The fabled jewels of the Nizams of Hyderabad are legendary. In fact, such are the fantastical tales of the Nizam’s wealth that it is very difficult to separate fact from fiction. Added to that, is the secretive nature of Indian jewellery collectors and the inaccessibility of archival information about them in India. As a result of all this there is very little academic research on the subject. Thankfully, the recently launched book ‘The Treasures of the Deccan: Jewels of the Nizams’ co-authored by Dr Usha Balakrishnan, India’s foremost jewellery historian and Deepthi Sashidharan, an archivist and an expert in 19th century photography, significantly adds to our understanding of these jewels and its owners.
In 1995, the Indian government acquired 173 pieces of jewels from the Nizam’s collection. Their display in 2001 and 2005 had India agog! But thanks to the book, we now know, that this was just 3% of the 6000 piece collection, once in the Nizam’s possession. What has been lost is just unbelievable!
The book is filled with photographs of the spectacular jewellery paired with rare photographs of the Nizam’s family actually wearing them. This brings alive the jewels in all their glory and also helps us understand the life and times in the Nizam’s court and the context in which these jewels were made and worn.
I spoke to Dr Usha Balakrishnan, who had originally cataloged the Nizam’s jewels for the Government of India, on the story behind the story of the book. What emerged in our conversation , went beyond the book covering, the fate of Nizam’s pearls that could fill pavements, the Legend of the ‘Nizam’ diamond, the priceless ‘Princie’ Pink diamond, and a lot more…
Your earlier book on the ‘Jewels of the Nizams’ released in 2001. Why did you decide to work on this new book on the same topic?
Actually, the first book, was almost like a catalogue of the Nizam’s collection, that I catalogued for the Government of India and published in its entirety. At that time the Chowmohalla Palace archives had not been opened up or cataloged, this happened between 2005-2006.
When the [Chowmohalla palace] archives were opened up, Deepthi came across this entire collection of photographs, a large number of which had been taken by Raja Deen Dayal. They were exceptional in the sense that, they were [rare] zenana images and when she showed me some of those images, I immediately recognized the jewels that I had cataloged. You got a sense of how some of the pieces were being worn, [for instance] how they wore the four earrings together, how they wore a Chintak [Hyderabadi choker] etc.
I also realized that, the pieces [from the Nizam’s treasury] that were scattered across the collections around the world, and had been coming up at auctions, now actually had a provenance.
So I felt the need to bring the two, the photographs and the jewels together. One, to show the jewels in the context in which they were worn; two, to unite pieces with their original owners, and three, to bring to light the large number of pieces from Hyderabad that had entered private collections. I felt the story needed to be retold and therefore the book happened.
Coming to the collection, it was said that the Nizam’s pearl collection was so large that it could fill the pavements of the Piccadilly Circus in London. But strangely, we don’t find many pearls in the (current) Nizam’s collection acquired by the Indian government. Why is that?
Yes, but I wish I knew the answer. Dinshah Gazdar [Jeweller to the Nizams] in his report wrote about the fabulous pearls and how buckets and buckets filled with pearls used to be cleaned and left to dry, covering the entire palace terraces. I don’t think these are apocryphal tales, and there is a lot of truth in them. I would imagine two things, one the family was just so large, there were just so many women and so many beneficiaries of the Nizam’s wealth, in hundreds! Especially in the post-1947 period, so a possibility is that Nizam just distributed the pearls among the family members, or perhaps they were sold.
On a lighter note, you are one of the few people in the world who have actually held the famous Jacob diamond in their hand and studied it. How was the experience like?
It was truly amazing! How many people can claim to have held a 184 carat diamond in their hand. I still recall , when in the vaults of the Reserve Bank of India, the little leather box with the Jacob diamond came out of the trunk, and then the box was opened and this diamond emerged. It was a moment in history. Its a moment that comes rarely in life of a jewellery historian, even as someone who has been privileged to handle a lot of jewellery, still these are special moments and they are getting more and more rare now-a-days.
As far as the Jacob diamond is concerned, there is also this whole saga that went around the whole aura around Alexander Jacob [the man after whom it is named], this magician, gem dealer, his transaction with the Nizam, the court case between Alexander Jacob and the Nizam and the final story, that he [the 6th Nizam] was so disgusted that he put it in his sock and all that…adds to the romance of the piece.
The Jacob diamond and the story of how it was found in a shoe, is still relatively well known, but not many outside the circle of jewellery historians know of the 340 carat ‘Nizam diamond’ said to be in Nizam’s collection. In fact, many believe that there was no such diamond and it is just a myth. So what do we know of the Nizam diamond? Was there really such a diamond?
Now that’s a tough question! I definitely don’t think it is a myth as there is a recorded history of the stone right from 1830s, when it was believed to have been discovered. It is said that a young boy found the rough stone while playing, a common origin story of so many diamonds. Thankfully, during the 19th century, things were not as secretive as they are today. So there is a regular mention of the stone.
We know that it entered the Nizam’s treasury, because at that time every royal kingdom had a rule that stipulated that the big stones had to be first offered to the ruler. So following that rule, the Nizam was offered the stone. We know for example, that when the Nizam was in debt to the British, and when he was looking for a loan to repay his debt, and that he actually offered this stone in repayment of the debt, but it was declined as the British were not able to come to a valuation of the stone. There are references to the stone by various foreign reporters who visited the Nizam’s court. The last known reference to the Nizam diamond is in 1944, when Osman Ali Khan [the 7th Nizam] talks about the two great heirlooms in the Nizam’s collection [The Jacob and the Nizam diamonds]. I am continuing to investigate. I have not arrived at a final conclusion on the fate of the stone.
Maybe this mystery is a brilliant topic for your next book. But coming to the one you have uncovered, that of one of the most important pink diamonds in the world, the 34.65 carat ‘Princie’ diamond. For decades, it was speculated that it came from the Nizam’s collection, but in this book for the first time, you have traced the connection, through a photograph. Tell us about it.
What I did was that when the photographs came to me , I looked at each one of them with a magnifying glass in my hand. In one photograph, the emerald bazuband , [arm band] from the Al-Sabah collection suddenly jumped at me, in another there was the Nizam’s wife, Chunnu Begum wearing a Chintak [choker] identical to the one in the Nizam’s collection. So I was looking at the anklets, rings, armlets, necklaces to see if any of them correspond to any of the things that have survived [today in the collection].
While I had seen this photograph at an auction, Deepthi found the original in the Chowmohalla archives. I took a high res image, blew it up and saw this young Nizam, who was just 11 at the time. And what struck me as unusual was the ring he was wearing. Now, however large the stone is, the stone [in a ring] is normally set vertical across the finger. But here was a ring that this boy [Nizam] was wearing where the stone was set horizontal.
I had the photos of the Mehboob Ali [6th Nizam] and Osman Ali [7th Nizam] wearing a ring of Spinel. So I compared the image and spoke to my jeweler friends, and compared it in terms of the proportion. So the size didn’t fit and then I thought to myself, this looks like a diamond, what could it be. And when I looked at the Princie Diamond, it looked like a perfect fit! Again I could be corrected or proven wrong in the future, but as much as I can see it today, it appears to be the ‘Princie’ diamond. Also, the ‘Princie’ [diamond] came up for auction in Sotheby’s in London in 1961. And if you look at the newspaper reports of 1961, there was a big buzz in London that the diamond was from the Nizam’s collection.
How do you see Hyderabadis today, relating to these old traditional pieces from the Nizam’s court?
I think there has been a big revival in Hyderabad today, especially post 2001 when the first Nizam’s book was published because when that came out, local jewelers started saying ‘oh! this is the essence of what Hyderabad is’. So there was a big revival. Second, there were a lot of people who had jewellery in their family collections who suddenly realized oh here is a necklace that belonged to my grand mother, my great grandmother, that is so identical to what is there in the Nizam’s collection. So let me keep this really carefully as it is truly an heirloom. So the temptation to melt it or sell it, kind of almost melted overnight. So when you go to a wedding in Hyderabad you can see people proudly wearing them.
We in India, are so secretive about our historic jewels and our jewellery collections. Why do you think it is important for people to have access and to know about these great historic jewellery traditions of India?
One of the things that has really made me sad, is that the greatest displays of Indian jewellery is happening in the West. You know, what we have [in India ] will outshine all these international collections. Yet, we are doing nothing about it. The heritage that we have here, deserves to be seen. Just as our national flag is a matter of national pride, our jewels are a matter of national pride too. Infact, that’s why India was once called ‘Sone ki chidiya’ or the ‘Golden bird’.
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