Indian travel writing: The Colour of Paradise – The Emerald In The Age of Gunpowder Empires

Among the astonishing array of jewels and gems left behind by the great Islamic empires, emeralds stand out for their size and prominence. For the Safavids, Mughals, and Ottomans, green was – as it remains for all Muslims – the colour of Paradise, reserved for the Prophet Muhammad and his descendants. Tapping a wide range of sources, Kris Lane traces the tangled web of global trading networks that funnelled emeralds from backland South America to bustling Asian capitals between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries. Lane reveals the vicious conquest wars and forced labour regimes that accompanied their production. It is a story of trade, but also of the human urge for wealth – how members of profoundly different societies at opposite ends of the globe assigned value to a few thousand pounds of imperfectly shiny green rocks.

‘The hunger of some rulers for these vivid green gemstones was almost insatiable. The first East India Company merchant to visit the Mughal court at Agra (in 1610) noted that the Emperor Jahangir’s emeralds weighed a total of 412 pounds – whereas his collection of diamonds weighed little more than a quarter of that, even though India was then the world’s leading diamond producer.

Where had those emeralds come from? The Mughals and Persian Shahs had a three-fold classification: the very best were said to be from Egypt, the next category came from ‘old mines’ in Asia and the lowest quality came from ‘new mines’ in the Americas. But this was a fiction. Just 10 years ago, a team of mineralogists analysed the oxygen isotopes in a number of famous Mughal emeralds, and found that almost all of them were from the Americas. To be more precise, they were from the highlands of Colombia; this analysis was in fact able to identify the specific outcrops from which they had been extracted.’
From the Telegraph, April 18th