Goa Stone and gold case with gold filigree and repoussé, with cast legs and finial, probably made in Goa, late 17th/early 18th century, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

A particularly beautiful object from the Portuguese period in India is a Goa Stone and gold case with gold filigree and repoussé that has cast legs and finial, and was probably made in Goa, late 17th/early 18th century, in the collection of  The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York. Goa stones, named for the place where they were manufactured by Jesuits in the late 17th century, were manmade versions of bezoars (gallstones from ruminants). Both types were used for their medicinal and talismanic powers. These treasured objects were encased in elaborate containers made of gold and silver and often exported to Europe. Rare surviving examples are recorded in European treasuries, including one made for the Duke of Alba in the late 16th century that is now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. The stone was usually a compound of organic and inorganic materials, including bezoar, shell, amber, musk, resin, and crushed precious gems, which would be scraped and ingested with tea or water.

Portugal was the first European nation to build an extensive commercial empire reaching eastward to Africa and Brazil and westward, through the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean, to India, China, Southeast Asia and Japan.

In India, the Portuguese had established the headquarters of the Estado da India on the west coast, in Goa. The spice trade may have first attracted the Portuguese to the area, but they soon diversified and were and entered the field of luxury goods, which also served as ambassadorial gifts. Artworks and furniture that survive from the period attest to the extraordinary skills of the artists and the craftsmen working in Indian and Sri Lanka, as well as to the richness and rarity of the materials used in their manufacture, include gold and silver filigree, ivory, tortoiseshell, pearls, and precious and semi-precious stones. Goa was an entrepôt for all these luxury goods, including silk and cotton cloth produced in the textile centres of India, were sent to Europe and to other Portuguese ports in Asia, Africa and South America.

The exhibition Encompassing the Globe: Portugal and the World in the 16th and 17th Centuries was on view from 23 June until 16 September, 2007, at the Arthur M Sackler Gallery, the National Museum of Asian Art, Washington DC. Catalogue available.