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Pearls Described by Tavernier

Relive history through the eyes of an old French jeweler...Pearls described by Tavernier.

Pearls described by Tavernier.

Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, French Traveller in Central Asia and the East Indies
Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, French Traveller in Central Asia and the East Indies

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Owing to their control of the great fisheries, the most valuable collections of pearls have been held by eastern monarchs, and particularly by those of India and Persia. It has been estimated that one third of the portable wealth of these countries is in jewels. Most Orientals are as suspicious of interest in their jewels as the are of inquiry regarding their harems, imagining, doubtless, that the interest conceals a sentiment of cupidity, hence it is not practicable to give a minute description of them. However, several travelers have recorded glowing accounts of collections which they have examined, which read much like a description of Aladdin's palace in the Arabian Nights. Among these, some of the greatest are the pearls described by Tavernier.

For accounts of remarkable pearls in eastern countries in the seventeenth century, we are indebted to that well-informed old French jeweler, Tavernier, one of the most remarkable gem dealers the world has ever known. He made numerous journeys to Persia, Turkey, Central Asia, and the East Indies, gaining the confidence of the highest officials and trading in gems of the greatest value. After amazing a large fortune and purchasing a barony near Lake Geneva, he died at Moscow in 1689 while on a mercantile trip to the Orient, at the age of eighty-four years. His "Voyages," published in 1676-1679, reveal a critical knowledge of gems, a remarkable insight into human nature, and the absence of any intention to impart misleading information.

Pearls described by Tavernier.

In the first English edition of his travels, published in 1678, Tavernier gave sketches of five of the principal pearls which came under his careful observation.

Figure 1 of Tavernier's diagram shows what he considered "the largest and most perfect pearl ever discovered, and without the least defect." The weight of this pear-shaped gem does not appear to have been noted, but from the sketch it may be estimated at about 500 grains. Travernier states that the bloodthirsty Shah Sofi, King of Persia purchased it in 1633 from an Arab who had just received it from the fisheries at El Katif. "It cost him 32,000 toman, or 1,400,000 livres of our money, at the rate of 46 livres and 6 deniers per tonman ($552,000)." (Tavernier, "Travels in India," London, 1889, Vol. II, p. 130.)

Pearls described by Tavernier.

Very much smaller but more beautiful than this great pearl, was the one which Tavernier saw in 1670 at Ormus in the possession of the Imam of Muscat, who had recently recovered the Muscat peninsula from the Portuguese. The jeweler stated that although this weighed only twelve and one sixteenth carats (forty-eight and a quarter grains), (Tavernier used the Florentine carat, which equaled 3.04 grains troy.) and was not perfectly round, it surpassed in beauty all others in the world at that time. It was so clear and lustrous as to appear translucent. At the conclusion of a grand entertainment given by the Khan of Ormus, at which Tavernier was present, the Prince of Muscat drew this gem from a small purse suspended about his neck, and exhibited it to the company. The Khan of Ormus offered 2000 tomans (about $34,500) for it, but the owner would not part with his treasure. Tavernier states that later the prince refused an offer of 40,000 escus ($45,000) for Aurangzeb, the Great Mogul of India. (Tavernier, "Travels in India," London, 1889, Vol. II, p. 110.)

Figure 3 in the diagram represents a pear-shaped pearl of fifty-five carats (220 grains) which Tavernier sold to Shaista Khan, uncle of the Grand Mogul. Although of large size and good shape, this was deficient in luster. According to the jeweler, this pearl was from the Island of Margarita on the Venezuelan coast, and was the largest ever carried from Occident to Orient.

Pearls described by Tavernier.

Tavernier listed among the Great Mogul's jewels a large olive-shaped pearl, perfect in form and luster. The weight was not noted, but from the sketch which he gave (see Fig 4) it be estimated at about 125 grains. It formed the central ornament of a chain of emeralds and rubies, which the Mogul sometimes wore about his neck. He also listed a round pearl of perfect form (see Fig.5). The weight of this also is not noted, but from the sketch it may be estimated at 110 grains. This was the largest perfectly spherical pearl known to Tavernier. Its equal had never been found, and for that reason it was kept with the unmounted jewels.

Among the other pearl treasures of the Great Mogul, pearls described by Tavernier noted the following:

(a) Two grand, pear-shaped pearls, one weighing about seventy ratis,(One rati equaled seven eighths of the Florentine carat, or 2.6 grains troy.) a little flattened on both sides, and of beautiful water and good form. (b) A button-shaped pearl, weighing from fifty-five to sixty ratis, of good form and good water. (c) A round pearl of great perfection, a little flat on one side and weighing fifty-six ratis; this had been presented to the Great Mogul by Shah Abbas II, King of Persia. (d) Three round yellowish pearls weighing from twenty-five to twenty-eight ratis each. (e) A perfectly round pearl, thirty-five and a half ratis, white and perfect in al respects. This was the only jewel purchased by the Great Mogul himself, the others being inherited or coming to him as presents. (f) Two pearls perfectly shaped and equal, each weighing twenty-five and a quarter ratis. (g) Also two chains, one of pearls and rubies of different shapes pierced like the pears; the other of pearls and emeralds, round and bored. All of these pearls were round and ranged in weight form ten to twelve ratis each. (Tavernier, "Travels in India," London, 1889, Vol I, pp. 397-399.)

Pearls described by Tavernier as told by George Kunz and Charles Stevenson in "The Book of the Pearl".

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