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Diamonds are one of the few things that have held human fascination in every nook and cranny of the world across time

11 september 2020

usha_r_balakrishnan_xx.pngDr Usha R. Balakrishnan, a preeminent historian of Indian jewellery based in Mumbai, is Chief Curator of the World Diamond Museum. Being the author and co-author of several volumes of Diamonds Across Time, a new book and an important venture launched by the World Diamond Museum, she was the curator of the accompanying exhibitions: Dance of the Peacock: Jewellery Traditions of India (1999), Jewels of the Nizams (2001), Icons in Gold: Jewellery of India from the Collection of the Musée Barbier-Mueller (2005), India: Jewels that Enchanted the World (2014), Alamkāra: The Beauty of Ornament (2015), Enduring Splendor: Jewellery of India’s Thar Desert (2017), and Treasures of the Deccan: Jewels of the Nizams (2018). In her interview given to Rough&Polished, Dr Usha R. Balakrishnan shares her views and experience from being immersed in this work in the course of several years.

Judging by the foreword, this book, Diamonds Across Time, brought together the efforts of more than one hundred people, and that, by itself, makes it outstanding. Looks like all of them were extracting diamonds anew from the depths of human history. Could you say a few words about how this work went on?

There is a saying that, “It takes a village to raise a child” and the same goes for making a great book. Diamonds Across Time involved people from all over the world—all of us united by a love for diamonds.

We invited 10 writers from across the world—from Asia, Europe and America—each one an acclaimed and respected historian to reveal a facet of the story of diamonds. I myself am from India, the original land of diamonds, the land that has given the term ‘Golconda’ to describe diamonds that are the most pure, flawless, limpid and luminous.

Every diamond has a story to tell and this book really goes to show that diamonds are one of the few things that have held human fascination in every nook and cranny of the world across time.

The effort was unlike anything done before and was made possible by technology, communication and passion. The World Diamond Museum founder Alex Popov conceived this project and brought the immense goodwill that he commands in the gem and jewellery industry to bear fruit; and, as chief curator of the World Diamond Museum and the editor of the book, I synchronised its realization.

Pages from Diamonds Across Time: The Shah diamond, India, Golconda, late 16th century, 88.7 carats 

Many of the diamonds featured in this edition are famous gems, which, however, being mostly kept in the vaults, appear to be little known by general public. Do you think this book will be an eye opener in this regard?

The book reveals, for the first time, the hidden stories of some of mankind’s ‘known’ gems and introduces for the first time, historic gems that have heretofore been known only through references in ancient books and documents. As I have said in my introduction to the book, “the biography of a diamond lies embedded in its luminous depths, revealed in scenes from the earth’s creation until this very moment.” And only earth-mined diamonds carry these tales.

For example, the Nizam diamond, was until recently only known to historians as a mysterious great gem that reposed in the treasury of the Nizam of Hyderabad, at one time the world’s richest individual; it was mentioned in travelogues, chronicles and court documents, and whispered about in the corridors of the Nizam’s palace in Hyderabad. The gem, in all its glory and beauty, is revealed for the first time in my opening essay, “The Nizam Diamond: Bala Koh-i-Noor, in the Sacred Trust of the Nizam of Hyderabad.”

In this way, every essay reveals a facet of the history of great diamonds, historic jewellery collections and the men and women to whom this magical stone represented power, prestige and privilege.

Thus, with this book, we have attempted to show literally and metaphorically every facet of the diamond and refused to restrict ourselves, as publications have often have to do, to a time period, place, or peoples.

Diamonds being atop the gem hierarchy, combine beauty and value. The latter quality is often based on a gem’s story. Which of the diamond stories contained in this book struck you most? Are there any that add new aspects to the diamond stories already told?

Each writer has tried to bring forth something that hasn’t been told before. Diamonds Across Time is unique because it tells stories from different perspectives.

With François Farges, we travel into the magnificent court of the kings of France, while Derek J. Content presents the little-known history of Borneo diamonds; Hugo Miguel Crespo draws upon unpublished Portuguese records and inventories to unravel the fascinating trade in diamonds between Portugal and India, and Jack Ogden chronicles the unexplored turbulent journeys of two historic diamonds, the Pigot and the Nassak; with Stefano Papi, we get a glimpse of the magnificent and opulent treasures that constituted the imperial jewels of the tsars of Russia, and Diana Scarisbrick’s essay traces the acquisitions of magnificent diamonds and diamond-studded jewels of the Londonderry family; jewellery historian René Brus reveals for the first time, the royal regalia of the Yogyakarta dynasty in Indonesia, Ruth Peltason presents the exquisite jewels created by the great jewellery houses for a group of twentieth-century women, who celebrated these jewels, and finally, the book closes with an essay by John M. King who explores the magical world of coloured diamonds.

I don’t want to give too much away—you have to read the book to discover the many facets of diamonds across time.

Pages from Diamonds Across Time: The Graff Lesedi La Rona, rough (1,109 carats) and polished (32.37 carats) 

The book is rich in marvelous photographs of diamonds. What are the sources of these photographs?

The old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” holds true for a coffee-table book, more so than any other book I have done.

Diamonds Across Time has more than three hundred images. It was not an easy effort sourcing all the marvelous photographs that illustrate the ten essays. In fact, this process actually took the longest time, as I researched each essay in great depth, I wanted every facet of the story being told to be illustrated with an image, this way the gems and jewels are shown in the context of their life history and the stories that made them great. This is never the case with most coffee-table books of this kind. But, I felt that if we are speaking about great diamonds, magnificent jewels, kings, queens and emperors, palaces and geographical regions, how can the story really come alive without images. In fact, each essay unfolds like a cinematic montage.

We worked closely with the authors, foundations, museums, photographers, jewellers and jewellery houses, manufacturers and libraries to put together the most compelling collection of images. Alex Popov’s reach and contacts gave us access to collections around the world.

The World Diamond Museum’s photographers were granted access to some incredible collections. Under the guidance of the award-winning designer Misha Anikst they made new pictures of important diamonds and diamond jewellery, like, for example, The Shah Diamond or Patiala Necklace that prominently feature in the Introduction chapter.

The diamonds featured in the World Diamond Museum are known for their high value, which is more often than not coming very close to that of most treasured pieces of art and currently many diamantaires advocate to attribute diamonds to the realm of art. What is your take on this?

Fyodor Dostoevsky famously pronounced, “beauty will save the world.”

I think anything that is truly beautiful, is art and being an art and jewellery historian—of all the beautiful things I have seen—diamonds are most certainly the most beautiful. While the famous 4c’s—carat, cut, colour and clarity might contribute to a diamond’s high value, it is these factors together with the stories that lie in their depths that place them in the realm of art. Similarly, jewels are set with fabulous gems but they combine design, craftsmanship, intricacy and human stories that elevate them to beautiful works of art.

Ultimately, you have to look at the stone and the jewel, and then look into the stone and the jewel to discover the mysterious that lie within. It is all this that sets diamonds apart from all other gemstones.

Pages from Diamonds Across Time: The Nizam diamond (120.80 carats) 

In your view, what will be the educational impact of this publication? To what extent will it help to attract younger generations to the world of diamonds?

Every earth-mined diamond is embedded with thousands of years of stories—which they reveal when we explore their depths. Nothing in the world can be compared with that. We hope that more and more of younger generation will realise and appreciate this.

In future publications, we plan to present many more such stories, and link the past, the present and the future in a crystallographic structure akin to the diamond. So that, diamonds are forever, they are eternal and mankind continues to be obsessed with this magical gem. It is our endeavour that this and future books in the Facets of Mankind Series will serve as a repository of knowledge about this magical gem that will help us understand diamonds, revel in their beauty, and see exquisite pieces of jewellery celebrating them.

I am currently working on my book on Golconda and Golconda diamonds—documenting and telling the story of the beginning of mankind’s love affair with diamonds and the magical, hypnotic beauty of Indian diamonds. Another book in the pipeline of the Facets of Mankind is an extraordinary monography depicting the life and work of late Munnu Kasliwal, one of the most important jewellers of the 20th century.

In what way is the World Diamond Museum going to develop its further activities?

The World Diamond Museum has been conceived as a virtual museum accessible to people across the world. Diamonds Across Time is the first venture of the World Diamond Museum but by no means the last. There are plans to make such publications the centre of diamond knowledge.

Since its interception the World Diamond Museum has been involved in research, advising and getting advise from renowned experts and preparing ourselves to spread worldwide by adding more titles, by establishing the virtual museum, and by organising exhibitions, conferences, and lectures.

Vladimir Malakhov, Rough&Polished