Monday, 22 August 2016

The "cultural heritage" group neurosis 13: Evil. (iv)

The Koh-i-Noor diamond

top: 17th century Venetian cut
bottom: 19th century oval brilliant cut
commissioned by Prince Albert.
When I was in my early twenties I had a job at Birks Jewellery in downtown Calgary and one day an Indian gentleman came into the store looking for a diamond ring. I noticed that he was wearing a very impressive large sapphire ring and I said "Is that a Kashmir sapphire? He was pleased that I had recognized it and told me of its history. It had been in his family for more than two hundred years and two people had been killed over it. The Kashmir sapphire is very rare and many people would not even recognize it as a sapphire because of its misty, rather than clear appearance. Today that stone would be worth more than a million dollars. It is still the only Kashmir sapphire that I have seen. As a cultural object, it had some connections to its source, of course, but its main cultural content pertained to his family and the stories about it that he told.

The Koh-i-Noor diamond is believed to have been found in the 13th century and weighed 793 carats in the rough. In the seventeenth century it was wastefully cut by a Venetian cutter to 186 carats, and Prince Albert had it recut to a far more brilliant stone of 105.6 carats. We would call that cut today "an old oval cut" as the modern oval cut dates to 1957. It is now set in the Queen Mother's Crown (1937).

Famous gems not only move from place to place during history, but they often change their appearance as they do, becoming smaller but more beautiful with each cutting. They also gain cultural and historical significance with each change of possession. The rough stone bears no culture in its form as that is created by nature, but each cutting imparts some of the culture of the inventor of the cut. Stories about the stone's owners and their relationship to it are passed down through the spoken word and written histories, and these continue as long as the stone is used for something. However, it does gain other personal cultural significance to a few people who see it over the years when it becomes attached to a personally significant story.

With the Kashmir sapphire, it was the only one I has seen, but I learned about it working at Pearl Cross in St. Martin's Court, London when I was sixteen. At that time, at the top of the scale was the Kashmir sapphire and the bottom of the scale were the watery varieties of the Ceylon sapphire. Nowadays, at the bottom of the scale are the cheap, dark, sapphires which are cut on the wrong alignment of the crystal to make for larger stones. Usually, these have an unpleasant banding when seen from the top of the cut stone; are cut into long oval or marquee-cuts to take advantage of the crystal shape and add to the weight. You can see the colour divisions of a sapphire by dropping it into a glass of water. The best stones have the darker blue at the bottom of the cut and the clearer material (even white) at the top. Then the blue becomes very brilliant because of the refraction playing against the cut. Banding is fine when it can be seen from the side, but never from the top.

" allow the triumph of cultural isolates is to risk erasing the claims of several other identities but also the heterogeneous and multi-originary evolution of cultural practice itself."
The Koh-i-Noor Matters, but to Whom Exactly? 
Pramod K. Nayar, University of Hyderabad, India
Nationalism and its appropriation and repatriation of "cultural property" is the modern thief and insidious destroyer of natural cultural evolution which takes place within the minds of individuals

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