As our nation (and much of the world) is roiled by debate on the current high tide of immigration and other signs of social change, perhaps it is an appropriate moment to look back to a time in the late 19th century when our country was encountering a similar situation. The last decade of that century saw the founding of a number of hereditary organizations that looked back nostalgically to the founding of the United States of America.

A Jewelled Quest

Indian Gems and Jewels in The Al Thani Collection

Dr. Amin Jaffer

 

George H. McNeely 4th

 

Above: Turban ornament (sarpech), India, circa 1900 Gold and silver, set with emerald, diamonds, and pearl, H: 11.7 cm, W: 12.8 cm

© THE AL THANI COLLECTION 2016 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

PHOTOGRAPH BY PRUDENCE CUMING

Over a span of six years His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al Thani has formed the world’s most comprehensive collection of Indian gems and jewels. Touring the globe as an exhibition in leading museums–the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Miho Museum and shortly the Grand Palais (29 March – 5 June 2017) – the Collection is attracting attention to the rich culture of jewellery that has existed in India since the days of Mughal emperors and maharajas. Curator of the Al Thani Collection Dr Amin Jaffer provides a context for the subject.

 

Publisher’s note: The Social Register is the first US publication to have the honor of covering this unparalleled collection of Indian gems and jewels, and it is proud that its presenter, Dr. Amin Jaffer, is both the Al Thani Collection’s curator and a member of the Social Register Association.

From the ancient civilisation of the Indus Valley to present times, the subcontinent of South Asia has enjoyed a uniquely sophisticated tradition of jewellery, in which gems and jewels – whether real or representational – have been an integral aspect of daily wear across classes and faiths. This rich culture is partly the result of natural circumstance. Throughout history the region has been home to fine gemstones: the mines of Golconda yielded the highest grade of diamonds, Kashmir produced sapphires of the most beautiful hue and Badakhshan was home to the most prized spinels. Sapphires and rubies were available from nearby Sri Lanka or by trade with Burma, and monsoon winds brought to Indian shores pearls from the Persian Gulf. The greatest emeralds gravitated to India through commercial exchange, carried there by European merchants after the discovery of mines in Colombia. India had always supplemented its natural deposits of gold through a positive balance of trade: Since antiquity, spices and textiles from the subcontinent were exported to East and West in exchange for bullion.

 

These precious materials were transformed through the ingenuity of Indian craftsmen, raised to fresh heights by a continuous tradition of patronage extending to the present day. Jewellery in India is not merely for adornment; for Hindus every gem is pregnant with significance, reflecting a cosmic purpose or invoking a favourable horoscope. In popular culture, particular forms of jewellery reflect rank, caste, region, marital status or quite simply, wealth. Throughout the subcontinent there exists a strong tradition of talismanic jewellery in which the wearing of particular gems, images or inscriptions is seen as a protection against illness or curse. Certain gems and materials are also seen to invoke good fortune and prosperity. Balancing one’s fortune with gemstones represents a system of faith that is prevalent even today. The mythic origin, virtuous properties and appropriate use of precious stones are articulated in early Sanskrit writings such as the ratnashastras (literally ‘treatise on gems’).

 

Early Adornment

Evidence from sculpture and wall painting indicates that since the earliest times jewellery in India was worn in abundance. From crowns and hair ornaments to necklaces, armlets, bangles, waistbands, anklets and toe rings, forms developed to adorn and beautify every part of the body. Indigenous jewellery was also absorbed into the fashions of the Muslim invaders who first arrived in the 8th century and for whom the prospect of plundering Indian treasuries was a motivating factor for ventures into Hindustan. Surviving Indian jewellery belongs to the period following the defeat of the Lodi sultans by the Timurid prince Zahir al-Din Muhammad Babur in 1526. Once firmly established as rulers of northern India, his descendants emerged as committed patrons of the arts, with a passion for gems and jewels that arguably eclipses that of any court before or after.

 

Travellers’ accounts, chronicles and diaries from the height of the Mughal Empire reveal the extent to which rulers valued gems for their rarity, physical properties and provenance. The finest and largest gems unearthed in Mughal domains were immediately offered to the ruler. These holdings were enhanced with a constant flow of presents from ambassadors, courtiers and supplicants as well as by purchases from gem-dealers who had come to court, both from local lands and from as far away as Europe. Imperial fashions in jewellery and jewelled objects were subject to regional and external influence, in form, material, technique and design. A taste for Western exotica, for example, led to the appropriation of European imagery into Mughal ornament. An admiration of Western gem-cutting and metalworking technology likewise meant that highly-skilled European jewellers were welcomed at court, where some went on to play a role in the imperial workshops designing jewelled objects of great value and significance to the dynasty.

 

A Bejeweled Backstory

The sack of Delhi by the Iranian warrior Nadir Shah in 1739 and the subsequent collapse of Mughal imperial authority saw the dismemberment of provinces from the ailing empire. Imperial taste and forms of authority endured at the courts of successor states, and to a certain measure in the liberated Rajput kingdoms, some of which had allied closely and intermarried with the Mughal dynasty. In an attempt to legitimise their power, newly emerging forces likewise appropriated aspects of imperial courtly culture, most evidently in the wearing of jewellery and the use of particular symbols of authority. The early rise of the various European trading companies in India had been dependent to an extent on the ability of governors and factors to engage with and assimilate local courtly customs, not only in expressing power but also in dress and manner. European officials had participated in the wearing and giving of jewellery, which was an integral aspect of articulating authority in the Mughal tradition. The defeat of Tipu Sultan by British forces in 1799 and their gradual subjugation of India, however, firmly established Western norms as the dominant model for elite behaviour.

 

Even if form and function remained constant, in the 19th century – especially after the establishment of the British Raj in 1858 – fashionable Indian jewellery was increasingly shaped by Western influence. This was evident in design, the faceting of gems and in their setting, as the closed-back kundan mount indigenous to India gradually gave way to open, Western-style claw settings for holding precious stones. (Kundan is a technique in which gemstones are set in gold without the use of a conspicuous claw or prong. Instead, strips of extremely pure gold are used to fashion the mount around a gem.) While trends towards the revival of traditional Indian jewellery techniques persisted throughout the British period, from the late 19th century onwards, the princes who constituted India’s ruling class veered in the opposite direction, replacing gold with platinum as the favoured setting for their most important gems, and eventually having their pieces remounted in the latest Western fashions by London and Paris firms. This appreciation for European taste was by no means unreciprocated: the early 20th century witnessed the growing appreciation among leading Western houses for traditional Indian jewellery styles.

 

Collecting History

The exhibition Maharaja: The Splendour of India’s Royal Courts at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2009–10 explored the diverse tradition of jewellery in India through a single private collection of pieces spanning more than 400 years. The creation of this group by His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al Thani of Qatar was driven by his passion for the taste and style of Indian jewellery across various historical periods. Typically, it is the jewelled arts of the Mughal court that have most excited enthusiasts of Indian jewellery. The scope of the present collection is wider in approach and attitude, driven by an underlying interest in the use of gems in Indian jewellery in different eras, reflecting indigenous tradition and the assimilation of foreign taste and technology. The exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum—which attempted to contextualise jewellery and luxury goods over many centuries, illustrating the impact on Indian royal taste of Mughal tradition, the British Raj and the cultural encounter with Europe—was the direct inspiration behind the formation of this collection. It too derives particular meaning from this broad approach.

 

 

AboveTurban ornament (sarpech), India, circa 1920; modified circa 1925-1935

Platinum, set with sapphire and diamonds, H: 7.5 cm, W: 6 cm; sapphire: 109.5 ct

© THE AL THANI COLLECTION 2013 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

PHOTOGRAPH BY PRUDENCE CUMING

Above: The Nizam of Hyderabad necklace (kanthi), India, 1850-1875, Gold, set with diamonds and emerald, enameled on the edges, H: 26 cm, W: 19.6 cm.

© THE AL THANI COLLECTION 2013 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

PHOTOGRAPH BY PRUDENCE CUMING

Above: Maharani Sita Devi of Baroda by Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1948. On the occasion of her husband’s 39th birthday, the Maharani is wearing the celebrated Baroda diamond necklace, altered from the original acquired by Maharaja Khande Rao Gaekwad in the mid 19th century. © Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos

 

Above:Maharaja Pratapsinhrao Gaekwad and Maharani Sita Devi of Baroda by Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1948.  The Maharani is helping her husband wear the famous seven-strand natural pearl necklace considered one of the most valuable pieces in the Baroda treasury. © Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos

 

Above:The Arcot II, India, circa 1760; modified 1959 and 2011, L: 2.61 cm, W: 1.61 cm, D: 0.6 cm; Weight: 17.21 ct, grade D, Internally Flawless.

© THE AL THANI COLLECTION 2013 ALL RIGHT S RESRVED.
PHOTOGRAPH BY PRUDENCE CUMING

 

Above:Maharani Sita Devi of Baroda with her son Prince Sayajirao Gaekwad by Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1948. ©Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos

 

Over six years this collection has developed from a source of private pleasure into a leading group of jewellery worthy of publication and exhibition. Although this was not the intention at the start, the quality of the first acquisitions suggested immediately that this collection would be a serious one. Among the first acquisitions were two fine jighas, a rare example in jade and one with a finely-faceted central spinel. These were the first of what was to become an outstanding group of turban ornaments stretching from the Mughal period to the present day.

 

Sheikh Hamad had long been an admirer of the work of the Parisian jeweller JAR, who shares a passion for India as he does for historic gems. With his eye now focused on Indian jewellery, the work of JAR assumed a new significance. Among the jeweller’s most innovative works is a brooch designed as a setting for an old-mine emerald, the front designed as a cusped arch and the reverse as a pierced lattice screen; the piece had been made in 2002, well before this collection was formed. The acquisition of the brooch opened a door to the work of contemporary designers. A meeting with Viren Bhagat enriched the contemporary holdings in the collection. Bhagat’s work infuses a fresh delicacy and refinement into Indian jewellery, using old-cut gems with settings that disappear and seemingly suspend in mid-air transparent diamonds, laboriously shaped after petals, pointed leaves and cusped cartouches.

 

Eastern Origin, Western Design

As the collection grew it became apparent that the fantastic encounter between European jewellers and maharajas needed to be represented. Equally fascinating was the role of Western firms in setting old Indian stones. Today the products of this cultural exchange between East and West form one of the strengths of the collection. Among the highlights is a brooch with a large carved Indian emerald designed by Cartier for the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris and modified in 1927, and a belt brooch created by the same firm using an old step-cut emerald of exceptional quality. An early example of the re-use of old Indian gems and the juxtaposition of stones of different colours is found in this collection in a much-published avant-garde brooch designed by Paul Iribe and executed by Robert Linzeler in 1910 in which sapphires, diamonds and pearls compliment a substantial carved emerald. This seminal piece, now in this collection, belonged for many years to the Cartier brothers, suggesting that it inspired in some measure their bold Indian-style creations.

 

This collection holds a number of pieces designed in the West specifically for an Indian prince. Among these is the celebrated ruby bead choker made by Cartier for Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala in 1931 as one of three necklaces that were conceived to be worn together to grand effect. The Maharaja had famously re-set many of his gems with Cartier and Boucheron in the 1920s and early 1930s and was a leading client for both firms. Another prince who patronised both of these houses was Maharaja Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala, a polymath and statesman who felt naturally at home in France and became a leading patron of French luxury firms. Among his early jewellery acquisitions was a peacock-shaped aigrette made by Mellerio dits Meller, a Paris-based firm which had operated under French royal patronage since the time of Marie de Medicis and which had enjoyed particular favour in the Second Empire. Western jewellery created for another leading Indian royal patron is found in a group of three rings owned by Maharaja Yeshwantrao Holkar II of Indore, all of which are associated with Harry Winston, the legendary jeweller who became a close friend of the Indore royal family.

 

As a particular interest of the collector, gemstones – some with remarkable provenance – have come to form the backbone of the collection. Among these is the Arcot II, one of two pear-shaped diamonds given by Muhammad ‘Ali Wallajah, Nawab of Arcot, to Queen Charlotte and later mounted in the Crown Jewels of George IV. On the king’s death the diamonds were sold to the 1st Marquess of Westminster, whose descendant, the 3rd Duke of Westminster, sold them to pay taxes in 1959. The Idol’s Eye is another historical gem in the collection, prized as the largest cut blue diamond in the world. The collection is particularly strong in its holdings of emeralds, both of faceted and carved examples, dating from the Mughal period onwards. As green was the favourite colour of the Prophet Mohamed, emeralds found particular favour among Islamic rulers in the subcontinent and they were widely used in jewellery. Among the best known examples in this collection is the Taj Mahal Emerald, set by Cartier in its legendary Collier Bérénice neckpiece made for the Exposition of 1925.

 

Within an Indian context diamonds were prized for their inimitable qualities, ranging from translucency to hardness; in Sanskrit the gem was called vajra (literally ‘thunderbolt’). The indestructible nature of this gemstone has meant that diamonds were traditionally considered a masculine gem. For instance, the author of the 6th-century Ratnapariksha (“Appreciation of Gems”) wrote that: “the king, who according to what he has been told, wears a beautiful, light, sparkling diamond, possesses a power that triumphs over all other powers.” It sometimes surprises first-time students of Indian jewellery to learn that the great diamond necklaces in this collection were worn by men – both for their supernatural properties and as a representation of the wealth of the state. Altogether more subtle, women’s jewellery is also represented in the collection, characterised by a feminine scale and decorative palette.

 

Royal Accoutrements

Each acquisition made represents a different aspect of jewellery and the jewelled arts in South Asia. The fusion of traditional Indian jewellery with Western gem-faceting and setting techniques during the British Raj is another area of interest, representing the taste of the high 19th century. Among the notable pieces of this group are spectacular diamond and emerald necklaces designed to be worn in durbar, the formal audience at which an Indian ruler showed himself before the court, diamond turban ornaments  and a gem-encrusted state sword from Hyderabad. Ceremonial weapons had been part of Indian culture long before the arrival of Europeans and were often depicted in portraits of rulers; the style and shape of this sword however reveals a clear debt to western models.

 

The paraphernalia of court culture has over time also been incorporated into the collection, as have objects associated with the pleasures of taking paan (a preparation of betel leaf and areca nut and sometimes tobacco that is chewed for its psychoactive quality and stimulative effect) and smoking the hookah. In this respect the collection is fortunate to have an exceptionally rare ruby-inlaid spherical jade hookah base, which was acquired and subsequently found to have been exhibited in Delhi at the time of the Coronation Durbar of 1903 by Maharana Fateh Singh of Udaipur. Among the most prized pieces in the collection is a small knife with a carved jade hilt that belonged to Shah Jahan and is depicted in portraits of this most refined gem-loving emperor. The pommel of this celebrated piece is carved with the head of an exotic youth clearly inspired by Renaissance depictions. Jade, rock crystal and other hardstone objects form an aspect of the collection that is increasingly significant. A major acquisition in this area is a jade cup made for the Mughal emperor Jahangir that was formerly in the Guennol Collection on long-term loan to the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The cup is inscribed in exceptional quality with the ruler’s titles along with two quatrains of Persian poetry. It is the earliest dated Mughal jade in existence and along with the Shah Jahan Dagger provides a foundation for what has become a very significant holding of jades and hardstones spanning from the Timurid period to the late Mughal empire.

 

Acquisitions for the collection have been driven by personal passion and shaped by the idea of collecting for quality rather than quantity. As with any private holding, this group of objects represents a unique personal vision, inspired by taste, knowledge and deep passion that grows year on year. At the same time, a concerted effort has been made to represent leading schools of courtly jewellery from the Mughal period onwards, revealing the full extent of the ingenuity of Indian jewellers and their impact in the wider world. From the elegant, restrained forms of early Mughal jades and jewellery to the wildly extravagant hybrid designs of the 19th century and the stylish, chic creations of the modern age, these pieces from the Al Thani Collection will hopefully instil in viewers an understanding and appreciation of this subject, such as it exists in the collector himself and in the academic team that is privileged to work with objects of such aesthetic merit and cultural significance.

 

Below: Aigrette, Designed by Paul Iribe; made by Robert Linzeler, Emerald: India, 1850-1900; mounts: Paris 1910, Platinum, set with emerald, sapphires, diamonds and pearls, H: 9 cm, W: 5.8 cm, D: 1.5 cm

©  THE AL THANI COLLECTION 2013 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

PHOTOGRAPH BY PRUDENCE CUMING

 

About the Author

Dr. Amin Jaffer is the International Director of Asian Art at Christie’s where he is responsible for developing Christie’s business in India and among Indian clients living around the world. Christie’s first opened an office in Mumbai in 1994 and began holding sales the following year. Dr. Jaffer meets collectors and works with the 12-strong Indian team on the twice yearly South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art sales held in New York and London, for which Christie’s is the market leader. Dr. Jaffer joined Christie’s in 2007 after 13 years as curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. He has published several books including Furniture from British India and Ceylon (V&A, 2001), Luxury Goods from India (V&A, 2002) and Made for Maharajas: A Design Diary of Princely India (2006). He also co-curated Encounters: The Meeting of Asia and Europe, 1500-1800, which explored the artistic and cultural encounter between Europe and Asia. He lectures frequently in Europe, America and India and contributes regularly to journals and major newspapers.