Extraordinary Encounters (II): The Jacob Diamond

Saffronart’s inaugural Jewellery Conference, titled The Timeless Legacy of Indian Jewels, was held on 6 – 7 October 2017, and was the first of its scale in the region. Counting down the weeks to our second conference on 11 – 12 October 2019, we bring you some interesting anecdotes that were shared by our expert speakers in 2017. 

The first day of the conference opened with a riveting discussion between Dr Usha Balakrishnan and John Zubrzycki, titled “Jacob: The Largest Diamond in India’s Crown.” Zubrzycki, a Sydney-based author, journalist and researcher specialising in South Asia and India, shed light on the intriguing saga involving one of the most famous diamonds in the world the Jacob Diamond, formerly known as the Imperial Diamond or the Great White Diamond, is the fifth largest in the world  and the enigmatic character most commonly associated with it. Zubrzycki’s book, The Mysterious Mr Jacob: Diamond Merchant, Magician and Spy was published by Random House in 2012. 

Alexander Malcolm Jacob’s real name was Iskandar Malliqqi bin Yaqub al Bira, and he was born in 1849. Zubrzycki’s narrative was inspired by an obituary published in the Times of London in early 1921 that eulogised Jacob as a romantic and arresting figure: “the Lurgan Sahib of Kipling’s Kim… a great influence at Simla and a most valuable helper of the political secret service.Not least, he was also the diamond merchant who sold the Jacob Diamond to the 6th Nizam of Hyderabad, Mahbub Ali Khan. 

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Zubrzycki quoted a writer who once described Jacob as,

A strange pseudo-Arabic genius who dwelt at Simla in a Harun al-Rashid setting, and was tangled up in the feuds and intrigues of oriental nawabs and rajas, who had a retinue of admirers at his beck and call like an ancient alchemist, who dabbled with precious stones and metals and in addition was a mesmerist, healer of sick pearls, and a secret service agent rolled into one.

However, Zubrzycki chose to opt for a more sedate description, referring to Jacob as a “magician and sometimes spy who became famous for pulling off what is the most audacious jewellery deal in history.” According to some sources, he was born in Turkey and made his way to Shimla via Basra, Mumbai, Hyderabad, and Kolkata; while others claim that he came from Armenia. “Whatever his ancestry, it is clear that he was an enterprising man who managed to position himself as the best-known jeweller in British India, a confidante of Viceroys and Maharajas alike,” said Zubrzycki. Upon his arrival in Shimla in 1876, he is said to have established his own shop that sold fine precious stones, jewels, and other curiosities. No actual record of this shop exists.

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Photograph of the post office, Shimla, circa 1880s. Image courtesy of StoryLTD.

In the years before Jacob’s deal with the Nizam of Hyderabad, Jacob gained a reputation as an intelligent, well-spoken man, whose comings and goings from various courts, such as the Court of Dholpur, were reported in local newspapers alongside tales of his magic tricks and explorations of the occult. According to Zubrzycki, “his best customers were retiring British army officers who wanted to use their savings to buy as much jewellery and precious stones as possible and sell them at a vast profit when they got back to England.”

However, these customers were not always happy. In 1881, Jacob found himself in court, accused of cheating someone named Major Hamilton, who alleged that the jewellery Jacob sold him had earned next to nothing when he returned home. Jacob emerged from this court case as a “shrewd and canny operator… a hustler and a risk taker who doesn’t suffer fools gladly.” The publicity from the court case, his ever-expanding clientele and even “his brood of Tibetan Terriers that kept winning the Simla dog shows,” ensured that by the mid-1880s, Jacob had become a household name in India. According to Zubrzycki, “going to Simla without seeing Jacob… was like visiting India without going to the Taj Mahal.”

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The Jacob Diamond was recently on display in the exhibition “Jewels of India: The Nizam’s Jewellery Collection” at the National Museum in New Delhi. Photograph by Amit Kapoor, Saffronart.

In July 1891, Jacob made preparations for his biggest and ultimately his last sale ever. He planned to buy a 184.75 carat diamond, recently mined in South Africa, for Rs 21 lakhs from an agent in London. His plan was to sell this rectangular cushion-cut diamond, weighing more than the famous Koh-i-Noor diamond, to the 6th Nizam of Hyderabad for Rs 50 lakhs. 

The Nizam had insisted that the purchase be based on approval if he liked the diamond, he would say pasand and buy it; na pasand would mean he didn’t want it and his deposit would then be returned. However, the Nizam refused to buy the Jacob Diamond on the pretext that it was smaller than he had thought it would be. According to Zubrzycki, the Nizam’s refusal was perhaps due to pressure from the British presence in his state, who were suspicious of Jacob, believing him to be a Russian spy. It may also have been a ploy by the Nizam to satisfy the British while persuading Jacob to lower his price. 

Left with a diamond that would be impossible to sell to anyone else, Jacob was trapped and had to lower his price and pander to the Nizam’s request of a secret deal. This deal was later denied, and the magistrate of Bengal issued a warrant for Jacob’s arrest. The Nizam accused Jacob of fraud and threw his life into disarray, ruining his reputation, but managed to keep the diamond through an out-of-court settlement with Jacob – for which he did not pay Jacob the money he was owed. The British Government took this even further and banned Jacob from doing business with any of the Indian princes, effectively cutting off his most lucrative source of income. 

The Nizam, however, no longer wanted anything to do with what he called a manhoos or unlucky diamond, and first kept it in the Bank of Bengal with instructions to sell it. The diamond was retrieved from there in 1911 by his son Mir Osman Ali Khan, the 7th Nizam of Hyderabad, who used it as a paperweight until it was seized by the Government of India in 1995. Today, the diamond is locked away in a safe in the Reserve Bank of India. 

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The 6th and 7th Nizams of Hyderabad with Maharaja Kishen Prasad. Photograph by Lala Deen Dayal. Image courtesy of StoryLTD.

Jacob eventually took the Nizam to court and was acquitted of all charges, but exiled himself to Mumbai in 1903, where he remained impoverished for the rest of his life. By 1919, Jacob was living opposite the Bombay Yacht Club, and despite his failing eyesight and ailing body, was still conducting seances and weaving fictional stories about his life for anyone that cared to listen. Upon his death in 1921, local newspapers went into overdrive publishing his obituary, with the Bombay Gazette describing his life as “one of extraordinary romance.” 

The second edition of Saffronart’s Jewellery Conference, titled Mapping a Legacy of Indian Jewels, will take place on 11 12 October 2019. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be posting interesting articles in conjunction with the conference. Stay tuned!

SIMRAN SANGHI

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