Arts of the Islamic World & India including Fine Rugs and Carpets

Arts of the Islamic World & India including Fine Rugs and Carpets

View full screen - View 1 of Lot 213. A pair of Mughal spectacles set with emerald lenses, in diamond-mounted frames, India, lenses circa 17th century, frames 19th century.

A pair of Mughal spectacles set with emerald lenses, in diamond-mounted frames, India, lenses circa 17th century, frames 19th century

Auction Closed

October 27, 03:41 PM GMT


1,500,000 - 2,500,000 GBP

Lot Details


comprising two flat cut emeralds of drop-shape form set in silver and gold frames mounted with old-cut smaller diamonds and emeralds

setting: 12.5cm. 

lenses: each approx. 2.6cm long, 2cm wide and 0.295cm thick 


India: Jewels that Enchanted the World, exh. cat., Moscow Kremlin Museums, 11 April-27 July 2014, pp.194-5, no.104. 
“This is the work of a supreme master, both of gemstones and of optics. This is a slice of diamond and a slice of emerald; through which you can see… they were definitely created to be worn” William Dalrymple, Writer & Historian

Surpassing the imagination, the following two pairs of spectacles, set with emerald and diamond lenses, were originally conceived from gemstones that would have weighed over 300 and 200 carats respectively. The origin of the emeralds can be traced all the way to the Muzo mines of Colombia, whereas the diamond lenses most probably came from the famous Golconda mines of Southern India. These represent not only a technical feat in their cleavage, but also extraordinary boldness and invention, one which is also rooted in tradition. These two extraordinary pairs of spectacles, have never before appeared on the market but have been the focus of a multitude of scholarly research. The following catalogue note will draw on information gleaned from detailed scientific and historical analyses to understand their conception and production.

The first pair of spectacles to be presented are poetically named Emeralds for Paradise: The Astaneh-Ye Ferdaws emerald spectacles in reference to the Islamic association of the colour green with that of paradise, salvation and eternity. Each lens was cut in a tear-drop shape of approximately 20mm width, 30mm length and 2.95mm thickness, sourced from the same stone. Both are matching in their deep green saturation and colour, and combined they now weigh twenty-seven carats. Each is presented as a flat lens with a well-defined bevel around the upper surface. In order to attain such a perfect cut, the original natural emerald from which they were taken must have weighed more than sixty grams, roughly over 300 carats. 

It would today be inconceivable to create such excess when cutting an important stone. Whilst these are highly unusual, there are other known flat-cut emeralds from Mughal India: one of the most important engraved stones to appear on the market was sold in these rooms, 28 April 2004, lot 162: 'A magnificent and highly important imperial Mughal emerald, North India, dated 1018 AH/1609-10 AD', measuring 3.4 by 2.8cm (sold for £1.9m). It was most probably at this time, perhaps during the reigns of Jahangir (r.1605-27), Shah Jahan (r.1628-58), or Aurangzeb (r.1658-1707) in the seventeenth century, that these emerald lenses were created.

For millennia, emeralds have been one of the most admired and sought-after gemstones in the world. Emerald deposits are scattered widely in places as varied as Egypt, Zambia, Mozambique, Afghanistan, India, and Australia; many of the rarest and most prized examples were found in Colombia. The first emerald mine was at Chivor, discovered in 1555 and another later at Muzo, at the foothills of the Colombian Andes in 1560. From there, they received an exalted status in Europe as they were brought back on the boats of Spanish conquistadors. Enormous quantities of emeralds were subsequently acquired by the Mughals and a strong trade developed with the Mughals purchasing the largest and finest emeralds. It is precisely from Muzo that the present emeralds, with their rich, at times bluish green tint, are said to originate.

The second pair of spectacles presented are the Diamonds for Light: The Halqeh-Ye Nur diamond spectacles, so-called due to the association of diamonds with light and the Muslim symbolism of light with the presence of God. Each lens is cut flat and flawless, transparent and a pale yellow in colour, ovoid-like in form, and measuring approximately 26mm in length and 1.60mm in thickness. Derived from a stone that originally was over 200 carats, the two lenses have a combined weight of about twenty-five carats, which represents a huge loss. This was unusual at a time when size and weight were so valued. The sides of the diamond lenses were skilfully faceted to retain transparency through the lenses whilst allowing light to be revealed along the edges. As with the unique emerald spectacles' lenses, no other examples are known to exist.


‘…the evidence we have collected is consistent with the claim that the diamond lenses were also cleaved in India in the 17th century.’ 
Philip M. Martineau, DTC Research Centre, Berkshire, UK

The two pairs of spectacles have been the subject of a full technical investigation into both the gemstones themselves, and the way in which they were sliced. A full report of the techniques used in their making is available upon request, and provides fascinating clues into the origins and dating of these spectacles, the weight and morphology of the original stones as well as the methods of cleaving and sawing which confirm a  seventeenth century date. One of the main methods of identification for emeralds lies in the types of inclusions visible within the stones itself. Colombian emeralds are notable for their classic 'three phase' inclusions (which comprise a liquid-filled cavity containing both a crystal and gas bubble). The richness of their saturation and depth of their green hue is also an indicator of their origin. There are two points that are particularly notable: firstly, the colour usually spreads unevenly in an emerald according to the  gemstone’s mineral content, but in this case, both lenses are fairly even and matching in colour, confirming a single crystal origin; and secondly technical analysis shows that they were sawn off along a similar band of colour, cleaving being too risky as emeralds are easy to fracture. This would require a great deal of patience and skill as well as a deep knowledge of the morphosis of the stone itself and represents a true feat.

It has also been confirmed that the diamond lenses were fashioned from a single diamond of octahedral morphology which must have weighed originally over two hundred carats. A study of the unfaceted surfaces of both plates of these lenses reveal that these are almost mirror images of each other, with corresponding growth features that would suggest that both surfaces were originally close together in the crystal. These patterns further testify to the method by which they were removed, which was most probably by cleavage along specific parallel-sided plates into flat slivers that were then polished to smoothen the surfaces. This style of cutting pre-dates sawing technology, confirming a seventeenth century date of production.

This dating is further substantiated by contemporary testimonies of the cleaving skills of lapidaries at the time; perhaps the most notable coming from the French merchant and traveller, Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, upon his visit to the Golconda diamond mine situated in present day Ramallakota, Andhra Pradesh. Writing in the spring of 1645, Tavernier admiringly recorded the local proficiency in diamond carving, as can be seen through their mirror-like reflections (W. Crooke, Travels in India, by Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, Oxford University Press, 1925). Perhaps the Mughal opulence of the period was best noted by the English ambassador to the court at Agra, Sir Thomas Roe, who wrote on the occasion of the Emperor Jahangir’s forty-seventh birthday: “In jewells hee is the treasury of the world” (The Embassy of Sir Thomas Roe to India, 1615-19, as narrated in his Journal and Correspondence, ed. Sir W. Foster, Oxford, 1926, pp.378-9).

One of the most famed diamonds of this period is the so-called Koh-i-Noor (Mountain of light), which at 105.6 carats, is one of the largest cut diamonds in the world. Today it forms part of the British Crown Jewels, but originally it is said to have weighed 186 carats and was first noted by Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire, and later formed part of Shah Jahan’s fabled Peacock Throne. Tavernier also provides a description of the Peacock Throne and the multitude of stones which cover it as well as further thrones which were apparently entirely covered with clear diamonds (ibid.). Another large diamond formerly in the Mughal treasury is the Daria-e Noor (Sea of Light) now forming part of the national jewels of Iran. Further examples include the Shah and Orlov diamonds, now in the Moscow Kremlin Museums; and others in the al-Sabah collection, Kuwait National Museum (notably, inv. nos.LNS 2223 and LNS 2156). The existence of such diamonds securely dated to this early period further affirms the dating for the cleaving of these lenses.


Nero princeps gladiatorum pugnas spectabat in smaragdo.
The princeps Nero viewed the combats of the gladiators in a smaragdus.
Pliny, Natural History, 37.16.

Exploring the original purpose of these emeralds and diamond lenses has led to some interesting discoveries and even more fascinating historical precedents. The first mention of emeralds to soothe and protect the eyes dates to the first century AD in Pliny the Elder’s 'Natural History' (Naturalis Historia), an encyclopedia of ancient knowledge. He notes that: “[…] after straining our eyes by looking at another object, we can restore our vision to normal by gazing at an emerald”. This is perhaps why Pliny also noted that the Emperor Nero (r.54-68 AD) used emeralds to watch the gory gladiator combats, thus protecting his sight from the bloody scenes. This is the first ever mention of the use of emerald lenses through which to look at the world. An inventory of the treasury of Charles V of France (r.1364-80) also features beryls framed as spectacles, confirming their status as reserved for Emperors and Kings (U.T. Holmes, 'Mediaeval Gem Stones' in Speculum no.2, April 1934, pp.195-204, quoted in E. Koch, The Mughals and their love of precious stones, Tomi Consulting Limited, United Kingdom, 2012). The Mughals also believed emeralds along with other precious gems had strong astrological associations. The time at which a stone would be engraved and when it should then be worn was governed by the relative position of the planets. Whereas the emeralds, through their colour, have a filter quality, the diamonds are completely flawless and transparent, making their use more speculative but comparable examples of diamonds cleaved in the seventeenth century and their frames provide insightful clues.

Dr. Usha R Balakrishnan carried out an in-depth art historical study of these spectacles, commenting on the established lapidary tradition in India before the seventeenth century that led to such creations. She traces the trading of gemstones, and local knowledge in cutting over two millennia, from the earliest Sanskrit names attributed to diamonds through to the magnificence of the Mughal Empire, the arrival of the Europeans in the sixteenth century, and the decline and subsequent fall of the Mughals whereby multiple stones arrived in Europe and were subsequently refashioned. She makes particular mention of the other known flat-cut diamonds of the period, notably the ‘hat ornaments’ in the national Iranian jewel collection. One of these is flat cut, of rectangular form and measures 28mm by 26mm by 1.81mm. Both are transparent and relate in thickness to the present diamond lenses which are 1.6mm.

Professor Ebba Koch speculates on the reasons why looking through such emerald spectacles might have been needed:
“The eyeglasses with lenses of emeralds may have had a more specific meaning for Shah Jahan. Emeralds were held to have miraculous healing powers and to ward off evil. For Shah Jahan, in his extreme mental state of mourning for a lost beloved, looking through emerald glasses could have been… meant to strengthen and heal his vision. And beyond that, green was the colour of the popular Islamic saint Khwaja Khizr, who was believed to have found the water of eternal life. Eternal paradisiacal life was what Shah Jahan envisaged for himself and Mumtaz Mahal, and looking through the green emerald spectacles may have provided him with a foretaste of it.”
Professor Ebba Koch
Institute of Art History, Vienna, Austria


The frames into which these special lenses were placed are attributable to the 1890s and are decorated with rose-cut diamonds set in the pachchikam technique which resembles kundan in that it involves encasing the stones directly into gold or silver, but incorporates a European ‘open claw’ design, an aesthetic which was popularised in the eighteenth/nineteenth century. The emerald lenses were set into silver, whereas on the diamond spectacles, the frame settings are gold. The reframing of the lenses in the nineteenth century suggest an 'upgrade', perhaps prompted by a change of fashion. Whilst it is certain these lenses were always intended to form part of an optical apparatus, its original appearance is lost to us, though there is a high chance that these came in the form of pince-nez as shown in contemporary illustrations. Perhaps one of the most evocative images is that of a miniature depicting the emperor Aurangzeb (r.1658-1707) being carried on a howdah now in the Museum für Islamische Kunst, Berlin, inv. no.I. 4594 fol.5. The Emperor is shown seated cross-legged with his back hunched over documents that he appears to be carefully studying with a pair of pince-nez lying among the documents. 

A century earlier, Jesuit missionaries visiting the Mughal court of the Emperor Akbar are shown holding or wearing pince-nez. One such depiction is a late sixteenth-century portrait of a Jesuit missionary holding an open book in one hand and a pair of spectacles in the other now in the Musée national des Arts asiatiques - Guimet, Paris (J. Flores and N. Vassallo e Silva (eds.), Goa and the Great Mughal, exh. cat., Lisbon, 2004, p.193, cat.71, attributed to circa 1590). Additionally, an Iranian portrait of the influential Safavid court artist Reza ‘Abbasi (ca.1565-1635) in the act of painting, wearing a pair of pince-nez, as depicted by one of his most talented students, Mu‘in Musavvir, dated 1673, attests to the use at the time of these spectacles. This remarkable miniature is now in the Garrett Collection, Princeton University Library, inv. no.95G.

In conclusion, the research into these spectacles, which draws on historical sources and a detailed scientific analysis of the origins of the gemstones themselves and complexity of their cuts attests not only to the wealth and importance of the Mughal Empire at the time, but also to the wide extent of their global trading network. To say that these spectacles were creations of fashions of the seventeenth and then nineteenth centuries would not do justice to their sheer originality nor tell of their extraordinary story in which their creation was entwined with history. Even by the standards of today, the spectacles are objects of extraordinary technical precision and mastery, unique treasures deserving of a place in any modern-day Wunderkammer as things of wonder and delight.


This catalogue entry was made possible thanks to the research published by Tomi Consulting Limited, Great Britain, 2012, originally intended for internal use only. Jonathan H. Hind et al., 'Cleaving the Halqeh-Ye Nur Diamonds'; Gaston Giuliani, 'Emerald Eyeglasses'; Philip M. Martineau, 'DCT Report'; John E. Field, 'Cleaving the lenses for the Diamond Spectacles': Derek J. Content 'Reflections on two pairs of spectacles'; Usha R. Balakrishnan, 'An Art Historical Study of the Diamond and Emerald Spectacles'; Ebba Koch, 'The Mughals and Their Love of Precious Stones'; and J. Gierlichs, 'Diamond Spectacles and Emerald Eyeglasses'.

Please contact the department for the full analytical report which includes contributions by Jonathan R. Hird (Department of Physics, University of California, Los Angeles, USA), Gaston Giuliani (GET/IRD and CRPG/CNRS, Toulouse, France), Seth J. Putterman (Department of Physics, University of California, Los Angeles, USA), Philip M. Martineau, Rizu. A. Khan, David Fisher, Nick M. Davies, Julia V. Samartseva (DTC Research Centre, Berkshire, UK), and John E. Field (Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK).

These two pairs of spectacles are both the subject of monographs prepared by the GIA (Gemological Institute of America).