The Mysterious Mr Jacob: Diamond Merchant, Magician
Random House India
In the scandal that rocked the Raj in 1891, a notorious curio-dealer from Simla offered to sell the world’s largest brilliant-cut diamond to the Nizam of Hyderabad. If the audacious deal had gone through, the merchant would have been set up for life. But the transaction went horribly wrong. The Nizam accused him of fraud, triggering a sensational trial in the Calcutta High Court that made headlines around the world. The dealer was Alexander Malcolm Jacob, a man of mysterious origins and colourful infamy. He was India’s most successful purveyor of precious stones and was rumoured to be “rich almost beyond the dreams of Aladdin”. Hailed as a celebrity in his own lifetime, he was the inspiration for the shadowy Lurgan Sahib in Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. A confidant of viceroys and maharajahs, he dabbled in magic and was a player in the Great Game. Yet he died in obscurity, carrying many of his secrets to his grave. In this meticulously researched account of Jacob’s life, John Zubrzycki, much fêted for The Last Nizam, reconstructs events through long-lost letters, court records and annotations on secret files, bringing us a riveting study of a man whose obituary in a leading daily fittingly described him as the most “romantic and arresting figure in our time”.
‘A lucky venture, a lucky venture! Plenty of rubies, plenty of emeralds! You should thank God for having brought you to such a rich country!” The words that greeted Vasco da Gama when he reached Calicut in 1498, might well have applied to Jacob as he took up Burne’s advice and threw himself into the gem trade. For someone pursuing a career built on buying and selling precious stones there was no better place to start than India.
The stories and legends of India’s wealth are as old as the great Hindu epics. The Mahabharata referred to northern tribes who sent lumps of gold to Yudhishtira collected by ferocious giant ants who attacked anyone who dared to enter their territory. The Ramayana described the holy city of Ayodhya as being “filled with merchants and artificers of all kinds; gold, precious stories, and jewels were there found in abundance; everyone wore costly garments, bracelets, and necklaces”.
In da Gama’s day, India’s mines were still producing vast quantities of diamonds, sapphires, rubies, hyacinths and amethysts that were being traded at major centres along the Malabar Coast. With the establishment of the Mughal Empire in 1526 by Babur, the demand for “all things that are most beautiful, precious and rare” grew exponentially. Sir Thomas Roe, the English ambassador to the court of Jehangir recommended that the Crown use the jewels lying in the Tower of London as currency to obtain trading concessions. He called India and the court of the Mughals “one of the greatest theatres in the world”.
Envoys from Portugal, France and Britain vied with one another to ingratiate themselves with local Princes and Mughal emperors by offering exorbitant gifts of gems and jewellery. William Hawkins’s list of unmounted stones in Jehangir’s treasuries included 37.5 kg or 187,500 carats of diamonds, 300 kg of pearls, 50 kg of rubies and 125 kg of emeralds.
Diamonds were discovered in the mines of Golconda near Hyderabad around 800 BC. Indians were the first to trade stones for other commodities. The Venetian adventurer, Marco Polo, in his Book of Wonders, wrote that diamonds were found in deep gorges infested with “serpents of great girth and size”. Pieces of meat were thrown down from the tops of mountains into inaccessible valleys. The diamonds lying on the ground would stick to the meat which would be picked up by white eagles and carried off. Miners would search eagle droppings and the intestines of carcasses for the diamonds which they had swallowed with the meat.
By the time Jacob entered the jewellery business, the mines of Golconda had been exhausted of their treasures, but the market in precious stones was as vibrant as ever. Gem trading in India, noted the scholar George Winius, “must have surely constituted one of the greatest semi-visible, half-clandestine economic activities of the early modern period”.
The British public had been in awe of Indian gemstones ever since the fabled Kohinoor diamond was presented to Queen Victoria in 1849 as part of the booty from the British annexation of the Punjab. Indian jewellery, including pieces from the courts of Delhi, Gwalior and Jaipur, had first featured prominently at the International Exhibition in South Kensington in 1871. The riches of the subcontinent received another boost when Victoria assumed the title of Empress of India in 1876. By the late 1880s, Indian jewellery, with its spontaneous variety, curves and convulsions, was the flavour of the era.
The story of how he sold his first diamond was one of the many myths that outlived Jacob. Using the money he had saved in Hyderabad and his keen eye for a bargain, he bought his first diamond for a pittance. He then sold it for more than a 100% profit to an English collector. “From that moment on his ambition was fixed,” wrote Frederick Heath, recounting what Jacob had told him. He left Hyderabad and went to Delhi where “he boldly entered into competition with the finest jewellers of the East but, fearing nothing and with sublime faith in himself, he soon acquired a position of influence, and rapidly made money”.
It is doubtful whether Jacob had such a smooth ride. Much of the domestic market was firmly in the hands of banias, a caste of Gujarati traders who still dominate the diamond trade today. European jewellers had a long-established foothold as well. Ralph Fitch, one of the earliest British travellers to reach India in 1583, wrote that one member of his party, a man by the name of William Leader, remained behind to serve as a jeweller for the King of Cambay. Thomas Pitt, Governor of Madras in the early eighteenth century, sent vast quantities of rough diamonds to Europe where they were sold at a huge profit. Europe’s largest jewellery firms sent their agents to India to procure precious stones which were cut and set in contemporary settings.
Jacob had certain advantages. His apprenticeships at the court of the Nizam and in Calcutta at Charles, Nephew & Co had taught him the basics of the trade. Years of travel in the Princely states had taught Jacob the special place gems and jewellery occupied in the minds and lives of Indians. Precious stones were never seen as being purely decorative. Every ornament—from a crude nose-ring made of gold worn by a poor peasant woman to the largest diamond—had an element of magic and mythology, an underlying esotericism. Among Muslims, necklaces, girdles, armlets or buttons often had a case to hold a talisman. For Hindus, jewellery was highly auspicious, with different stones having the power to bring health, wealth and happiness, but also grave danger if worn incorrectly.
“In the East, precious stones are looked upon as actual personalities—direct emanations from God, almost—nay, quite—alive,’”wrote Edmund Russell, when explaining how Jacob’s understanding of the lore of gems was crucial to his success... Russell recalled Jacob pointing out the significance of the different stones in a statue of Yama, the four-armed Hindu God of death—green chalcedony for his trident, yellow sard for his strangling chord, red agate for his club and almandine ruby for his sword. Drawing on his knowledge of Hindu lore, Jacob explained that Vishnu, in one of his nine incarnations as saviour of the world, committed a single sin so that he might understand the remorse that ordinary mortals feel. On his return to the abode of the Gods, as he began repeating his mantras, a single teardrop fell to earth. “From this, the anguish of a God, crystallised the first sapphire”, the jewel of repentance. Vishnu’s consort, Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth, was said to preside over “all the jewels and precious metals in the womb of the earth”. Parvati, the Goddess of love preferred pearls, whereas emeralds were sacred to Sarasvati, the patroness of learning and music...
For an aspiring jeweller, Simla, the summer capital of the Raj, was the destination of choice. Where the government went, merchants, shopkeepers and traders followed. W Martin Towlle’s Hand Book and Guide to Simla, published in 1877, a year after Jacob’s arrival, listed two banks, a club and a library, two jewellers, ten businesses grouped under the title of drapers-milliners, haberdashers and tailors, eight hotels and boarding houses, three wine and general merchants and two druggists and chemists. Also listed was the office of the Civil and Military Gazette from where the young Kipling would send his dispatches to readers around India. The Viceregal residence was at Peterhof, which Lord Lytton likened to a “cow stable”.
Jacob’s accommodation of choice in his first few years was Lawries. Built in the 1830s, it was the oldest and largest hotel in Simla. It was also a favourite with long-term visitors. The three-storey building was situated just below the Ridge and fronted the Mall, where most of the shops were located. It prided itself on its central location and excellent view. Breakfast was served at 9 am, Tiffin at 2 pm and dinner at 7 pm. Extra charges were levied for kerosene lamps, wax candles, kettles of hot water and quarts of English porter. It had a comfortable and well-stocked lounge where copies of the Himalayan Advertiser and the Simla Advertiser could always be found.