Sotheby’s to auction historic glasses with diamond and emerald lenses

In the 17th century, Indian royalty reached new levels of opulence in architecture, jewelry, and their royal courts. In the midst of this splendor, an anonymous ruler was so in love with jewelry that he ordered two pairs of glasses with gemstone lenses, allowing him to literally look through slices of diamonds and emeralds.

On October 27, Sotheby’s will auction these incredible, truly unique treasures. Although these fabulous shows have been studied by historians and scholars, they have never been exhibited to the public or offered for auction. Each is estimated to be over $ 2 million. We spoke to Edward Gibbs, President of Sotheby’s for India and the Middle East, about these fascinating glasses.

Each pair of glasses features slices of gemstones as lenses – what was the point of that?

There has been a lot of speculation as to their original purpose, but we believe their creation was related to the symbolic meaning of these stones and the properties they could bestow on the wearer. Emeralds are synonymous with paradise in Islamic tradition, due to the association of the color green with salvation and eternity. White diamonds in both Indian cultures are related to light and the presence of God.

The wealth and opulence of Indian royalty in 17th century Mughal India is legendary. How do these glasses fit into this period?

India has one of the earliest bodies of knowledge in gemology. It appears, in legendary form, in the Puranas. But there are also some very technical manuals called Ratna Shastras, which for the first time put in writing a whole set of incredibly detailed and refined connoisseurs of gemstones. Several aspects of these glasses reflect the Indian body of knowledge and love of diamonds.

Mughal emperors, especially Emperors Jahangir (1605-27) and Shah Jahan (1628-57), loved gemstones, collecting them with genuine passion and extraordinary connoisseur, meaning they were renowned for their treasures. by people from all over. The opulence of the time was perhaps best noticed by the British Ambassador to the court of Agra, Sir Thomas Roe, who wrote on the occasion of the forty-seventh birthday of Emperor Jahangir in 1616: “In jewelry, he is the treasure of the world”. Jahangir also introduced a new festival, when all nobles were supposed to present him with gems as New Year’s gifts (as a form of taxation) – showing that gems were part of the art of government.

It is also important to note that the legendary opulence of the Mughals was based on extraordinary economic, technical and intellectual sophistication.

What is the significance of these glasses?

The importance of these glasses is both scientific and historical, as well as of course from a purely jewelry point of view. I’ve never handled anything like them before, or encountered anything that compares to them – they almost need to be seen to be believed.

They are rich in symbolic qualities, with layers of meaning depending on who wears them, and at the same time are the object of ultimate prestige. The flawless nature of diamonds would also have been viewed by a 17th century patron as extremely auspicious.

What makes these glasses so unique?

To our knowledge, there are no other examples of glasses with precious stones instead of glasses. The only mention that we have found of such glasses is in the Roman chronicler Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, which tells that Princeps Nero saw the battles of the gladiators through a smaragdus [i.e. an emerald]. They are the ultimate expression of wealth, luxury and aesthetic sophistication.

What elements of craftsmanship are so difficult in creating glasses that make them unique?

These glasses 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 cutting style predates sawing technology, confirming a 17th century production date. This dating is further supported by contemporary evidence of the cleavage skills of Indian lapidaries at the time.

Can you describe the lenses?

Emeralds are 2.95mm thick and diamonds are 1.60mm thick. They are surprisingly light and portable. The deep, rich green of the emeralds offers an incredible hue to look at, and the diamonds are flawless, so there is total clarity through them.

The diamonds would come from the Golconde mine. What makes the diamonds in this mine so special?

Golconda is known to supply the largest diamonds to Mughal treasures, and the region has produced some of the most famous diamonds in the world. The most notable diamond originating in Golconda is the legendary Koh-i-Noor, which is now a part of the British crown jewels. If you look in the history of Golconda, India was particularly famous for the discovery of such treasured diamonds – it was the only place, until the discovery of the mines of the New World and later South Africa. , where diamonds were known in Antiquity and in the Middle Ages. .

While diamonds originated from the Golconda mines in South India, emeralds originate from the Muzo mines in Colombia and are therefore part of a global trade network that stretches as far as South America, reaching the Mughals via the merchants. Portuguese.

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