Hyderabad Nizam's jewels put on display at Delhi's National Museum boast of spectacular gems, craftsmanship

It was in 2006 that a collection of jewels, formerly owned by the erstwhile rulers of the city, were displayed at the Salar Jung Museum in Hyderabad. The immense buzz around these jewels prompted even my usually laidback household into action, and I was told to accompany my grandmother, mother and aunt for a visit. Just out of my teens, I simply strolled around the exhibit, unimpressed by the riches on display and made fun of the ostentatious setting, while the trio I was with were suitably dazzled by the wealth and glamour of the jewels of one of the richest royal families of the world.

Over the years, no conversation in Hyderabad about the Nizams is complete without a mention of these pieces, which were acquired by the Government of India. As the exhibition Jewels of India: The Nizam’s Jewellery Collection finally puts them on display in Delhi, the iconic jewels have once again captured the attention of enthusiasts, history lovers and jewelry aficionados, owing to their history and the artisanship of the people who designed them.

 Hyderabad Nizams jewels put on display at Delhis National Museum boast of spectacular gems, craftsmanship

Sarpech Kalan Zamarrud Wa Kanval Almas Ba Awaiza-i-Zamarrud | Turban ornament set with emeralds, diamonds, emerald and diamond drops | India, Late 19th century

The collection currently displayed in the National Museum was acquired by the government from the Nizam's Jewelry Trusts on payment of Rs 218 crores. In February 1967, Mir Osman Ali Khan’s (the last Nizam of Hyderabad) death set into motion the process of liquidation of three jewelry trusts that he had established between 1951 and 1952 – the Nizam’s Jewelry Trust, The Nizam’s Supplemental Jewelry Trust, and the Nizam’s Jewelry for Family Trust.

The story begins in 1951, at the time of Hyderabad’s accession to the Indian Union, when the Nizam inherited a huge family and household to look after in the face of dwindling revenues. While the Government of India agreed to give him a generous stipend, it was in no way adequate to meet his astounding expenses. He then created close to 54 Trusts, of which three were solely for jewelry. Parts of jewelry in these trusts were not for sale – like the symbolic and spiritual collections, which were to be transferred from heir to heir.

After acquisition by the Government of India in 1995, the jewels of the Nizams were displayed in 2001 and 2006 in hugely popular exhibitions at two venues: the National Museum, New Delhi, and the Salar Jung Museum, Hyderabad

Usha Balakrishnan, a cultural capital consultant who has authored Jewels of the Nizams and co-authored Treasures of the Deccan – Jewels of the Nizams, calls the collection unparalleled. “Their specialty is that they have an immaculate provenance – they belonged to the Nizams of Hyderabad and that they are set with spectacular gemstones: Golconda diamonds, emeralds from Colombia, rubies and spinels from Burma, and Basra pearls. They epitomise Indian craftsmanship and aesthetics, thereby becoming enduring symbols of the glory of a bygone era.”

Kanthi Almas Kanval | Necklace set with diamonds | India, Late 19th – 20th century

Kanthi Almas Kanval | Necklace set with diamonds | India, Late 19th – 20th century

Deepthi Sasidharan, a Fulbright scholar who has curated several Indian exhibitions for private and government collections, including those at the Chowmahalla Palace and Salar Jung Museum, says that the jewelry consists of both men’s and women’s daily and occasional wear. She explains, “Around 40 pieces come from the men’s jewels. It has complete women’s suites from two of his wives. A typical woman’s suite in those days included 15-16 classic pieces, including those for the neck, nose, ear, hand and upper hand. Considering that the Nizams had 200-300 wives, it gives us a sense of how much was lost over the years.”

A coming together of classic pieces

The Jacob’s Diamond, one of the most popular pieces in the collection, was once used as a paper weight by the last Nizam of Hyderabad! A brilliant irregular oval weighing 184.50 carats, it has never been tested to determine its exact color and clarity on the diamond scale.

Outlining its history, Usha says, “The rough was discovered in South Africa around 1884 and weighed 457.50 carats. The stone was cut in Amsterdam by MB Barends of the firm Jacques Metz, and it was named the Victoria or the Imperial after Queen Victoria. The gem was owned by a consortium of investors of Messrs Pittar Leverson & Co. Not finding a buyer in Europe, the gem was eventually sent to India on the request of Alexander Malcolm Jacob, a jewelry merchant, who had found a buyer in India – Mir Mahboob Ali Khan, the sixth Nizam of Hyderabad.”

Paizeb Yakhoot-Wa Almas-Wa-Zamarrud | Anklets set with rubies, diamonds and emeralds | Deccan,19th century

Paizeb Yakhoot-Wa Almas-Wa-Zamarrud | Anklets set with rubies, diamonds and
emeralds | Deccan,19th century

Other pieces include the Padak Almas Kanval, a gold and silver pendant set with diamonds and rubies. Styled as a large diamond surrounded by smaller ones, the pendant has two parrot-like bird motifs with ruby-diamond beaks perched atop. A mesmerizing Kanthi necklace, comprising three rows of around 57 pearls and as many diamonds, is also on display.

The collection includes sarpeches (turban ornaments), earrings, armlets, toe rings, finger rings, necklaces, belts and buckles, pairs of bracelets and bangles, a pocket watch and watch chains, buttons and cuff links. The collection showcases the fascination the Hyderabad royals had with emeralds – there are an exceptionally large variety of cut emeralds, emerald drops, emerald beads, taveez and two ornamented belts, one studded with a cut and the other with a carved emerald. The quantity of emeralds may run into a couple of thousand carats.

Historical importance

One of the last great imperial jewelry collections of the world, the intrinsic value of the collection is immense. Apart from the Jacob Diamond, there is a set of 22 uncut old-world Columbian emeralds which are highly distinctive because of their dark green color, which isn’t seen in modern-day gems. Others include the biggest and best of blood red rubies from Burma, extremely rare alexandrite from Russia, and of course, ample quantities of flat cut Golconda diamonds.

Deepti remarks that what cannot be valued is the full extent of the technique and processes used, most of which are now extinct. She adds, “One can see the Indian craftsmanship of the 18th and 19th centuries in full force. Pink and white enameling from the great jewelers of Banaras, Jaipur and the Deccan, as the Nizams bought only the best. And as one moves towards the 1900s, the royals started patronising the biggest jewelers of Europe and one can clearly see the changes in aesthetic. The rich meenakari work and baazubands are gone, and in come the drop-diamond earrings and other subtler pieces of work.”

Adding that this collection gives a 360-degree view of the finest artisanship the world has ever seen, she explains, “These jewels show the whole ego trip of Indian craftsmanship – the ability to mount these huge stones and set them with silver foiling or the exquisite detailing. The whole sumptuousness of the collection is staggering.”

Calls for a permanent exhibit

There is a lot of clamour in Hyderabad to have a permanent exhibit of these jewels in the place they originated from. Deepti says that nothing justifies not putting these priceless jewels on display. “It’s lamentable that while the Hope Diamond is so celebrated, here we have a diamond that is four times its size and is simply tucked away in bank vaults. Historically, these are the last windows of the great legacy of Mughals and other great Islamic rulers of India.”

Brooch Almas Chantara Numa Kanval | Brooch set with diamonds | India, Late 19th – early 20th century

Brooch Almas Chantara Numa Kanval | Brooch set with diamonds | India, Late 19th – early 20th century

Usha says that this entire collection with its impeccable provenance is pivotal in the study of Indian jewelry history. “Today, the gems and jewels of India are scattered around the world – in museums and private collections. The jewels in this collection are set with fabulous gems, they display the skills of the Indian craftsmen, of Indian design, and also how gems were set, enameling of the Deccan and the mastery of the Indian lapidary in gemstones. Most importantly, the jewels should travel around the world and be showcased in special exhibitions as the heritage and legacy of India. Today, the greatest Indian jewelry exhibitions are being mounted by museums in the West and private collectors like the Al Sabah Collection, Kuwait and the Al Thani collection. With these jewels in our collection, we are not showcasing our own legacy adequately.”

Experts are unhappy with the current display too: From rubies displayed on red velvet, to the uneven flow of the exhibition which showcases earrings next to sherwani buttons, they feel that it could have been displayed in a better fashion.

While the whole world is involved in a discussion of repatriation of lost treasures (from the Elgin Marbles to Chinese art collections), one hopes a collection of such a stellar origin will make its way to the place it belongs to – Hyderabad. Usha says that one should also focus on the additional treasures languishing in District Treasuries around India. She adds, “These include the Junagadh collection, the Kashmir collection and countless discoveries made in the course of digging, building projects etc. and also material held by the Archaeological Survey of India. And of course, the jewels in the temples. All these need to be documented, studied, published and exhibited urgently. It is unfortunate that we don't consider our own treasures and heritage worthy of exhibition around the world.”

The exhibition will remain open for public viewing till 5 May, 2019 at the National Museum, Delhi (except Mondays and national holidays)

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Updated Date: Apr 18, 2019 12:56:30 IST