Bejewelled Treasures from the Al Thani Collection

Winterson's Creative Director Alice Cicolini takes a retrospective glance at the celebrated Al Thani collection of jewellery. The exhibition, which first appeared in Bejewelled Treasures at London's Victoria & Albert Museum, is set to open this Spring at the Grand Palais, Paris in March 2017.

The Al Thani Collection is a unique collection of jewels from an unusually broad chronological period that spans the Mughal period of the early 1600s to the present day. With such a diverse group of objects to select from, the V&A exhibition's curator Susan Stronge paints an impressive, if partial, picture of the development of Indian jewellery techniques and tastes.

Jewellery in Mughal society

The focus in the early part of the exhibition emphasises the almost ubiquitous presence of gemstones and jewellery throughout the Mughal court: from fly whisks and wine cups, to backscratchers and huqqa bases. The prevalence of precious and semi-precious gems led visitors to India in this period to remark on the magnificence of courtly life, its gem-encrusted thrones and imperial bodies that sparkled with jewels.

Hindu rulers lived under clear instruction as to the importance of establishing of an almost God-like regal body politic, through dress, jewellery and grooming. This remarkable profusion of jewellery, which their Mughal successors appeared to share, went far beyond the ruling classes to encompass men and women at all levels of society.

Image 1: Spinel and pearl necklace
Image 2: Silk sword sash with jewelled gold fittings

This is very revealing of the important role that jewellery played, not simply in the creation of status, but in what modern historian Daud Ali has described as “the spiritual and literary life of Indian societies” and the “association of jewels with light, virtue and beauty”. It is in early Sanskrit texts such as the arthashastra and brihatsamhita that the spiritual, cultural and healing values of stones, grading & assessment and jewellery techniques began to be established.

A love for pearls and gems

Many of these central tenets of gemlore still inform contemporary Indian jewellery making and buying practice, today with the navratna, or nine-stones, continuing to play a alismanic role in jewellery culture. Of these, the five great stones, or mahararatnani, - diamond, pearl, ruby, sapphire and emerald - dominate Indian jewellery culture as they did several hundred years ago.

As a result, for pearl lovers the Bejewelled Treasure exhibition offers a wealth of extremely fine examples. Visitors to India frequently remarked on the ropes of pearls that covered the bodies of both men and women, rulers and lesser subjects alike, upon which it would have been difficult to place a price. The arthashastra particularly notes methods for grading pearls, and the types of necklaces into which they could be strung, including one gravity-defying necklace of 1,008 rows.

It may be that one of the reasons that visitors saw pearls worn by non-royal courtiers was that, much like their British equivalents, Indian rulers charged their servants with wearing their pearls during the day to keep them both warm and luminous. Although the geographical proximity to the pearl fishers of the Arabian Gulf and Sri Lanka would have given Indian rulers greater access to pearls than some of their European peers, the pearl was still regarded a symbol of status. Some rulers were believed to drink powdered pearls as an aphrodisiac, and the Sanskrit word for pearl, manjari, means “bud” denoting the sensuality the gem has come to symbolise.

Image 1: Diamond turban jewel made for the Maharaja of Nawanagar
Image 2: Cartier Brooch set with emeralds, sapphires and diamonds

Other notable aspects of the exhibition include several exquisite examples of spinel, a stone which has long been celebrated in the subcontinent whilst remaining relatively unknown in the West. A combination of increasing scarcity, the price of tourmaline, the prevalence in the market of glass-filled and heat treated ruby and the spinel’s relatively low profile, however, marks this gemstone out as a major jewellery trend.

One of the main centerpieces of the show, and one of the few pieces in the exhibition not from the Al Thani Collection, is the Timur Ruby, rather abstractly titled since it is neither a ruby nor was it ever owned by the famous Indian ruler. Now part of the collection of Queen Elizabeth II, the stone was given to Queen Victoria by the East India Company in 1851, and then set in gold, enamel and diamonds by Garrards in 1853. The gem itself demonstrates the significant value placed on these stones by a succession of Mughal rulers, engraved as it is with the names of five royal owners from Jahangir, son of Akbar, in 1612 to Sultan Nadir in 1741.

Contrasting traditional with modern

The Timur Ruby also demonstrates the differing understanding of value that remains central to much of India’s more traditional jewellery making practice. Unlike Western cultures, where brilliance, fire and perfect precision cutting constitute extraordinary gems, the Indian subcontinent holds true (in its more traditional manifestation) to the notion that a stone’s natural character and form – its scale, luminance, colour and clarity – are what defines its beauty.

One of the main techniques that the exhibition focuses on is kundan, the practice of using highly refined gold to set natural, irregular stone shapes within fine, symmetric settings. Its aesthetic is one that has come to define traditional Indian jewellery, and its abandonment by India’s contemporary high jewellers is one of the most notable characteristics of their perceived modernity.

It is the quite clear break with traditional jewellery making practice that the exhibition makes visible, which is one of the show’s most interesting features. Alongside the rejection of traditional setting techniques, it is the widespread preference for platinum (with yellow gold removed to the reverse or interior structure of these new jewels) that has seemed to define “modernity” in contemporary Indian jewellery.

Western influences

Certainly this trend is most evident within the fertile Art Deco period that saw such a volume of commissions from Indian rulers to luxury high jewellery houses in the West  such as Cartier, Boucheron, and more recently JAR, and more recently in contemporary jewellery from India itself.

Al Thani: Gold and diamond hair ornament

Image: Gold and diamond hair ornament

Stronge implies that the increased cross-fertilisation with Western tastes has resulted in a loss of regional difference across Indian jewellery, although it's perhaps difficult to conclude about a wider trend from the prism of a very personal selection of objects. It is certainly true that the contemporary jewelers that Al Thani has favoured lean very heavily towards the language of Westernised Indian-ness that Cartier, his Indian clients, and the many other 1920s Western jewellery houses who operated in the country, helped to establish.

The exhibition catalogue relates a lovely vignette of Jacques Cartier’s first visit to India as part of the Delhi Durbar of 1911, marking the coronation of George V as Emperor of India. Cartier had brought, Stronge relates, a selection of jewellery for women, but rapidly realized “the enormous potential of this market was that the princes bought mostly for themselves”.

The legacy of the Al Thani treasures

Perhaps what makes this exhibition so unique in its presentations of high jewellery is that the majority of the pieces chosen have been created to be worn or used by men rather than women, and this in itself is something worth visiting for.

As masculine jewellery cultures diminish so dramatically across the world, the exhibition profiles a dying way of life – both that of the makers, as their traditional arts appear to fade from fashion, and the wearers, and ways of wearing, that these extraordinary gems represent.