Would Mughal-era glasses with gemstone lenses have belonged to Shah Jahan?


When two unique pairs of Mughal-era diamond and emerald glasses were put up for sale by auction house Sotheby’s in September, they immediately caused a stir. First, because the asking price was $ 3.4 million each. Second, because each pair was an exceptional piece of craftsmanship and indulgence.

For a pair, a single natural diamond weighing over 200 carats was cleaved to create transparent and crystalline diamond glasses. For the other, a similar effect was created using an emerald originally weighing over 300 carats.

The only ingredient missing from these spectacular specimens was the identity of the person who ordered them. Sotheby’s said the glasses came from an unnamed princely treasure.

Kohinoor, William Dalrymple and Anita Anand’s 2016 book on the eponymous diamond, offers more clues. On page 33 it is stated. “It recently emerged that after apparently damaging his eyes by excessively mourning the death of Mumtaz Mahal, Shah Jahan even ordered two pairs of jeweled glasses, one with diamond glasses, the other with glasses. emeralds. ”

The authors cite a book titled The Mughals and Their Love of Precious Stones (2012) by Ebba Koch, professor at the Vienna Institute of Art History and an authority on Mughal India.

It seems likely that Shah Jahan commissioned these shows after Mumtaz Mahal died in childbirth in 1631. Contemporary court chroniclers have recorded living accounts of the Emperor’s grief at his passing. Immediately afterwards he would have been inconsolable. He observed mourning for a year, after which his hair turned white, his back was bent and his face worn, according to the accounts. He poured a fortune into his marble tomb, the Taj Mahal, in Agra.

The craftsmanship is so exemplary that the diamond has been made fully transparent. Most of a massive gemstone was wasted in making these lenses. (Sotheby’s)

It is therefore plausible that the grieving emperor, perhaps fearing for his health, perhaps on the advice of others, sought out the perceived restorative properties of these gemstones. (Diamond bezels were originally called Halqeh-Ye-Nur or Diamonds for Light, so named because of the association of diamonds with light and the Islamic symbolism of light with the presence of God. Emeralds , meanwhile, were believed to have miraculous powers to heal and ward off evil.)

Not all kings or emperors would have had the economic means, the inclination and the taste to create such beautiful objects. Shah Jahan does the trick there as well.

Making the lenses for diamond glasses, for example, involved cutting a stone that was originally massive, for two lenses with a combined weight of around 25 carats. This represents a huge loss that few Indian rulers other than the Mughal Emperor could have endured.


While the diamond used for the lenses would come from the Golconda mines in present-day Telangana, the emerald came from the Muzo mines in Colombia.

Muzo emeralds, known for their rich, sometimes blue-green hue, were brought to Europe on the ships of the Spanish conquistadors. From Europe, Portuguese merchant ships brought them to the Mughal Empire, where they became valuable status symbols.

It seems likely that Shah Jahan ordered these glasses after the death of his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal in 1631. Her grief affected her health, and diamonds and emeralds are said to have restorative properties. (Wikimedia Commons)

Sotheby’s listings indicated that the glasses were certainly made in India, “possibly during the reigns of Jahangir (r.1605-27), Shah Jahan (r.1628-58) or Aurangzeb (r.1658-1707)” . One can consider Aurangzeb as out of the race because of its famous austerity.

Shah Jahan and his father Jahangir, meanwhile, were both esthetes and known connoisseurs of gemstones. As Dalrymple and Anand write in Kohinoor: “In due time, Shah Jahan’s love for beautiful and precious objects surpassed even that of his father.

At the end of his life, Shah Jahan may have felt the need for such shows. He was stooped, weak, old and lonely, losing his grip on his kingdom to his son Aurangzeb, who would eventually imprison him at Agra Fort for eight years until his death in 1666.

It is possible that Shah Jahan made the glasses, maybe even as some kind of talisman. He would have worn them, moreover, like a nose clip.

According to Sotheby’s, the two pairs of glasses were created in the 17th century, but the frames date from around 1890. It is not known with which Indian prince the glasses ended up, nor who added the frames and the ear cups.

The question of original ownership too “now rests only on probability: who else would have had the resources to risk slitting a huge diamond when such an operation could have potentially destroyed one of the most big and most valuable ever? But in truth, no one knows for sure who made those specs, ”Dalrymple told Wknd.

Sotheby’s website states: “It would be inconceivable today to create such an excess when cutting a large stone. The website also states that no other examples of such shows are known. This may have prompted the asking price of $ 3.4 million. Unfortunately, there were no takers and Sotheby’s has since withdrawn both pieces.

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