Top image: The intricately carved Mughal Emerald is an impressive example of the skilled gem carvings of the time.
Precious jewels have been symbols of wealth and status for thousands of years. From rubies to sapphires to emeralds, societies all across the world have desired these stones for their use in beautiful jewelry. Usually, the bigger the stone the better. And in the case of emeralds, there are few bigger or better than the Mughal Emerald. The stone is worth a whopping $2.2 million and dates all the way back to 1695. The story behind the world’s largest engraved emeralds is fascinating.
The Mughal Emerald was carved during the reign of the last of the four great Mughal emperors of India, Aurangzeb, who reigned between 1658 and 1707. The emerald is actually the only known emerald carved and dated during the classic Mughal period. For this reason, it has become somewhat of a standard for dating all other carved Indian emeralds.
The Origins of the Mughal Emerald
The only known source of fine large emeralds during this time was in Colombia. All other ancient sources of emeralds such as Egypt, Austria, and Pakistan had been exhausted. When the conquistadors arrived on South American shores in the middle of the 16th century, they observed the beautiful green stones in the graves of Peru and Mexico, although they could not trace their natural source. Then, in 1537, the conquistadors found a natural source in Colombia. They immediately began mining it, following their subjugation of the local tribes.
Naturally, the stunning gemstones were shipped back to Europe along with countless other treasures. That was, after all, what the conquistadors had come for. Through trade, the emeralds would eventually end up in one of the three great Islamic empires of the period: the Ottoman Empire (1299-1923), the Safavid Persian Empire (1501-1722), and the Mughal Empire of India (1556-1707). This was because the demand for emeralds in these empires was huge, especially among the ruling classes.
It is likely that this was how the infamous Mughal Emerald made its way to India. It was almost certainly mined in Colombia before being shipped back to Spain, where they likely realized that the Mughal Empire was a lucrative market for their emeralds given the demand, as well as the huge number of riches the Mughal emperors had to trade with.
The Mughal Emerald in India
Upon its arrival in India, the emerald was entrusted to a skilled gem cutter and carver. Whether the carver was a Shi’ite Muslim or the gem was commissioned by a Shi’ite Muslim who entrusted the task to the carver is unknown. Either way, a Shi’ite prayer was carved into the precious gem by an extremely skilled carver. The prayers invoke the blessings of God, the Prophet Muhammad and the twelve Shi’ite Imams. What this means is that it was definitely not the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb who had the emerald commissioned, given that Mughal emperors were all devout Sunni Muslims .
The inscription reads:
O Merciful One, O Compassionate One
God bless Muhammad and ‘Ali
and Fatima and al-Husain
and al-Hasan and ‘Ali
and Muhammad and Ja’far
and ‘Ali and Muhammad
and al-Husaini and the steadfast Mahdi
It is possible that the emerald belonged to a Shi’ite officer of the empire of Persian origin, or one of the Shi’ite Deccan sultanates who had been subjugated by Aurangzeb. In this regard, the emerald is somewhat shrouded in mystery. It isn’t exactly clear who it belonged to or where it was up until the year 1958, when an American by the name of Alan Caplan turned up in India.
Alan Caplan was incredibly well-studied in geology and mineralogy. He had a keen interest in gemstones and made many trips to Colombia in search of emeralds, as well as to Burma in search of rubies. On a trip to Burma in 1958, he decided to also visit India, where the emerald was on sale and he bought it. It is unknown exactly who put the gemstone up for sale, but it was likely in a private collection of a connoisseur of gemstones in India.
The Design and Legacy of the Mughal Emerald
The Mughal Emerald itself is 2.06 inches (5.2 centimeters) by 1.56 inches (4 centimeters), with a thickness of 1.56 inches (4 centimeters). It weighs 217.80 carats, or approximately 1.5 ounces (43.560 grams). The gem has been cut by its carvers into a table-cut or flat-topped, rectangular-shaped stone with two parallel flat rectangular faces. On one side are the Islamic inscriptions already mentioned, while the other side is intricately decorated with beautiful flowers. The Mughal Emerald has come to be a symbol, not only of the Mughal Empire, but also of the greatest cultural and artistic achievements achieved by India.
The Mughal period was one of the golden periods of Indian history and it gave us incredible architecture, art and culture. For example, the breathtaking Taj Mahal was constructed in this period, as well as the Red Fort of Delhi . The art of engraving emeralds and other precious stones was also perfected during this period of Indian history. This is not surprising, as Indians had already figured out how to engrave diamonds during the Mughal period, a feat which today can only be done using a fullerite pen or laser technology. Something harder than a diamond must have been used to achieve this staggering feat, and so experts have been left bewildered.
Ultimately, the Mughal Emerald remained in Caplan’s possession up until his death in 1998. Then, in 2001, it was sold by his heirs. Christie’s in New York were entrusted with the sale. The famous Mughal Emerald fetched a record price of $2.2 million at auction when it was bought by an anonymous buyer. Today, it is on display as part of the Al Thani Collection at the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar.
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