Pearls of Persia
Pearls of Persia: Crown Jewels of Iran
By David Hughes
He spins from the bars, but there's no cage to him
[Any] more than to the visionary his cell:
His stride is wildernesses of freedom:
The world rolls under the long thrust of his heel.
—Ted Hughes, "The Panther"
The history of foreign interference in the affairs of what's now known as Iran, and vice versa, goes back centuries. "All Things Must Pass" could be the theme song of the country, having relatively recently been invaded by the Mongols of Genghis Khan in the 13th century, enduring a forced conversion from Sunni Islam to Shia in the 16th, and becoming a formidable empire in the 18th that shrank in the 19th. Unrest at the dawn of the 20th century led to the first revolution and a parliamentary constitution followed by Russian and British occupations. Mohammed Mosaddegh was elected prime minister in 1951, but he made the mistake of nationalizing the country's oil industry, and so Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was installed, alienating and imprisoning Muslim clerics, leading to the Islamic revolution of 1979 and the infamous seizure of the United States Embassy, followed by a cultural revolution and war with Iraq. For the last ten years, the United Nations Security Council has imposed sanctions on Iran due to its nuclear program, relaxed with an agreement last summer.
With this history of upheaval and the ambivalence expressed towards Iranian royalty, its symbol of opulence—the Imperial crown jewels—, so notoriously flaunted by the last shah, could have been plundered during the 1979 revolt. (Russia's crown jewels actually were lost for four years following its 1917 revolution, as noted in our "Avarice and Alienation: The Jewels of the Romanoffs.") Six months after the shah left Iran in January 1979, he'd become a "nonperson" in the words of the Los Angeles Times (15 Jul 1979), with his statues destroyed, his tomb slated to be converted into a school, and Tehran's most fashionable boulevard renamed for Mosaddegh. The shah's "Niavaran Palace is occupied by young revolutionary guards," wrote the Times' David Lamb, "and all reference to the Pahlavis has been removed from the crown jewels, which are still on display." (Lamb himself was expelled from Tehran after writing his article.)
History of the Jewels
It was Ismail I (1487–1524) who was the architect of Sunni-to-Shia conversion and who also was progenitor of the Safavid Dynasty in Iran (1501–1736), the lineage credited with amassing some of the jewels currently in the royal collection. Ismail himself descended from Shaikh Safi-ad-Din Ardabili (1252–1334), the Kurdish mystic who inherited a Sufi order from his father-in-law, the morshid Shaikh Zahed Gilani. Encyclopædia Iranica states that the dynasty "is often considered the beginning of modern Persian history, just as the state they created is said to mark the genesis of the Persian nation-state," although not in the modern sense.
According to Encyclopædia Iranica, most of the gems currently in the collection were collected by Nader Shah (reigning 1736–1747), including the crown jewels that had been taken by the Afghans. Armenian archbishop Abraham of Crete, who visited Nadir's camp until just before he was crowned shah, was told by a priest Thoma, who witnessed the coronation, "There was put on his head a gold crown shaped like a saghavard [the bulbous helmet of an Armenian bishop] and adorned with rare gems and huge, wonderful to the sight." Even the table service contained objects inset with jewels. (Meen and Tushingham, 10–11) Prior to his reign, Nader Shah had defended Persia from attacks by Russians, Afghans, and Ottomans; as ruler, he extended the empire by invading Delhi and returning with treasure. "One hundred workers were busy for fifteen days melting and reducing gold and silver bullion that were not coined, so transport was easier," wrote André de Claustre in his Histoire de Thamas Kouli-Kan, roi de Perse (433). "Two ingots pierced through the middle and tied together with a thick rope became the load for a camel; five thousand chests were filled with gold rupees and eight thousand with silver rupees. Also seen was an inconceivable amount of other chests filled with diamonds, pearls and other jewels. In a word, it brought up the value of the riches that the King of Persia has taken from India to three hundred Carols of silver rupees: that is, five billion, four hundred million of our silver."
Nader Shah put the jewels to good use. British merchant Jonas Hanway, visiting the shah's military camp in 1744, wrote (254–255), "I was desirous to see that part of the shah's riches, which consisted in horse-furniture. He had four complete sets, one mounted with pearls, another with rubies, a third with emeralds, and the last with diamonds, most of which were of so prodigious a size as hardly to merit belief; for many of them appeared as big as a pigeon's egg. I could not but regard them with wonder, not more for their immense value, than for the barbarous taste in which they were set; for some of them did not appear to have any art at all bestowed upon them." Hanway offered to take one of the bridles and have its jewels re-set, but the shah declined.
While Nader Shah would have carried his buckler (shield) and saber, pictured above, into battle, as Meen and Tushingham explain (58-61), "Only later, in tribute to his achievements, were the buckler and sword lavishly encrusted with gems." The shield itself likely is composed of rhinoceros hide. The gemstones include emeralds, diamonds, red spinels and rubies. The outer edge, not shown above, is ringed with a solid band of square emeralds. The large red spinel in the center (est. 225 ct) was among the largest known to the authors. The four emeralds (est. 45–55 ct) nearest that spinel conceal rivets that pierce the hide and are connected to straps.
The Nader Shah Jiqa, pictured at top, is remarkable not just for its 65-carat central cabochon emerald, but for its martial motif, as described by Meen and Tushingham (78). Unique in the collection, it depicts a trophy of cannon, spears, drums, and banners. Its attribution to Nader Shah is problematic, however, as the authors point out. It is not featured in any portrait of Nader (who died in 1747) nor any of his Qajar dynasty. Military trophies were not documented in Iran until about 1880 and flags also are a relatively recent creation. Nevertheless, it remains a tribute to a famous warrior.
For Sale Signs
Nader Shah was assassinated in 1747. The crown jewels were split up, with some remaining with the Zand dynasty (1750–1794). In 1791, the last of the Zands, Lotf-Ali Khan (reigning 1789–1794) had tried to sell some of the collection's diamonds to Persian merchants at Bushire, a Persian Gulf port used by the British. The merchants were reluctant to buy, so, as go-betweens they contacted the British. Offered were the ruler's two biggest diamonds, "the Sea of Light" and "the Crown of the Moon," as told by Sir Harford Jones Brydges (The Dynasty of the Kajars, 1833, cxxiii–clviii), one of the Englishmen who was approached. When he arrived in the port, "I soon found the matter in hand was not likely to be brought to a speedy conclusion, from the possessor putting too high, and the proposed purchasers too low a value on the articles for sale."
Brydges was asked to value "the Sea of Light" (aka Darya-i Noor) without yet having seen it. When presented a crystal model of it he "instantly perceived it to agree with the drawing which Tavernier, in his Travels, has given of a stone offered him at Golconda; and for which, as he says, the proprietor asked five lacs of rupees, and he offered four." This allowed Brydges to suggest the same amount as Tavernier's offer, minus ten percent (for subsequent depreciation). A day or two later, Brydges was received by the king, who flung aside his cloak, revealing armlets containing, "amongst many other superb ones, the jewels already noted." When asked by the king to value the Darya-i Noor, Brydges hedged, "I should not be afraid to give five lacs of rupees for the Dereya-noor." Brydges was left alone with the king's jeweler, who engaged in a pretense of protestation so the negotiations could be reported back to the king by a servant.
Later, Brydges saw the stones again apart from their settings. Having been skeptical that the Darya-i Noor might be faceted as a brilliant, he was favorably reassured, and saw that its color "was a slight tinge of a palish pink, which I think any jeweller would esteem a beauty rather than a defect." Recutting would lose about twenty carats, leaving 156 carats. (It actually weighs 182 carats.) Examining "the Crown of the Moon" (aka Taje-mah), Brydges described it as being shaped like an egg if divided at five eighths of its bulk, faceted on top. The color was "as perfect as I ever beheld" and it weighed 145 carats (actual weight 115 carats). Asked to value the two stones, Brydges suggested twenty lacs of rupees for both, having been so impressed by their quality outside their settings. The jewelers present felt the sum too low. The diamonds' armlets also contained twelve table diamonds weighing at least sixty carats each. (Upon arriving home, Brydges calculated that the fourteen diamonds were worth a total of £918,156.) The Englishman was told later that the king had declined to sell the diamonds. He could have used the money; Brydges was told that if he did not soon leave Shiraz, where he was staying, "the country between Shiraz and Bushire might become so disturbed, that I might find it difficult to reach the latter place." Eventually Brydges found himself stranded in Shiraz.
My interest in the Iranian crown jewels was piqued last month when my cousin Patti Hughes Mangis recalled seeing the jewels during the summer of 1974 when she toured Europe upon graduating from high school. In 1960, years before his traditional self-crowning in 1967, dubbed by UPI as "The Coronation of the Century," Shah Mohammed Reza ordered the best pieces to be displayed in a vault of the Iranian Central Bank in Tehran, where the jewels served as collateral for the nation's currency. Seeing the jewels, my cousin Patti recalled:
I remember that it was a large room with glass cases, similar to a museum. So while there was likely a guard, I don't recall one, any more than someone would recall the guard when visiting an art museum. You could wander from case to case, looking at what caught your eye, again as in a museum. Several items stuck in my memory. A large, floor-size globe entirely covered with jewels; in some instances small countries were a single jewel. A throne covered with jewels [pictured above]. You could walk fairly close to the throne to examine it, but of course you couldn't touch it. Particularly memorable was a small box made out of emeralds, the top of which was one large emerald probably 3–4 inches in length. The ermine robe of the wife of the shah I thought was very beautiful. There were scepters as well, I think, and many items in glass cases. I believe some of those items were gifts from leaders of other countries, not just the crown jewels per se.
The geographer's globe was created by court jewelers in 1869 for Naser-al-Din Shah (reigning 1848–1896), who had so many loose gems, he was afraid of losing them. The globe stands 43 inches high and features 51,366 precious stones depicting continents and oceans. The emerald box Patti recalled is set with 92 emeralds, the center stone being a 35-carat octagonal blue-green emerald measuring 25 x 18 mm.
The Nader throne on display was seen in the coronation of the last shah in 1967 (as shown above). It too is a masterpiece in employment of emerald as well as other gemstones. Its backrest's center emerald (obscured) measures 47 x 40 mm and weighs an estimated 225 carats. The other four emeralds surrounding it, two of which are shown, weigh an estimated 100–170 carats each. Oddly, the Nader throne likely was not created for Nader Shah; a lengthy paean inscribed on sixteen enameled panels running below the armrests and above the seat inside credits the throne to Fath-Ali Shah (reigning 1797–1834). The confusion may come from the fact that the word nadir/nader means "rare, wonderful, marvelous" as well as being the name of Nader Shah. It is, of course, a "wonderful throne." (Meen and Tushingham, 55)
My brother, Richard W. Hughes II, took in the jewels decades after cousin Patti's 1974 visit. (My brother is named after Patti's father, Richard W. Hughes I, at whose 90th birthday party Patti told of her travels.)
I viewed the Crown Jewels of Iran in 2013, and it was quite a contrast with the experience at the Imperial Treasury at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, which I also visited that year, fighting with thousands of tourists and school kids to get a look. There were probably less than 50 visitors in the rooms in Tehran and I was shown around by the former curator, Ali Sanaei Rad.
Continuing, Richard recalled:
The collection is probably the best in the world, particularly strong in pearls, diamonds and emeralds, as well as balas rubies (red spinels). The most famous item is probably the globe, where the oceans are made of emeralds and the continents are done up in spinels. There is a spectacular pink diamond [the Darya-i Noor], some lovely turquoise, an entire treasure chest overflowing with natural pearls and a bejeweled throne.
With the best monograph on the Iranian crown jewels being published in 1968, and with welcome advances in the reproduction of photographs in the last five decades, a new look at this collection is long overdue.
- Brydges, Harford Jones. 1833. The Dynasty of the Kajars. John Bohn: London.
- Claustre, André de. 1743. Histoire de Thamas Kouli-Kan, roi de Perse. Paris: Chez Briasson.
- Encyclopædia Iranica entries on Crown Jewels of Persia and Safavid Dynasty.
- Hanway, Jonas. 1753. An Historical Account of the British Trade Over the Caspian Sea, Vol. I. London.
- Meen, V. B. and A. D. Tushingham. 1968. Crown Jewels of Iran. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.