Boola Moola: Glittering Details of an Investment Banker’s Wealth (continued)

Editor’s note:  Elihu Yale was “a man who liked to live and dress well, surrounded by books and paintings, who maintained a lively interest in the arts, science and religion until the end of his momentous life,” according to Benjamin Zucker and his co-author.

Cover of the book. The image shows Yale at the age of 68 in a portrait by Enoch Seeman the Younger.

Cover of the book. The image shows Yale at the age of 68 in a portrait by Enoch Seeman the Younger.


Their book starts with an absorbing chapter on his ambitious years from age 23 to 50 as an increasingly successful merchant banker for the British East India Company in Madras (Fort St. George), India. His success, the authors say, came from the luck or good management to possess robust resistance to local diseases, “force of character, powers of leadership, business acumen, and a variety of intellectual and spiritual interests.” Permitted to trade on his own account as well as for the company, like Benjamin he became a successful and erudite dealer in gems and jewelry, and he continued the practice for 22 years after returning to London in 1699 with five tons of cargo.

Most of the objects offered in the auction catalogues are almost impossible to find today, either because they have vanished or because the descriptions are too generic to permit positive identification. (The University owns several, including the portraits of Yale below.) However, the authors found many objects that did belong to Yale, and many others that are very similar to his. As a result, the 140 illustrations not only convey the opulence of Yale’s collections and charities, but also give a glimpse of life among London’s one percent. Some of the treasures can be seen at the University, the British Library, and the Victoria & Albert Museum. (Benjamin really ought to do a “Looking for Elihu” guide to finding them.)



Excerpted from  Elihu Yale: Merchant, Collector, and Patron,
By Diana Scarisbrick and Benjamin Zucker
Copyright © 2014 Thames & Hudson Ltd., London
Reprinted by permission of Thames & Hudson, Inc,

“…un diamant beau et parfait est le vray soleil d’entre
les autres pierres précieuses.”

— Robert de Berquen, Les Merveilles des Indes Orientales, 1669

The major part of Yale’s fortune derived from diamonds, the most precious and beautiful of all stones, and his trading activities provide fascinating insights into the market for these stones, and how they were mined and acquired in India, exported, and finally sold in Europe. Through the enterprise of the employees and the wise decisions of the directors, the East India Company succeeded in establishing London as the centre of the lucrative diamond trade, previously dominated by the Portuguese and then by the Dutch, and Yale’s involvement continued there, for far from retiring he carried on as a successful dealer in diamonds. Hundreds of diamond rings, crosses and brooches were listed in the sale catalogues and dispersed after his death by the auctioneer Christopher Cock…

The diamond had always been prized for its hardness and resistance to fire and anvil, but during the 17th century the progress made in cutting that released its brilliance resulted in its adoption by society as the ultimate symbol of wealth and status. Until the discovery of mines in Brazil c. 1725, India was the main source of these stones, esteemed for their grand éclat, extreme whiteness, and limpidity, known as ‘purity of water’. As demand increased in the last decades of the century production was intensified, and, seeing the rewards obtainable, from his position at Fort St. George, Yale became a dealer, with the reputation of a strong buyer who didn’t haggle. He was one of the few who had both expertise and capital, for since the stones were useless until faceted and well polished, money laid out on them was inevitably locked up for long periods, three years being the average time taken to get a return on the original investment.

Having acquired their rough diamonds in Golconda, the merchants … brought them to the ports. In Madras, for instance, they might sell to the passengers and crew of the ships in the fleet of the East India Company, to professional dealers, and to officials like Yale with money to invest. The trade was now dominated by England. This development resulted from the decision of the East India Company in 1664 to end their monopoly and to permit outsiders to trade in precious stones, albeit subject to their regulations, which coincided with the settlement in London of Portuguese-Jewish merchants, free to practice their religion there. They brought their financial and gemological skills to the business, which was organized on a professional basis for the first time. These merchants exported silver, coloured stones, amber and coral and imported rough diamonds, which were then forwarded to Amsterdam for cutting and polishing. This done, a

The widow of a Jewish Portuguese trader became Yale’s mistress.

proportion of the diamonds came back to London, where they were sold to jewelers. Through the expertise of the Portuguese-Jewish community, London became the centre of the international diamond trade, as a petition to the East India Company in 1695 declared: ‘the business formerly driven by way of Italy or Portugal is now become almost a sole English trade.’

From 1680, Jewish traders were allowed to settle in Fort St George, and one of the earliest to do so, in 1684, was the Portuguese Jacques de Paiva, financed by a London syndicate. On his death in 1687, his widow Hieronima, who became Yale’s mistress, continued to trade in association with her brother, Joseph Almanza.

The hazards of diamond trading from the moment of leaving India were such that it was thought only because the English were such great risk-takers did it appeal to them more than to any other nation. There was far more to the business than a good eye and judgment. The ships might sink, or on arrival in Europe the stones might be stolen by highwaymen, and after the further expenses of cutting and polishing they were not always easy to sell. A stable political situation was essential, as Philip Masson, a Parisian jeweler, explained to Sir Richard Hoare: ‘in order to sell diamonds people must be at their ease, money must circulate and trade must be settled there must be as ’twere, a superfluity’. One method was by public auction, though this ran the risk of the possible purchasers combining into a ring to keep the prices down. Good timing was equally necessary.

Elihu Yale succeeded in this risky business because he had sufficient capital to survive severe setbacks, such as the bankruptcy and suicide of Sir Stephen Evans, and could afford to wait to get a good price. He was also closely connected with the Portuguese-Jewish dealers, and always settled his debts with them, thereby proving that foreigners investing in diamonds through the East India Company settlements could expect to recover money owed, encouraging the diamond dealers to continue trading. In the course of the century the retail jewelers organized the trade so as to keep prices high and stable, and raised the diamond ‘by exaggerated praises above any fine stones to an unconscionable price’.

Full in the midst proud Fame’s imperial seat
With jewels blazed, magnificently great;
The vivid em’ralds there revive the eye,
The flaming rubies show their sanguine dye,
Bright azure rays from lively sapphires stream,
And lucid amber casts a golden gleam.
— Alexander Pope, The Temple of Fame

During his years in India Yale invested heavily in precious stones and pearls, as these not only made his fortune but also provided the easiest means of repatriating it. He therefore arrived home with an important stock that he sold on the London market. He had the stones cut, polished, and set in European designs.

Most of the five hundred rings that Yale owned at his death were set with diamonds, both white and fancy coloured – rose red, yellow, brown – and in a variety of cuts. The earliest, with the pyramidal point cut, described as ‘diamonds to write on glass’, were similar to rings used for writing names, messages and verses on drinking glasses. This custom was practiced by a literary gentleman noted by The Spectator in November 1711, who ‘By the help of a very fine diamond which he wore on his little finger was a considerable poet upon glass’. In Moll Flanders, the suitor of the eponymous heroine ‘pulls off his diamond ring and writes upon the glass of the sash, You I love and You alone, whereupon she borrows his ring to write underneath, And so in Love says everyone’, and they continue the dialogue by these means until he tires of it and calls for pen and ink. Jonathan Swift, in On Seeing Verses Written upon Windows in Inns, complained how ‘The glass, by lovers nonsense blurr’d /Dims and obscures our sight’.

Two rings set with engraved diamonds, one with a shield of arms, the other ‘a ring with a curious head cut in a diamond’, were extraordinarily rare. Hardest of all gemstones, the diamond had resisted attempts to engrave it until the 16th century, when, according to Paolo Morigia in La nobiltà di Milano (1595), the famous Jacopo da Trezzo succeeded in doing so, while employed in Spain by Philip II. Several 17th-century English and Danish monarchs recognized the prestige attached to the possession of a diamond signet, and two commissioned by Charles I as Prince of Wales and as King are now in the collection of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Yale blueblood. Yale’s daughter Ann (Lady Ann Cavendish), clothed in a forerunner of the University’s official color, in a portrait by Jonathan Richardson the Elder c. 1725.

Yale blueblood. Yale’s daughter Ann (Lady Ann Cavendish), clothed in a forerunner of the University’s official color, in a portrait by Jonathan Richardson the Elder c. 1725.

Earliest is a ring with a shield-shaped diamond engraved with his badge and initials CP (Charles, Prince of Wales); the other, with a lozenge-shaped diamond engraved with the coat of arms of his Queen, Henrietta Maria, could be that for which Francis Walwyn was paid £267 in 1629 ‘for cutting and finishing of the royal arms in a diamond and the letters of the name of our dearest consort the Queen on each side’. Dispersed during the Civil War, it emerged as the ‘fine and valuable table diamond ring with arms of England and Scotland’ sold from Yale’s collection by Christopher Cock on 8 March 1722 as the signet of Mary Queen of Scots. (This mistaken identification reflects the influence of Jacobite loyalists, who venerated objects associated with the Stuart dynasty, and particularly with that ill-fated queen.) The signet was bought at the Yale sale by the 8th Earl of Pembroke – statesman, man of taste, friend of Sir Andrew Fountaine and of Robert Harley. In the 19th century the antiquarian C. D. Fortnum acquired it from the estate of the Duke of Brunswick and presented it to Queen Victoria in 1887 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of her accession, having established, after ten years’ tenacious research, that the original owner was Queen Henrietta Maria.


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