Rashmi Rajgopal of Saffronart looks at the rise to fame of Basra pearls, their decline and resurrection in relation to some of the magnificent pieces featuring in Saffronart’s forthcoming auction of Fine Jewels and Silver
Mumbai: You’d think I’d start this post with a clichéd “pearls have forever captivated humans”, or some such proclamation heavily lavishing these little beads of calcium carbonate with poetic adulation. I’ll be blunt: they’re an accident of nature, they’re made of carbon just like us and every other organic substance on this planet, and the pearl-forming process doesn’t sound very pleasant. Rolling a foreign particle around in your mantle for years must surely be exhausting. I’ll have to admit though, that’s where we must all accept subservience of our abilities to oysters’ nacre (and insurmountable patience). We all love them for that.
So much so that the pearl-fisheries down south of India were depleted centuries ago, forcing traders on a merry hunt all the way to Persian waters. Let me rewind a little, back to when the finest pearls came from the Mannar fisheries off the southern coast of India. Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, a French gem-merchant and traveller from the 17th century, noted that the Portuguese at Goa held the honours of having the largest operation in pearl-trading at the time (Oppi Untracht, Traditional Jewelry of India. 334-335). Jewellery consultant and historian Dr. Usha R. Bala Krishnan elaborates on the pearl industry and “Pearl Age in Europe”:
“Between 1524 and 1658… the Portuguese reaped an untold fortune from the pearl fisheries of India and exploited them to such an extent that it was only a matter of time before they were depleted and finally abandoned.” (Saffronart Inaugural Auction of Fine Jewels, 7-8 Oct 2008. 108-109)
Needless to say, Mannar was elbowed out of competition and Basra was pushed into the limelight. It is luck to an extent; these yellow-tinged pearls were considered inferior to Mannar pearls back in the day. You ask if they came from Basra. No, they came from the Persian Gulf and were transported to Basra, a city in south-east Iraq, for trade.
Why are they special? Basra Pearls are bigger in size, more lustrous and regularly shaped than the others. They’re also highly valued for longevity. Yet it isn’t merely luck that propelled them to fame. Besides possessing all the desirable qualities of natural pearls, their aesthetic appeal is undeniable. I’ll turn to the Mughals for support: they’re famed for adorning themselves with unending strings of Basras. Like the Nizam of Hyderabad’s tantalising Saath Larh Marvareed, the only existing necklace of its kind. Downside is, Basras are out of production now. What happened?
A sudden surge in oil demand in the 20th century is to blame. The Persian Gulf area was exploited for petroleum and other resources, which could be attributed to the decline of the oysters there. The city of Basra itself shifted priorities: it came to be at the fulcrum of exporting and refining petroleum. You know what this means, folks: the pearls must be possessed. Which is why you must join us at our ‘Autumn Auction of Fine Jewels and Silver’, taking place online this month on the 23rd and 24th.
To have a peek into our Basra finds, check out this scintillating piece from our collection: a four-strand natural pearl necklace.
Among our other pieces being auctioned this autumn, this rarity serves as a reminder of the splendour of the Basras. Other natural-pearl highlights of the auction include a majestic five-strand necklace (Lot 65), a seven-strand (Lot 38) and a sixteen-strand necklaces (Lot 13).
For the complete list of works, view our online catalogue and claim some of these beauties for yourself.