T he lavish, elaborate, yet elegant use of gemstones in decorating both jewelry and objects in 17th-century India is arguably unrivalled anywhere else in the world. A culture that elevated the use of gemstones to an art and a form of spiritual expression, its riches during the Mughal era prompted the neighbouring ruler, Nader Shah Afshar to seize them as his coveted prize when he invaded the country.
Gold and gem inlaying in Agra were described in detail by traveler Jean de Thevenot, referring to the kundan technique that is unique to India. Using hyper-purified gold, the inlayer (zarnishan) refines the soft metal into strips of malleable foil to which – when cut and folded – the craftsman can apply the ductile gold as he chooses without any need for glue or soldering. To the rare European travelers who had the good fortune to see these exquisite creations, nothing equaled their delicacy and craftsmanship.
The Mughal gem-set and enamelled gold flask (Surahi) in the upcoming Sotheby’s Arts of the Islamic World sale is one such treasure – an object of desire and a rare delight for those who appreciate the extraordinary handiwork. Today we can imagine its use to pour wine, though its peers are mostly to be found in the State Hermitage Museum, given that Nader Shah sent some of them to the Russian Court. Of this wealth seized by the conqueror, the court historian Mirza Mahdi Astarabadi wrote: “There appeared oceans of pearls and coral, and mines full of gems, gold and silver vessels, cups and other items encrusted with precious jewels and other luxurious objects…” Among the objects presented to Empress Elisabeth of Russia by Nader Shah in 1741 that are now in St Petersburg, this flask most closely resembles a similar one set entirely with emeralds arranged in hexagonal settings with vertical dividing bands. A tray for an octagonal box, also in St Petersburg and described as “one of the masterpieces of the collection of Indian goldsmith’s work”, has the same design as the neck of this present flask. Alongside the two analogous flasks in the Hermitage, this flask may well have stemmed from the same workshop.
“A thing of beauty is a joy forever; its loveliness increases” as the poet Keats famously said. Nowhere is this truer than when contemplating the enduring beauty of a precious object, masterfully wrought by the hands of an artist using an age-old, unique technique. Lucky will be the next owner of this treasure, which comes straight from the collection of an owner who received it as a gift from no less than the Nizam of Hyderabad, himself a legendary figure and the possessor of vast riches.