Friday, April 02, 2010

Rich Nation Poor Nation

Look at the picture here. Believe it or not, it is a real gem. This 172-faceted topaz weighs 4.5 kg and was cut from a single crystal weighing nearly 12 kg. I saw it at the Smithsonian Institution (this photo wasn't taken by me though - they don't let anyone touch it) in DC last month. But that is not the fact that I want to emphasize about this stone. The fact that I want to talk about here is that it is called "The American Golden Topaz" although it was found in Brazil.

But then this was, as they say, only the tip of the iceberg.

As I walked past the rows of bullet-proof cases holding gems from the National Gem Collection at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, I came face to face with some of the most valuable stones in the world - some shining alone and some set in ornaments equally famous. Marie Antoinette's earrings. Napoleon's crown and necklace. Somebody's ring, somebody else's bracelet - the list is simply too long to remember or write here. All priceless. All thickly encrusted with diamonds, rubies, emeralds and sapphires.

All coming from "poor" nations.

Take the 45.52 carat Hope Diamond for instance. This deep blue diamond with a turbulent past and owners like King Louis XVI and King George IV was gifted to the Smithsonian Institution in 1958 by New York diamond merchant Harry Winston. But if you manage to push past the crowd permanently assembled in front of its case, you will see a board that says this diamond is originally from India. Not only the Hope, but almost every diamond on display at the museum comes from India. Most of the rubies, emeralds and sapphires come from Burma and Sri Lanka. Some stones are from Brazil, some from Colombia and some from African nations. All had "belonged" to European monarchs or American millionaires who donated them to the Smithsonian. Now they are part of the National Gem Collection. Just like the Koh-i-noor is part of the British Crown Jewels.

Many of these jewels looked ugly to me, of course, as the Nizam's jewels had looked earlier. I would not care to wear a brooch that had a sapphire a little smaller than a golf ball, but then, I would never have one. The fact that these necklaces, brooches, earrings and pendants are too gaudy for modern tastes does not change the fact that they were all mined in the third world countries and and then brought to the "richer" nations who got richer.

While the poor nations got poorer.

Now don't get me wrong here. I do not have a goblin-like sense of ownership (reference: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) which means a diamond mined in India has to remain in India for eternity. Of course diamonds and other gems can be sold to other countries - in fact they should be sold because otherwise how will countries that don't have diamond mines get them? But the question here is, did all of these gems leave their respective countries by by legal means? Koh-i-noor was forcefully taken away by the British from India, and the Hope Diamond is rumoured to have been stolen. Even when a gem was bought from the producing country, did the buyer pay a fair price for it? I don't think the present owners of these gems could answer these questions easily, and more importantly, they would not want to answer them.

India is often described as a rich country inhabited by poor people. I realized the accuracy of this description anew after visiting the Smithsonian. The only consolation is, we are not the only country fitting this description. Also, it was easy to see how the rest of the world came to be inhabited by rich people.


  1. A very nice, informative post Sugata. Keep writing.

  2. nicely written (and i loved the pics)

  3. bhalo...ei shobe porlam..didnt know all these facts though...

  4. @Kuntala, Kekadi and Sumana: Thanks! The facts are collected on the net. I wanted to show the pics on the net(the ones that I took were mostly shaky or dark) and share some thoughts that I had.

  5. I went to the smithsonian museum of natural history right after my 10th finals and I remember these mind boggling array of jewels that have been officially stolen from unfortunate countries... MET in NYC has a pretty good collection of ancient Indian artifacts..but I was quite surprised that Musee du Louvre has nothing of India. It sort of annoyed me a li'l that a museum of that caliber wouldn't showcase the richness of India.