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