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Diamonds Are Not Forever: The Curious Life Of Alexander Jacob 

Why did Jacob, jeweller of 6th Nizam of Hyderabad, die a recluse, despite a renowned diamond being named after him?

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Art and Culture
7 min read
The curious life of Alexander Jacob, who brought in a single diamond worth Rs 975 crore to India — and died a pauper. Image of Jacob used for representational purposes.
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A 100 years ago, this month — that is, on 10 January 1921 — a bland and an indifferent notice appeared in the Times of India, Bombay, announcing the death of one ‘A M Jacob’, aged seventy-one years. No cause of death was offered, neither was any mention made of any grieving family member or any heartbroken friend, while he was interred at the city’s Sewri Christian Burial Ground on plot number 13, Row B2, Church of North India section.

Priest E J Gentry carried out his burial.

A man whose life provoked three major books and over a thousand newspaper articles globally, died unknown as a recluse. Can you believe it? The person who had brought into India one of the world’s ‘wonder diamonds’ — which is bigger than Koh-i-Noor and is valued at more than Rs 975 crores — died a pauper.

Today, even his grave is lost to time. Due to shortage of space in the Sewri Christian Cemetery, the same spot has ostensibly been reused. History is cruel and has forgotten Jacob.

It is an irony of fate though, that one of the world’s most famous ‘cushion cut’ 184.75 carats white diamonds is named after him — The Jacob Diamondwhich is also well-known globally as the Imperial Diamond or Victoria Diamond. Unfortunate that we have obliterated the man associated with the diamond from our memory.

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History Of The Jacob Diamond

The world-famous diamond was brought to India in 1891 by Alexander Malcolm Jacob, a mysterious personality: an art dealer, a jeweller, a hustler, a risk-taker — and yet, considered to be a confidante of successive British Viceroys, Vicereines, Indian maharajas, imperial civil servants, and in particular, known to be an important jeweller to Asaf Jah — the 6th Nizam Mir Mahboob Ali Khan — the ruler of Hyderabad between 1869 and 1911.

The Jacob Diamond is a white or colourless diamond ranked as the fifth-biggest polished diamond in the world. The diamond is believed to have been found as a rough stone in an African mine by a security guard and was smuggled out of it.

Thereafter, it was bought over by a ‘Syndicate’ in Amsterdam where it was cut in a style that prevailed more than 125 years ago in a rectangular cushion-cut, with 58 facets, and measuring 39.5 mm long, 29.25 mm wide and 22.5 mm deep. The diamond weighs 184.75 carats or 36.90 gram — an unimaginable weight for a single diamond by all means, and is a sheer delight for its brilliance, cutting and flawless colour.

Unlike the famous Koh-i-Noor, the Jacob Diamond is branded as a nonviolent diamond, as it never sparked any war or brutality, and changed hands only twice in its history of existence and much bigger in size. In 2008, according to the last estimate made of this sparkling diamond’s value, it was estimated to be worth more than Rs 975 crore or 100-million-pound-sterling in its international price and considered to be an all-time masterpiece.

How The Jacob Diamond Came To The RBI

The last and the 7th Nizam of Hyderabad, Mir Osman Ali Khan, is believed to have found the diamond in the toe of one of the shoes of his father Mir Mahboob Ali Khan at Chowmahalla Palace and used it as a paper weight for a long time.

It was bought by the Government of India along with all other jewels of the Nizam in 1995. Currently, it rests at the Reserve Bank of India’s vaults in Mumbai. The Jacob Diamond is always considered to be the main attraction as and when the government holds exhibitions of the Nizam's jewellery.

Jacob had sold this diamond to Nizam Mir Mahboob Ali Khan in 1891. Though the Nizam paid an advance of Rs 25 lakhs for the purchase of this single diamond, he repudiated the sale officially at a later stage because of palace intrigue and pressure from the then British Resident in Hyderabad State, citing ‘conspicuous consumption’.

Much later, Mir Mahboob Ali surreptitiously took delivery of the diamond in an undeclared and unconfirmed compromise. But, by that time, because of the lengthy legal battle in the Calcutta Magistrates Court and in the Calcutta High Court, followed by the criminal indictment, incarceration in Calcutta Presidency Jail, and resultant social stigma, Jacob lost his reputation as well as his clients, and was ruined forever. The only saving grace after a very lengthy legal battle for Jacob was that he was acquitted of any wrongdoing as the juries found him to be not guilty.

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Who Is Jacob?

‘A Romantic career ends in poverty’, wrote The Statesman, Calcutta of 12 January 1921, which had reported extensively on the Jacob Diamond trial. It was almost impossible to write about Jacob’s life with sobriety, the obituary said, ‘so amazing was his history and so extraordinary the stories which had grown up around him’ that people might believe or reject the legends about Jacob as a wonder worker but of his eminence as an art dealer there was no question.

Alexander Malcolm Jacob was a man of mysterious origin, dubious reputation, and colourful infamy. In newspapers reports and at the highest echelons of the Raj of the day, Jacob was variously described as an ‘Arabic genius’.

If we were to believe all contemporary news reports about him, he was described mostly as a Persian living in Shimla, or an Armenian, or a Greek, a Pole, an Italian, a Turk, a Gypsy, and the speculations carried on. Jacob neither denied nor confirmed any of them. In fact, at various points of time he varied his life-story adding newer elements, keeping up the mystery. In appearance, he was a combination of any or all of these.

By religion he was referred to as Jewish, though others swore he was a Christian or a devout Muslim or even a Zoroastrian. In his later years, he referred to himself as a ‘Buddhist’ by adopted religion, a non-violent man.

A very elite group of connoisseurs knew that he is immortalised by Rudyard Kipling in his novel, Kim, as Lurgan Sahib of the British Secret Service. American author F Marion Crawford wrote the novel Mr Isaacs about him in 1882. And, as recent as in 2012, Sydney-based journalist John Zubrzycki wrote a fantastic biography ‘The Mysterious Mr Jacob: Diamond Merchant, Magician and Spy’.

Even today, mystery shrouds his life, and nobody is quite certain of who he really was.

The Case of The Jacob Diamond in Calcutta High Court

In July 1891, Jacob planned for his biggest jewellery sale, hoping it to be his last sale ever and to live-off the profit. He brought the 184.75 carat diamond, recently mined in Africa, for Rs 21 lakhs from an agent in London. His plan was to sell this rectangular cushion-cut diamond to the 6th Nizam Mir Mahboob Khan for Rs 50 lakhs.

The Nizam, while he paid an advance of Rs 25 lakhs, supposedly insisted on a one-to-one meeting with Jacob — with no witness — and communicated that the purchase be based on his ‘pasand ya na pasand’ (approval basis).

In effect, even though he had paid the advance, he had kept his right of refusal. Well. That was the version of the Nizam.

Taking the risk, and being confident of his relationship with the Nizam, Jacob enlisted the help of Shirley Tremearne, the then owner of the Capital magazine, a member of the Council of the Corporation of Calcutta and the influential director of the Great Eastern Hotel, where he used to be a regular boarder, to bring the diamond in from overseas. Shirley Tremearne was a power broker of the late 19th and early 20th century Calcutta. He got Jacob connected with banks, insurance companies and helped bring the diamond to Calcutta. Thereafter, Jacob personally took it to Hyderabad and presented it to the Nizam.

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An Unfair Deal: How The Nizam ‘Trapped’ Jacob

Shockingly, the Nizam refused to buy the Jacob Diamond on the pretext that it was smaller than he had thought it would be. According to Zubrzycki, the Nizam’s refusal was perhaps due to the pressure from the British Resident in his state, who was suspicious of Jacob, believing him to be a Russian spy. It also could be a ploy by the Nizam to satisfy the British Resident’s ego while pushing Jacob to lower his price.

Left with a diamond that would be impossible to sell to anyone else in India, Jacob was trapped.

He had to lower his price and pander to the wily Nizam’s request of a secret deal — a deal the Nizam later denied — and the magistrate in Calcutta issued a warrant for Jacob’s arrest because Nizam Mahboob Khan had accused Jacob of fraud. This ruined Jacob’s reputation but the Nizam managed to keep the diamond through an out-of-court secret settlement made by Jacob under duress, for which the Nizam did not pay any more money to Jacob.

The British government took this even further and banned Jacob from dealing with any of the Indian princes, effectively cutting off his most lucrative source of income from his gem, jewellery, and antique business.

Jacob Cleared His Own Name, But Eventually Went Bankrupt

Jacob eventually took the Nizam to the Calcutta High Court and was acquitted of all charges, but he was unable to obtain the balance Rs 25 Lakhs due to him, as the imperial court in Calcutta had no jurisdiction over the Nizam’s Hyderabad. Nor was there any other mechanism available to him to get the diamond back as the British government refused to intervene in a private deal.

The fact being that protecting the Nizam, an ally, was much more important to the British.

Legal expenses and the default and non-payment by the other Indian princes — his customers — because of the British diktat, bankrupted Jacob. Heartbroken, he left Shimla and shifted to Bombay where he stayed in the same building opposite Regal Cinema — where currently the Phillips Antiques is situated — till 1911. Thereafter he shifted to the now defunct annexe of the Watsons Hotel and died a recluse in 1921.

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Too Little, Too Late

Once he acquired the Jacob Diamond, the whimsical and highly superstitious Mir Mahboob Ali Khan, the 6th Nizam, no longer wanted anything to do with what he called a ‘manhoos’ — that is, unlucky — diamond. His son Mir Osman Ali Khan, the 7th Nizam, used it as a paperweight until his jewels were taken by the Government of India in 1995.

For exactly 100 years, Jacob’s grave was uncared for and remained hidden within the dusty environment of the cemetery, among its dead leaves, within plain sight. Today, even the grave has gone.

Are we talking about Jacob and his diamond too little, too late?

(Devasis Chattopadhyay is the author of the book ‘Without Prejudice’, a columnist and a Kolkata history buff. This is an analysis, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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