A stunning diamond called Jacob & the Nizam of Hyderabad

By Nasser Tufail

Metamorphosis of Iskander Sabunji

Jacob was born in Diyarbakir in Southeastern Turkey, most likely of Christian Syrian descent, and started life as Iskander Sabunji. Through his life journey, he would claim at various times to be a pure-blooded Persian, an Armenian, a Greek, a Pole, an Italian, a Turk, a Gypsy, a Parsi or even someone belonging to some nationality of the mysterious East!

Somewhere along, he became Yakub, which then took on the anglicized version, Jacob. He also claimed that he was sold as a slave at the age of 10 to a Pasha. After his owner died, Jacob, imbibed with a sense of adventure, would make his way to India through modern day Iraq and Iran, picking up some Arabic and Persian words on the way. Eventually, whilst in India, he metamorphosed into Alexander Malcolm Jacob, and kept that name till the end!

Jacob spent some time in the slums of Bombay, and later worked as a scribe for a nobleman in Hyderabad where he got firsthand knowledge of court machinations and intrigues. It was there that he also learnt to speak Urdu. Recognizing the susceptibility of Indians to superstitions and fascination with conjurers and fortune tellers, he went around portraying himself as a magician, an astrologer and a palm reader, cultivating his image as a wandering fakir, and soon became a household name.

He then moved to Calcutta where he found work for a jewelry firm, Charles, Nephew & Co., which catered to the wealthy Europeans and Indians. He was only 20 or 21 years old at the time when the company went bust and Jacob was out of work. Evidently, he converted to Islam, given that he is said to have performed Hajj when he was 22 years of age. The self-proclaimed sage and dealer in exotic jewelry decided to open his own showroom in the colonial summer capital of Shimla! Soon, the rich, the famous, the Indian Princes and the powerful Viceroys of India would be his customers.

Rudyard Kipling‘s ‘Lurgan Sahib

To curry favor with the Viceroys, he would pass on secrets that came to him from the Royal courts of India. It was a widely held maxim at the time that ‘going to India without seeing Jacob, was like going to India without seeing Taj Mahal.’ Rudyard Kipling would immortalize him as Lurgan Sahib, the ‘healer of sick pearls’ in his classic novel Kim. Jacob became a rich man. The Bombay Gazette estimated that over the course of Jacob’s life, he had turned over at least £50 million worth of gems, jewelry and antiques.

Everyone believed, as Jacob must have had them believe I suppose, that he never drank, never smoked, never ate meat and was a celibate, supposedly, as part of some kind of a Faustian bargain with Indian guru El Moghraby.

Viceroys and Princes delighted in his company and often sought his counsel. This handsome and remarkable character had compelling charisma and was variously described as a diamond merchant, a mesmerizing phenomenon, a maestro storyteller, a charlatan, an imposter spy, a Freemason, a sorcerer or an entrepreneur, depending on who you talked to! This is the only known sketch of the enigma known as Alexander Malcolm Jacob.

Alexander Malcolm Jacob
Alexander Malcolm Jacob

Jacob, the most famous jeweler in princely India

A confidante of Viceroys, Vicereines and Maharajas, Jacob became the most famous jeweler in princely India. Dealing in diamonds and precious stones, he recognized the inveterate fascination women have for diamonds – diamonds, after all, are a ‘girl’s best friend’, as Marilyn Monroe reminded us in the movie ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’. Jacob may also have realized man’s infatuation with diamonds in India; to some, they symbolized love, purity and faith and to others power, success and security. He must have thought of capitalizing on that predilection for a big punt to propel his fortunes to the next level.

A stunning diamond was discovered in the Kimberley Mine of South Africa in 1884. It was smuggled out by some ‘illicit’ buyers and the gem eventually reached London where it caused an instant sensation in the great diamond market of Hatton Garden.

Kimberley Mine

The 185 carat sized cut and polished gem was placed on the market at a then asking price of £150,000 but there were no takers for several years. During that time the brilliant-cut diamond had taken on various names – Victoria Diamond, Imperial Diamond and Great White Diamond.

Our mysterious Jacob, never too far from intrigue and exploit, would spring into action whenever the moment was right, and this was his moment. Presumably having already cultivated connections with the custodians of the diamond, he offered the gem for roughly half the asking price to a rich gentleman named Mahbub Ali Khan. When Mahbub showed a lukewarm interest, Jacob slashed the price further down, upon which Mahbub agreed to buy on the condition of “passand” (like) or “na passand” (dislike), paying half of the money as deposit and the balance on approval of the gem. Jacob was to make a ‘killing’ in commissions.

The British notables resented Jacob’s access to India’s princes and never knew where his loyalties lay.

There was a lot of jealousy amongst the other established jewelers when they got wind of it, many spreading false rumors that it was not the ‘real’ deal, that it was a different size/weight than made out to be and that it was of a lower grade/quality than claimed. The British notables were also alarmed; they resented the access Jacob had to India’s princes and never really knew where his loyalties lay.

In any event, it turned out that Mahbub Ali Khan proclaimed “na passand” after receiving and inspecting the diamond closely and demanded the return of the money he had already paid. When Jacob couldn’t cough it up, Mahbub filed charges against him in the High Court of Calcutta and Jacob was arrested and charged with criminal misappropriation and breach of trust. Legal expenses ruined and bankrupted him, though he was eventually acquitted of the charges.

At the time, the Victoria Diamond, Imperial Diamond or the Great White Diamond as it was variously known, was considered to be the largest and most expensive diamond in the world. It later went on to be known as the ‘Jacob Diamond’, named after this very Alexander Malcolm Jacob character!!

Jacob Diamond

Who exactly was this gentleman, Mahbub Ali Khan, the purchaser of the diamond? Well, first let’s talk about his official title: Nawab Bahadur Sirajud Dawlah, Lieutenant-General His Highness Rustam-i-Dauran, Arustu-i-Zaman, Wal Mamaluk, Asaf Jah VI, Muzaffar ul-Mamaluk, Nizam ul-Mulk, Nizam ud-Daula, Nawab Mir Sir Mahbub Ali Khan Siddiqi Bayafandi Bahadur, Sipah Salar, Fath Jang, Nizam of Hyderabad, Knight Grand Cross of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath, Knight Grand Commander of the Most Exalted Order of the Star of India, Honourable Lieutenant-General in the Army. Seriously! But to spare ordinary mortals rigorous memory gymnastics, he allowed to be known as Asaf Jah VI, Nizam of Hyderabad.

The Sixth Nizam of Hyderabad

Mahbub Ali Khan, 6th Nizam of Hyderabad

This opium-addicted sovereign, who became the sixth Nizam upon the death of his father when he was only two, did do some good things during his reign. But he was also known for his lavish lifestyle and luxuries, including a colossal appetite for women and the most extensive collection of cars and garments in the world.  He never wore the same clothes twice and served his guests dinner from solid gold tableware, MashAllah! As the richest man in the world during his time, he could afford such indulgences.

The Seventh Nizam of Hyderabad

So, what happened to the Jacob diamond? Well, after the sixth Nizam, Mahbub Ali Khan, the purchaser of the Jacob diamond, passed away, his successor, the seventh Nizam, Nawab Mir Osman Ali Khan, would find that very Jacob Diamond wrapped in a rag and tucked away inside the toe of one of his father’s shoes! Mir Osman owned the legendary Golcanda diamond mines and already had immense wealth to comfortably live an outrageously extravagant life, as he did. He simply didn’t know what to do with the enigmatic 185 carat Jacob Diamond. So he found it convenient to use it as a paper weight!

As for his status, out of all the rulers of the other princely states (Kashmir, Jodhpur, Bikaner, Indore, Bhopal, etc.), Nawab Mir Osman Ali Khan would be the only one who was addressed as ‘His Exalted Highness’; all others were addressed only as ‘His Excellency’. This Seventh Nizam too had a mouthful for an official title similar to that of his father’s but additionally included the title “Faithful Ally of the British Government.” And “Faithful Ally” of the British Crown he was, indeed. When you provide the British RAF with the original complement of Airco DH.9A aircraft as a “gift” for No. 110 Squadron, and 25 million pounds for the British exchequer, the Crown is only too pleased to recognize you as a “Faithful Ally”, and even Christen the aircraft unit as “Hyderabad Squadron.” Money makes the mare go, they say.

The Nizam’s immense wealth and hedonistic life-style

To be sure, the seventh Nizam too did some good things in the areas of education, roads, railways and the like. But true to his Mussalmaan roots, His Exalted Highness was an absolute monarch, answerable to no one but himself, and spent money like water on acquiring objects and possessions, including about 50 Rolls Royce cars, 12,000 carats of fine Golcanda diamonds, 10,000 carats of the finest Muzo Columbian emeralds and as many carats of Burma rubies. Not to mention hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of gold and silver bullion. That he was frugal and could stitch his own socks was really for PR and public consumption.

Assured of immense wealth that could last several generations, he next worked to upsurge his throng of concubines and progeny, which he did industriously and with vigor. He had seven (known) wives, hundreds of concubines and mistresses, 34 legitimate children and countless illegitimate children (84 by one estimate, and about 100 by another). Like father, like son, MashAllah, here he is, proudly displaying some of his women!

Nawab Osman Ali Khan, 7th Nizam of Hyderabad

Nawab Osman Ali Khan was featured on the cover of the February 22, 1937 issue of Time Magazine and recognized as the richest man on earth.

End of the British Raj in India and the ensuing chaos

The princely states were left free to join India or Pakistan, but the Nizam, rather than join either country, had his own idea of forming a separate kingdom within the British Commonwealth of Nations. Old habits die hard. When the British rejected that proposal, he straddled the fence after partition, covertly discussing the modalities and future relationship with both India and Pakistan. Ultimately, in an operation code named Polo, the newly partitioned India invaded and annexed Hyderabad in 1948, replacing the Nizam’s autocratic rule with a Parliamentary democracy. More than 97% of the Nizam’s wealth, including jewelry belonging to his family, was taken away by the newly formed Indian Government.

The precipitous disintegration of the princely state, and the distribution of the wealth of the Nizam, is perhaps one of the last century’s most dramatic reversals of fortune. A little over two decades after the end of British Raj, India abolished the “Nizam” title, removed their princely state pensions and made them subject to taxes and land acts that they were totally unaccustomed to, forcing them to sell most of their property just to stay afloat.

Had the Nizam tradition continued, Nizam Osman Ali Khan’s son and heir apparent, Mukarram Jah, would have become the eighth Nizam, but that was not to be. Although he remained the richest man in India until the 1980s, it would take less than two decades for him to squander most of his inherited wealth. He married five times, and his assortment of wives included a Turkish Princess, a former Australian air hostess, a former Turkish model and later Miss Turkey, a Moroccan lady and yet another Turkish Princess. Sadly, all of his marriages ended in divorce.

Mukarram Jah, titular Nizam of Hyderabad 

Epilogue

Mukarram Jah remained engaged in bitter internal feuds with relatives, including his brother and his sons’ daughters and several illegitimate dependents of his grandfather, all “supposed” beneficiaries, hundreds of them, wrangling for every extra ounce of flesh. Some of his properties were taken away or turned into public parks in lieu of unpaid taxes, estate duties and other debts. He now lives the life of a recluse in a small 2 bedroom apartment in a foreign land called Turkey.

The Jacob diamond remained on display for some time at the Salar Jang museum in Hyderabad and is now held at the vaults of the Reserve Bank of India in Mumbai. Its current estimated value is $150 million.

As for Alexander Malcolm Jacob after whom the diamond was named, he left Shimla for Bombay where he lost his eyesight, and after almost 14 years he was finally cured by the charity of a surgeon friend.

Waterloo Mansions, Bombay, where Jacob lived for 9 years

Unable to redeem his past glory and a place of honor in the history books of the Raj, Jacob would die a poor, broken man, a tragic figure who would spend his last sad years in obscurity in a modest room. His entire net worth at the time of his death was a paltry Rupees 382!! His last words (to Alice Dracott, author of Shimla Village Tales) were: “Give my love to Shimla”.

Click here for more of Nasser Tufail’s musings: Remembering Ibn Khaldun in a World of Illusionary Truths

Nasser Tufail

Nasser Tufail grew up in Pakistan and after finishing his secondary education at a boarding school, moved to the USA where he completed his undergraduate and graduate studies. After working in aviation and IT for such companies as Boeing, McDonnell Douglas and IBM, he ventured out on his own and founded two IT companies involved in Business Intelligence/analytics and Supply Chain Execution. He sold his stake in the businesses and took early retirement to travel and see the enchanting world. He has lived in 6 countries and travelled extensively to scores of others in Europe, Asia, Middle East, Africa and Latin America. He currently resides with his lovely wife and best friend, Selma, on the Costa del Sol in Spain.

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2 Comments »

  1. That was so interesting, with many twists of fate. What a shame that such a beautiful diamond has to remain hidden in a vault. Liza

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