Kokichi Mikimoto: The Pearl King

Portuguese Royal Jewellery



2nd Mediterranean Gemmological Conference
Valencia, May 2016
(extended abstract from the author's presentation to the Conference)

Portugal was founded in 1143 and since then royalty commissioned a considerable number of jewels as regalia, personal adornment or as devotional tokens. Most of them have been lost in History due to many circumstances, from remaking, liquidation, looting or natural disasters.
The most prolific periods of jewellery making were the 16th century, when the Portuguese discoverers found the maritime route to the Orient where most of gems where found, and later the mid 18th century after the discovery of the diamonds and colored gemstones in Brazil. In between, Portugal was ruled by the Habsburg dynasty of Spain, also known as the Philippine dynasty. The scope of the presentation will focus on the gems and jewels made during these three historical periods, closing with a proposal on the whereabouts of the famous Braganza “diamond”.

Figure 1 - Very unusual 14th century reliquary that belonged to queen Saint Isabel (1271-1336), set with branches of mediterranean red coral (Corallium rubrum). © Museu Nacional Machado de Castro, Coimbra.
Prior to the discovery of the maritime trading route to India and the Orient, the variety and quantity of the gems used in Portuguese jewellery were limited. A good example is the treasure of queen Isabel (1271-1336), daughter of D. Pedro III of Aragón and wife of king D. Dinis of Portugal, and later canonized Saint Queen Isabel by the Catholic Church. Sapphires, garnets, rubies, emeralds, oriental pearls and coral (figure 1) are among the cabochon cut, some engraved, and carved gems in modest quantities in these jewels. Diamonds were not popular, not even cut in Europe at this time.

It was only with Vasco da Gama’s discovery of the maritime trade route to India, in the late 15th century, that the whole panorama of jewellery making changed not only in Portugal, but also in Europe. The amounts of diamonds, rubies, sapphires, spinels and pearls that began to arrive to the old continent directly from the source’s areas made huge impact on jewellery making. Advancements in gem cutting, specially in diamond, are also visible during this period of lavish embezzlement of jeweled artifacts. Later, in the last quarter of the 16th century, Portugal suffered a succession crisis that led to the change in sovereignty to the hands of Phillip II of Spain, son of the famous Carlos I of Spain (also known as Carlos V of the Holly Roman-Germanic Empire). To finance the war of succession, the Portuguese rival to the crown D. António Prior do Crato fled to France with some of the crown treasures to get help from Catherine of Medicis, queen of France. According to historians, among these treasures was the Grand Sancy diamond, now at the Louvre in Paris, and the Mirror of Portugal, forever lost after the heist of the Garde Meuble during the french revolution.
During the 60 years of Spanish ruling, some interesting jewels were produced and there are still testimonies of those artifacts, where gold and emeralds are used (figure 2). Emeralds were then brought from the then named Nova Granada (now Colombia) to Europe by Spanish vessels. On those days, today’s Colombia was the main producer of fine quality emeralds.
Figure 2 - Gold pendant set with colombian emeralds, dated form the mid-sixteenth century, showing the influences of the Phillipine dynasty in Portuguese jewellery of that period. Foto Carlos Pombo Monteiro © Fundação Eugénio de Almeida/Arquidiocese de Évora

The years that followed the independence in 1640 not much changed in the gem panorama in Portugal. The significant change occurred as a consequence of the discovery of diamonds in Brazil, then a Portuguese colony, in the 1720’s. A massive quantity of diamonds started to arrive to Europe contributing to a trend in design where the set gems completely covered the jewels. Moreover, around the 1750’s, the brilliant cut started to become the most popular diamond cut. The Royal house of Portugal had access to diamonds in great numbers and significant sizes and towards the end of the century commissioned magnificent diamond set jewellery now housed in the Royal Palace collections but not yet in public display.
Another development that is particularly testified by the jewellery of this period has to do with the “new” colored gemstones that also came from Brazil. The look for diamonds and gold (discovered in the late 17th century) brought many adventurers and fortune seekers to the interior of Brazil, mainly to Minas Gerais, and this led to the recovery of other gemstones. Topaz, from the Ouro Preto area, is the most important of those. The yellow to orange to most coveted deep orange-red colors (then called Brazilian ruby) entered in great numbers in Portuguese jewellery after the first third of the century. Yellow-green chrysoberyl also made huge impact and local amethysts became popular. Some colorless gems like quartz, topaz and beryl, fashioned as diamonds, were low cost materials set in silver jewellery to simulate the more expensive diamond set pieces.

The famous Bragança Diamond (or “Braganza”) has been a mystery for ages, being reported as a 1,680 ct stone. The Bragança, named after the dynastic name of king D. João VI (1767-1826) husband of the polemic Carlota Joaquina de Bourbon, daughter of king Carlos IV of Spain, was once considered a large alluvial diamond, but maybe never actually  believed as such. Topaz has been, in fact, the most common presumed nature of the stone in the literature. A study of Portuguese Royal Treasuries at the Royal Palace of Ajuda, Lisboa revealed a very light greenish blue rounded mineral specimen, weighing 342 grams, and gem testing proved its identification as beryl (aquamarine). The conversion of this weight into carats, and other historical interpretations, are supporting a thesis that this very stone might be what was once called the Bragança Diamond.

Na imagem inicial: Insígnia das Três Ordens Militares em prata, ouro, diamantes do Brasil, esmeraldas e rubis executada por A. Pollet (ca. 1798). Foto Manuel Silveira Ramos © Palácio Nacional da Ajuda / DGPC

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