jewels from the seven generations of Nizams; Singh says they are from the later medieval period, but mostly from the mid-18th to 19th century.
Fulbright scholar and co-author of ‘Treasures of the Deccan – Jewels of the Nizams’, Deepthi Sasidharan, who also curated the 2006 exhibition at the Salar Jung Museum in Hyderabad, has been working with the photographic evidence from the residence of the last Nizam, the Chowmahalla Palace. “There are two complete suites of jewels that were worn by two of his wives – Iqbal Begum and Gauhar Begum.” These were identified from photographs by the distinctive rings because all the other jewellery looked similar.
As for what these suites contained: “There were seven sets of jewels that were worn in the ear alone,” she says, starting with the boote, and including the antaryan, and chandbalis. There is a choti taveez or a protection talisman specific to Hyderabad and not found anywhere else in India, a square lozenge shaped taveez made of gold and diamonds and braided into the hair and then worn over the right shoulder. There are the neckpieces: Choker, necklaces, jugni. “We have photographs of up to 40 wives wearing identical sets of jewels. There are only two complete sets in the Nizam’s jewels. That also gives you an idea that when you look at a document that says there were thousands of pieces [of jewellery] and you look at the photographs you see 40 women wearing identical jewels, you know for a fact that it is true, that it did exist, that kind of wealth and taste.”
“People came from all over the world to sell their jewellery to the Nizam,” says Hyderabad-based jeweller Vijay Vithaldas, whose father had been called upon by the Government of India to value the Nizam’s jewellery. As Sasidharan says, “Whenever there was a jewel that was worthy of the best in the world, it was offered to him.”
One item of the collection is a pearl necklace made of perfectly graded, natural Basra pearls of the same sheen and quality, that Princess Esra, the first wife of the last Nizam’s grandson Prince Mukarram Jah, picked as her favourite. There’s also a 22-emerald, partially uncut and unmounted necklace, whose size and colour feel a bit like you’re being bludgeoned. There are also some anklets in diamonds and rubies that were originally classified as bracelets because nobody could imagine that something so fine could be worn on the feet.
“Diamonds were a favourite,” says Singh and those from the Golconda mines – fine, flat cut polki – are liberally represented. “You could put price of billions of dollars for the collection,” says Sasidharan, “but it’s literally priceless given the story and cultural history behind it.”
The exhibit runs from February 19 to May 5, 2019.