In the 17th century, Indian royalty achieved new levels of opulence in architecture, jewelry, and their royal courts. Amidst this splendor, one anonymous ruler was so enamored with jewelry that he commissioned two pairs of spectacles with gemstone lenses, allowing him to literally look through slices of diamonds and emeralds.
On October 27, Sotheby’s will auction off these incredible treasures, which are truly one – of – a – kind. While these fabulous spectacles have been studies by historians and scholars, they have never before been on view to the public or been offered at auction. Each is estimated to sell for over $2 million.
We spoke to Edward Gibbs, Sotheby’s Chairman for India and Middle East, about these fascinating glasses.
Each pair of spectacles features slice of gemstones as the lenses – what was the purpose of this?
There has been much speculation as to their original purpose, but we believe that their creation was linked with the symbolic significance of these stones and the properties they could bestow upon the wearer. Emeralds are synonymous with Paradise in the Islamic tradition, due to the association of the color green with salvation and eternity. White diamonds in both Indic cultures are connected to light and with the presence of God.
The wealth and opulence of Indian royalty in the 17th – century Mughal India are legendary. How do these glasses fit in with that period?
India has one of the earliest bodies of gemological knowledge. It appears, in legendary from, in the Puranas. But there are also very technical manuals called the Ratna Shastras, which bring a whole body of incredibly detailed and refined connoisseurship about gems, for the first time, into writing. Several aspects of these spectacles reflect the Indian body of knowledge and love of diamonds.
The Mughal emperors, particularly the emperors Jahangir *1605 – 27) and Shah Jahan (1627 – 57), loved gemstones, collecting them with true passion and extraordinary connoisseurship, meaning that they were renowned for their treasuries by people from far and wide. Perhaps the opulence of the period was best noted by the English ambassador to the court at Agra, Sir Thomas Roe, who wrote on the occasion of the Emperor Jahangir’s forty – seventh birthday in 1616: ‘In jewels, he is the treasury of the world’. Jahangir also introduced a new festival, when all the nobles were meant to present gems to him as New Year presents (as a from of taxation) – showing that gems were part of statecraft.
It is also important to note that the Mughals’ legendary opulence was all based on an extraordinary economic, technical and intellectual sophistication.
What is the significance of these glasses?
The significance of these glasses is at once scientific and historic, as well as of course from a pure jewelry perspective. I have never handled anything like them before, nor come across anything that compares to them – they almost need to be seen to be believed.
They are rich with symbolic qualities, with layers of meaning depending on who is wearing them, and at the same time are the ultimate prestige object. The flawless nature of the diamonds would also have been regarded by a 17th – century patron as enormously auspicious.
What makes these glasses so unique?
To our knowledge, there are no other examples of spectacles with gemstones in place of lenses. The only mention we have found of such glasses existing is in the Roman chronicler Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, which recounts of he gladiators through a smaragdul [i.e. an emerald]. They are the ultimate expression of wealth, luxury, and aesthetic sophistication.
What elements of craftsmanship are so difficult in the creation of the glasses that make them unique?
These spectacles are essentially the product of a lost craft, with skills that were alive in the 17th century but have since been replaced by mechanical equipment. The style of cutting pre – dates sawing technology, confirming a 17th – century date of production. This dating is further substantiated by contemporary testimonies of the cleaving skills of Indian lapidaries at the time.
Can you describe the lenses?
The emeralds are 2,95 mm thick and the diamonds are 1.60mm in thickness. They are surprisingly light and wearable. The deep rich green of the emeralds provides an amazing hue to look through, and the diamonds are flawless so there is total clarity looking through them.
The diamonds are through to come from the Golconda mine. What makes this mine’s diamond so special?
Golconda is known for supplying the largest diamonds to the Mughal treasuries, and the region has produced some of the most famous diamonds in the world. The most notable diamond to have hailed from Golconda is the fabled Koh – i – Noor, which is now in the British Crown Jewels. If you look into the history of Golconda, India was particularly famous for discovering such highly prized diamonds – this was the only place, until the discovery of the New World mines and lather South Africa, that diamonds were known in Antiquity and in the Middle Ages.
Whilst the diamonds came from the mines of Golconda in South India, the emeralds derive from the Muzo mines in Colombia, so are part of a global trading network that stretches as far as South America, reaching the Mughals through Portuguese merchants.