Diamonds. Lasques is a term used by jewelers for flat and oval stones (such as are used in Indian jewelry) derived from the Persian lashk 'a bit, piece'. The table was the original form in which diamonds were cut. The technical term for this cut is 'lasque' and small slabs cut into lasques are still used for covering miniatures, and are called portrait stones.
At the time when Tavernier wrote, the only known sources of diamonds were the mines of India and those of Borneo. He himself visited four mines, and thought himself the first European to see them. (He was wrong: Caesar Fredericke and Methold preceded him.) At the mines he saw, the ground around was sandy and full of rocks and jungle; there were veins of diamond matrix in the rocks, and the Indians were excavating them with small irons, crooked at the ends. They raked out all the pebbly conglomerate in the matrix and carried it away in vessels; it was in this mass that they found the diamonds. After breaking out the matrix, they washed it several times and searched it for the gemstones. Tavernier says that the natives often broke the diamonds when hammering the rocks with their irons, and when they saw a fractured stone they immediately cleaved it (something they were accomplished at doing) creating the stones which Europeans call thin (foible).
The diamond-cutters worked at the mine-sites, each one having a steel wheel about the size of a plate. They put a stone on the wheel, and poured water over it till they found the grain of the stone; then they poured on oil without sparing the diamond dust, expensive though it was, to make the stone run faster. They weighed down the stones much more heavily than a European cutter would, Tavernier says--but did not admit that heavy weights might fracture the stones. Besides, their wheels revolved more slowly than the European kind, and a small boy stood by constantly to keep pouring oil and diamond-dust by the spoonful on the wheel. The steel wheel was furnished with a larger wooden wheel, which was turned by four blacks.
Also, the Indian wheels (being steel) had to be taken off the wheel-trees and emoried every twenty-four hours, and because the wheel was being constantly removed and replaced, it never ran evenly; an iron European wheel, used by professional European diamond-cutters, would be filed while still in place rather than taken apart and emoried; and because of this the European cutters could give their diamonds a much more lively polish. If the wheel was not emoried or filed, in about twelve to twenty-four hours of work the surface which touched the diamond became mirror-polished, and then the diamond dust stopped sticking and the work was impaired. A freshly-filed wheel worked twice as fast as one that had been worn smooth.
Flawless stones were sold almost uncut, merely touched with the wheel above and below. Stones with a flaw, or with spots, or with small black and red grit, they covered with facets to conceal the imperfections and raise the value. A very small flaw could be covered by the edge of a facet. Merchants preferred a black point in a stone over a red one; so when a red point is found, the stone is roasted till the mark turns black. Tavernier learned to suspect a stone with many facets; it was only a sign that flaws were present.
Since the men who worked at the mines were paid almost nothing, they often tried to steal the diamonds. They also wore almost nothing ... so they usually contrived to swallow the gems. A stone could also be concealed in the corner of the eye. (This sounds like an old India fakir's trick; circus fakirs used to pretend to drive nails into their eyes, when in reality they were sinking the nail-points into the tear ducts at the corners of the eyes. Apparently, there is a considerable hollow there.) Watchmen were employed by the merchants to make sure the laborers had no chance to steal their wares. The common India belief that diamond dust was poisonous never stopped anyone from swallowing whole stones ... and if a penniless laborer managed to make off with a large diamond, he was not only safe once he got away from the mines, but if he offered it to the King he had every chance of selling it for a good price and receiving a robe of honor in the bargain.
Merchants buying and selling diamonds at the mine did so without words. There was a diamond
market near the first mine-site, and certified diamond weighers circulated through it examining the
stones on display; when a bargain was made, the man selling and the man buying sat down facing
one another, one took the other's hand and concealed it under his waistcloth, and they bartered by
signals and squeezes. Variations of this practice have been common in India since the beginning
Mine two: whole gangs of people gathered at a likely spot, and then held a religious ceremony for luck. They excavated everything, going down as far as fourteen feet, but stopping when they reached water. The men dug, the women and children carried away the hard clay earth. They piled it in a kind of enclosure, with clay walls and unopened drainage holes at the feet of these walls. When their hole filled with water, the women and children then started carrying the water to the nearby enclosure, adding enough to make a kind of soup. They left this to soak three days, then opened the drainage holes and let the water drain out. Then they poured on more water, washing the excavated and softened clay, till nothing but sand and diamond matrix remained.
They let the residue dry to powder, by the heat of the sun. Then they winnowed it, till a coarse
remnant was left. They spread this on the ground and beat it with huge wooden pestles, standing
on the matrix and pounding it with the ends of their pestles. They winnowed it again, then
pounded it again, and finally raked it out and examined it for diamonds. Formerly they used to
pound the matrix with stones, but this method produced too many flaws in the diamonds.
Mine three: diamonds being excavated from the sand of a river. The miners searched for a type
of stone called a thunder-stone, and dug where they find it. They surrounded the spot with
stakes, fascines, and clay--in order to dry it out--as is done when building the pier of a bridge.
They excavated to a depth of two feet, no deeper. All the sand they dug out was carried away
and spread in a prepared spot, surrounded by a low wall, and then water was poured on and the
matrix processed in the same way as with the second mine.
Colored stones: these were found in the east only in the kingdom of Pegu and the island of Ceylon. The first mine, that in Pegu, was a mountain twelve days journey from Ava (on the port of Syriam?) and it is called Capelan (ie Kyatpyen, about 70 miles from the city of Ava, capital of Pegu). From this mine, which was in one of the poorest countries in the world, came rubies, sapphires and spinels. Tavernier never saw any colored stones from Pegu which were of good quality and size; not one heavier than 3 or 4 carats, he said--but this was because the King there kept all the largest and best stones. All the colored stones in Pegu were called rubies, irrespective of what color they were: they called the sapphire a blue ruby, the amethyst a violet ruby, the topaz a yellow ruby, and so forth.
The rubies and other colored stones of Ceylon came from a river in the middle of the island. The river flowed down from high mountains; about three months after the spring spate, the people searched the river banks, and found precious stones in the sand. The stones from this river, Tavernier says, were generally cleaner and more beautiful than those of Pegu. Note: sapphire is the most common jewel found in Ceylon, but rubies, catseyes, topaz, alexandrite are also found in the stream beds and the smaller rivers.
Tavernier also mentions that rubies were found in Camboya (Cambodia); they were also found in Siam, though Tavernier did not know it. Also from the kingdom of Camboya came balass rubies, spinelles, sapphires and topazes; there were also gold mines there, and from that place came a fine esteemed rhubarb which did not spoil as quickly as that of other parts of Asia. By balass rubies, Tavernier meant not the spinels of Baluchistan, but any rubies of light color resembling spinels.
He goes on to say that colored stones can be found in just two places in Europe: Bohemia and
Hungary. In Bohemia, there was a mine where pebbles of various sizes were found--some like
eggs, some like fists--and when these were broken, some contain rubies. (These were probably
just garnets.) As for Hungary, its mine produced opals, which Tavernier says were not to be
found anywhere else in the world.
Turquoise, Tavernier says, was found only in Persia. It was found at Nishapur in Meshed
(Tavernier calls this the mine at Nichabourg, three days from Meshed, where 'the old rock' is
found) and then there was a mine where 'the new rock' is found, but this place produced only
poor stones tending to a whitish color. He doesn't say where the new mine was. He does say
that the king of Persia liked to keep the product of 'the old rock' for himself, because he has no
craftsmen who understand enameling on gold, engraving or the like, and thus the jewelers in
Persia cut turquoise and set it in patterns like enamel-work. Note: commentary says the
turquoise of Persia came from Nishapur, ref A H Schindler, Records of the Geological Survey of
India, vol xvii, 1884, p. 132; also Vambery, Life, p. 220; also Lord Curzon, Persia, i. 264 ff; also
H. Lansdell, Russian Central-Asia, p 515. Turquoise in Ferghana is found at mount Karumagar,
24 miles NE of Khojend, in veins of decomposed felspar porphyry.
Emeralds. Green beryls are found in India, but the emeralds of the ancient world apparently
came from mines in Egypt, especially at Mount Zabara on the Red Sea. Egypt actually supplied
emeralds to ancient India, whose rulers knew of and esteemed the stone. The emeralds of Siberia
were apparently not discovered before the present century. Tavernier says firmly that he never
found emeralds anywhere in the east, and was unable to discover whence they were being
exported for sale in Europe. He does think some emeralds were brought by the Spaniards from
Peru to the Phillippines, and from there taken to Europe. He says there were emeralds of a deep
color approaching black, called 'oriental emeralds'--but this is an error, a mistake.
Pearls. Tavernier knew of the pearl-fishery at the island of Bahrain in the Persian Gulf. There, he says, the water found on the coast was all salt, but fresh springs bubbled up from under the sea, and boats sailed out--going half a league to two leagues from shore--with five or six people in each boat; one or two people from each dived to the bottom of the sea, carrying bottles which they filled with water and then corked well. There at the bottom, for about two or three feet only, was found good fresh water. It is however very expensive for merchants to buy--and no wonder, since it had to be fished for like pearls itself! (All this is a matter of historical record.) A neighboring fishery lay opposite Bahrain, at the town of Catifa (Al Katif) on the coast of Arabia Felix. These produced round and baroque pearls which were sold in India, the European market being too particular to take them. Merchants buying them prefered those of a yellow water over a white sheen, because it was said that the pearls which were slightly golden retained their brightness and never change; whereas white pearls within thirty years lost their luster and took on a vile yellow color.
The second source of pearls known to him was on the isle of Ceylon, near a large town called Manar. The pearls discovered at this fishery were the most beautiful in water and roundness (in Tavernier's opinion) but seldom exceeded three or four carats weight.
Off the Japanese coast, pearls of a good water and fine size can be found, but they were considered very imperfect and besides the Japanese did not value pearls and let their fishery lie unused. Most of the pearls from this fishery were baroque.
Five fisheries lay in the Americas, on the Gulf of Mexico; larger pearls were found here. Only in
the Americas could one find grey and jet-black pearls, which (according to popular opinion in
Tavernier's day) were this color because of the muddy nature of the water in which the oysters
lay; Tavernier says he once tried to sell six perfectly round pearls weighing 12 carats altogether,
as black as jet, but had to give up because he could not find a buyer.
Pearl fishing. Tavernier says: the ancients believed that pearls are formed from the dew of heaven, only a single pearl per oyster, but modern people know this is not so. For proof, the oysters lie unmoving at the bottom of the sea, sometimes 12 cubits down, and how could they breath any dew of heaven down there? It is also common to find as many as six pearls growing in one oyster, and he saw an oyster with ten seed pearls within. They are laid in the oyster as eggs are laid in a hen, the larger and older pearls advancing toward the valves to exit the shell and the smaller ones remaining inside until fully perfected and ready to leave their pearl-shell.
Pearl-fishing season in the east was in March and April and again in August and September; pearls were sold from June to November. The heavier the rainfall in a year, the better the fishing. Many thought that the deeper the oyster lies, though, the whiter the pearl--because the colder the water, the whiter the product.
Finally, Tavernier says, regarding the pearls of Scotland and those found in the rivers of Bavaria (these are gotten from the freshwater mussels Unio and Anodonta) though valuable necklaces were strung from them, they could not compare with sea-pearls. Note: pearl-fishing on the river Ugie in north-east Aberdeenshire was once a lucrative industry.
The fishers at Manar were supervised by the Dutch in Tavernier's day, and used to be supervised by the Portugeuse--both of which states extracted heavy duties, because they also guarded the fishers against their enemies the Malabaries, who came with armed boats to capture and enslave them. Here, the fleet (about 250 ships) headed out every day before sunrise, helped by a land wind which never failed and which lasted till 10 AM; they returned in the afternoon with a wind from the sea, which began to blow at about 11 AM or noon, and also never failed. The oyster banks were five or six leagues out to sea. When the fishing fleet reached the banks, from each boat one (or sometimes, very seldom, two) pearl-divers leaped out; each diver had a cord tied round his body under his arms, and a stone of 18 or 20 pounds attached to his great toe by another cord. Lines from the noose and from the stone were held by the men who stayed behind in the boat. The divers carried nets with hooped mouths (to keep them open) and these nets too were linked to the men above by lines. The diver sank swiftly, on account of the stone attached to his toe, and when he reached bottom he detached the stone and the men in the boat pulled it up; he filled his sack for as long as he could hold his breath, and then pulled the cord tied round his body and was drawn up. When the boatmen felt the signal tug on the cord, they had to pull him up as fast as they could.
The divers at Manar were better than those at Bahrain and Catifa, because they could hold their breaths longer and stay longer underwater; this is because they did not, Tavernier says, place clips on their noses or cotton in their ears, as the divers in the Persian Gulf did.
After the divers were pulled up, they caught their breath for about ten minutes while the sacks of
oysters were also reeled in, and then the whole business started again; the diving went on for ten
or twelve hours at a stretch. Fishers in need of ready money opened their oysters at once and
sold the take; those who had enough to live on, preferred to keep the oysters till fishing season is
quite over--by which time the shells would have opened of themselves, as the living oysters within
decayed and died. The flesh of pearl oysters tasted bad and was always thrown away.
The greatest trade in all these sorts of precious stones was carried on from the city of Goa.
Coral. The coral fisheries known to Tavernier were off the coast of Sardinia, off the coast of Corsica, at Bastion de France (a French fort in Algeria, now destroyed) and Tabarque--both last being off the coast of north Africa--and off the Sicily coast at Trapani (the Drepanum of the ancients, 18 miles north of Marsala); also on the coast on Catalogne (Spanish Catalonia) and the isle of Majorque, ie Majorca. The coral found in various fisheries was of different types: Corsican and Sicilian coral was beautifully colored but slender, coral of north Africa thick and long but pale, and Catalonian coral was of excellent color and thick, but the branches were very short.
Coral was found only in the Mediterranean, not in the deep oceans.
The coral fishers used the following means to bring up the coral. They bound two rafters together in a cross, with a lump of lead in the center to make the whole thing sink. Then they bound tufts of hemp around the rafters, twisting them irregularly to the size of a thumb, and attached the whole to their boat by two ropes--one hanging from the bow, the other from the stern. They cast the cross overboard and let it drift with the current, till the hemp became entangled with coral. Sometimes the weight of coral to be dragged up was such that five or six boats full of men joined to lift the cross. If one of the cables broke, all the rowers in that boat were in danger of death; the trade was a very dangerous pursuit.
The best customers for coral were the Japanese, who wanted beads of it to close their bags; the
bags were made in France and shipped to Japan, Tavernier says. Portuguese merchants said that
if they could get hold of coral beads of the size of eggs, clean and without spots, they could sell
them in Japan for up to 20,000 ecus apiece.
Amber. The only source known to Tavernier was the coast of Ducal Prussia on the Baltic Sea, where the concession is owned by the Elector of Brandenburg, and he farms out the amber-gathering to local farmers and gets up to 22,000 ecus yearly for licenses. (Tavernier was unaware that amber also came from the Hukung valley in Upper Burma.) The Chinese were good customers for it--in fact amber is the most profitable merchandise which could possibly be carried to China--but the Dutch Company reserved the trade strictly for themselves, the Chinese coming to buy it from them at Batavia.
The Chinese prized amber because it was the custom there that, when any great noble gave a
feast, at the close of the meal the servants brought in perfume-pans and a large quantity of amber
(sometimes up to the value of a thousand ecus) of amber was thrown in to burn. The Chinese
adore fire, Tavernier says, and also the burning amber yields a perfume pleasing to them; in
addition, the oil in the amber flares up with a flame exceeding most others. The more amber a
nobleman was able to waste this way, the greater his reputation for grandeur became.
Ambergris. No one knew where this came from, only mariners found it on divers shores and sold
it for a great profit. Seen floating in the sea, it resembled a spongy stone. The greatest
quantities were always found on the coast of Melinda, principally toward the mouths of rivers
(this is around the mouth of the Zambesi river, in Africa). Note: Tavernier was unaware that
ambergris came from the faeces of sperm whales, probably those who had been feeding on
cuttlefish; the whales swallowed multitudes of small cuttlefish, the horny beaks of the cuttlefish
were not digestible and the whole mass was excreted--forming lumps of ambergris. Thus the old
belief that ambergris was full of the beaks of birds. An old word for ambergris was ambra, hence
it was confused with amber by translators; the best place to find ambergris, according to many
sources distinct from Tavernier, was off the coast of Madagascar. The substance used to be
literally worth its weight in gold.
Musk. The best musk came from Bhutan in Tavernier's time, and the traders who brought it, liked to get yellow amber and coral in exchange (even over gold and silver) because they could get great profits from these substances. The musk, Tavernier says, came from the musk deer (correct): when the deer had been killed, the egg-sized bladder containing musk was cut off from under its belly, where it lies closer to the genitals than the navel. Peasants wishing to adulterate the musk, draw some from the bladders and replace it with a mix of the deer's liver and blood, but this causes worms to grow in the bladders and then the remaining musk is eaten by these worms; the whole thing then goes bad. Other cheating peasants insert small pieces of lead, to make the bladders weigh more. Musk withdrawn from the true bladders is put into small fake bladders sewn from the stomachs of the deer.
A good bladder of unadulterated musk should be sealed the instant it is cut, so no air gets in and
the contents are safe from evaporation. This kind of bladder can be tested, too: when it is held
close to the face, the odor is so powerful that blood gushes from the unfortunate victim's nose.
Tavernier took a musk-deer's skin to Paris, and the odor of it was so overwhelming that it was
impossible to keep the skin in his rooms--everyone in the whole house complained of headaches!
Other mentions of musk: Barbosa said that false musk was made by putting leeches on living
musk deer, and when these leeches had gorged fat, they were dried in the sun and pounded; the
resulting powder, sewn in counterfeit pods of deerskin, passed for true musk. (Source: The
Book of Duarte Barbosa.) Linschoten says the Chinese adulterated it with the dried pounded
livers of cattle. According to Varthema, the true test of musk is to take a bladder of it in the
morning fasting, let three or four men smell it, and if it is genuine it will make their noses bleed.
Bezoar. The word comes from the Persian padzahr, Arabic bazahr, badizahr: 'counterpoison, antidote'; it is intestinal calculi, calcium crystals formed in the stomachs of animals. The bezoar known to Tavernier came from goats in the kingdom of Golconda. (A note to the passage says that the Jahad stone of Babur, which could produce rain and snow, was bezoar--source, N Elias and E D Ross, History of the Moghuls of Central Asia, 1898, p 32.) Tavernier examined living bezoar goats, and the peasant who brought them to him showed him how to palpate their bellies and judge by touch whether they had stones inside, and if so, how many and of what size. The goats themselves were tall and handsome, with very soft wool; they got the bezoars by grazing on the tips of a certain tree, the name of which Tavernier forgets. What these peasants did was to run both hands under the bellies of the goats and then beat the paunches along both sides, so that the bezoars fell into the middles of the bellies; then they estimated the amount by touch. They could judge a goat's market value exactly by this process.
Bezoar stones are also found in cattle, both in the East and the West (Tavernier says) but these
bezoars have no worth and are quite useless next to goats' bezoar. However bezoar from
monkeys is highly valuable, and also very very rare. The Portuguese, more than other nations,
prize their bezoars--because they always have to be on guard against poison, since they are always
trying to assassinate each other.
Porcupine stones. Tavernier says these were highly esteemed, found in the heads of porcupines, and more efficacious against poison even than bezoars. They were rare, though: in his whole career he handled only three. When the porcupine stone was steeped in water, that water became so bitter that there was nothing like it for bitterness in the whole world; there was also an equally good stone to be found in the porcupine's stomach, but this did not dissolve in water like the stones from the beast's head.
The note to this passage says: this was probably a vegetable drug, to which the myth of the
porcupine stone attached. Castanheda (Kerr, Travels and Voyages, ii. 439) says the stone from
the head of an animal called bulgoldorf was very rare and used against poison--the same sort of
myth. One A. Hamilton said that at Lingen near Johore, he saw pieces of porcupine bezoar like
walnuts in size and shape, for sale at 600 pieces of eight the stone.
Snake-stones. These were believed by the Indians to grow in the heads of certain snakes, and have the property of driving venom out of snakebite. The stones Tavernier saw were oval--shaped like skipping stones, from the description--and about the size of a doubloon. They were used in this manner: the part bitten was recut so that blood flowed out (if it was not already bleeding) then the stone was applied and drew all the venom into itself. Then the stone was cleansed by being steeped for at least twelve hours in woman's milk--or failing that, cow's milk! After the stone became clean again, the milk in which it had been steeped assumed the color of matter. Only Brahmins sold snake-stones, and Tavernier thinks the Brahmins also made the stones in some way and only told people they came from snakes.
The test of a true snake-stone is, either put it in one's mouth and it would instantly leap up and cling to the palate, or place it in a glass of water and immediately the water would begin to bubble and boil and the stone to effervesce.
Finally, T. says, there was a stone called the 'stone of the hooded snake' and this came from the heads of hooded snakes, was found only on the coasts of Melinda in Africa, and could be dissolved in water and drunk as a cure for snakebite. You could buy them from Portuguese sailors returning from Mozambique.
The note says: belief in snake-stones is still general in India; some stones appear to have been
made from charred bones, and some credulous souls believe they come from the heads of the
Source: Tavernier's Travels in India, 2 vols, first published in 1675. An account of six trading
voyages, plus detailed descriptions of famous diamonds and gemstones, some of which are now
lost to posterity. Description of the court of the Moghul, etcetera. DS 411 T37B44 1977, trans
with commentary by Ball and Crooke.
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