Diamonds which ‘shew like stars’

Shortly after the New Year celebrations for 1601, Iskandar Munshi describes how some refugee Uzbek princes reached Shah Abbas’ court in Isfahan.  Abbas welcomed them with a reception and “a cash grant of one thousand Iraqi toman in gold, to cover their living expenses”.

The princes reciprocated, with “their modest gifts” including a valuable diamond which had previously been looted from the shrine of the Imam Reza at Mashhad.  The Shah, immediately recognising this as a votive offering, returned it to the olama, who promptly sanctioned its sale “so that with the proceeds good lands might be bought and the revenue from these lands used for the benefit of the shrine”. The diamond was therefore taken to Istanbul, where it could be priced and sold by expert diamond merchants.

Safavid gemstones were not facet-cut, as we are used to now, but were simply polished after minimal shaping.  This didn’t make them any the less beautiful – when Manwaring, accompanying the Shirley brothers on their 1588 expedition to Persia, visited the bazaar in Qazvin, he saw:

“the Kings chair of estate . . being of silver plate set with turkies [turquoises] and rubies very thick, and six great diamonds, which did shew like stars”.

The Carew Spinel: on show in the V&A, South Asia section: room 41, case 19

Many of the biggest gems have now been re-cut to show sparkling facets.  However, some of the spinels – originally mistaken for rubies – still exist in their original form.  For example, the ‘Black Prince ruby’ on the British Imperial State Crown is actually a 140 carat spinel, and the (133 carat) Carew (Mughal) spinel shown to the left here is on display in the Victoria & Albert Museum.

The distinctive shapes of uncut stones make their identification easier, but many of the most important stones were, literally, named by their successive owners.  Like the votive diamond recognised by Abbas in 1601, the Carew spinel was passed between a variety of owners – as can be seen from the names engraved on it: including the Mughal emperors Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb.

Shah Abbas was an active participant in the international gifting of gems, sending a 249 carat spinel (4.8 by 3.6 by 1.8 cm) engraved with his own name and that of Ulugh Beg to Jahangir in 1621.  This was then passed – according to the engraved names – to Shah Jahan, Aurangzeb and Ahmad Shah.  It is now in the al-Sabah collection in Kuwait.  Click here for a picture of this huge and very beautiful stone.

Next week, I want to share some of the work I have been doing searching for the halts along Shah Abbas’ thousand kilometre walk from Isfahan to Mashhad – using information from four-hundred year old manuscripts, and 21st century satellite imaging.

3 thoughts on “Diamonds which ‘shew like stars’

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