Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Indian gems, I love them. Exquisite Moghul craftsmanship. Beauty on display.

Dazzling ‘Jewels of the Maharajahs’ exhibit, a blockbuster show, continues at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, until February 24. 

It’s one of the most exciting—and inspiring—jewelry shows and one of the most comprehensive and surprising. I hope you’ll see it…or visit again. Blockbuster diamonds, indeed.

I Love Indian Jewels

I travel in India often, and on each trip I visit my jeweler friends and look at a lot of jewelry. I like seeing their new designs, as well as traditional Indian jewelry crafted to wear at lavish weddings and celebrations. Jewelry is an essential part of tradition and parties in India.

Jaipur, for example, has some of the world’s best diamond and precious stone cutters. Delhi has old-school jewelers and centuries-old Indian designs. I’ve watched diamond-cutters at work. Their skills and discipline are passed down through generations and the cut stones are exuberant and exquisite, bringing out the beauty from a rough piece of mined gemstone to a sparkling work of art.

I was excited to see this new exhibit at the Legion of Honor museum showing the most lavish jewelry, along with jewel-encrusted weapons, and historic film showing the opulence of maharajahs and their entourage. There’s excellent photography showing the super-size diamonds and emeralds and regalia of power on the richest Indian royals.

There are even the diamonds of the last Maharajah of Indore. Legendary, indeed.

‘East Meets West, Jewels of the Maharajahs from the Al Thani Collection’ includes one hundred and fifty precious objects from the collection formed by His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al Thani. It features stunning pieces from the rule of the Mughals in the seventeenth century to those reflecting the influence of India on jewelers today.

Each section of the show allows participants to observe spectacular Indian jewels and precious objects firsthand while exploring themes of influence and exchange between India and the West. Objects on display also provide visitors with an intriguing cross-cultural look at jewelry and gender.

Maharajahs posed and strutted and wore the most stunning diamonds and pearls and emeralds, including turban adornments, diamond shoe buckles, diamond belts, rings, bracelets, and medallions, along with tunics and robes woven with gold thread and studded with gems. Their wives (they had several) the Maharanis, were beautifully garbed, of course, and their hair adornments, necklaces, rings and amulets and saris and sandals were exquisite. But the Maharajahs held power and had to project wealth and control. In the case of jewelry, it’s good to be King.

Who Were the Maharajahs?

The Mughals, a dynasty with roots in Central Asia, ruled India from 1526 until the establishment of British control, from 1858 to 1947. Throughout this time, India was known for its exquisite production of jeweled arts and precious gemstones. Under successive Mughal emperors and maharajahs, Indian jewelry and works of art developed different styles, influenced by the disparate cultures and monarchal traditions of the time. 

The objects in this exhibition highlight Indian jewelry traditions including pieces worn on ceremonial occasions; weapons such as swords and daggers; and precious works of art made of gold or jade for display or use.

Unlike the European courts where women wore the most splendid jewelry, in India the male rulers, the Mughal emperors, the maharajas, nizams, and sultans, wore the most significant pieces in dazzling amounts on ceremonial occasions.

The Indian male rulers wore jewelry in great profusion signifying their high rank in society.

“The spectacular jewelry worn by the rulers of India offers a captivating look into the expectations of both high culture and society across a large swath of history.” 
“Audiences will find this aspect of the exhibit relevant to how we perceive gender today, where equality, fluidity, and choice are important topics of conversation.”
—Martin Chapman, Curator in Charge of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco  

Magnificent Diamonds

The final gallery showcases Indian and European jewelry from the twentieth century to the modern day. 

European jewelry houses such as Cartier created some of the most spectacular pieces for the maharajas, who supplied stones from their own treasuries. The results are a hybrid, employing Western jewelry techniques but executed in traditional Indian forms.

The Patiala necklaces, for instance, represent some of the most extravagant commissions given by a maharaja to a European jewelry house. The necklace that was made to cover the breast of the maharaja contained more than three thousand gemstones, which had included the 234.65-carat De Beers diamond, the largest-ever-commissioned necklace made by Cartier at the time.

European Influence on Indian Designs — and the Popularity of Indian Traditional Designs on European Jewelry Designs

With the arrival of the British Raj in the nineteenth century came the influence of European styles and craftsmanship on Indian jewelry. Gold was replaced by silver and platinum for diamond-set pieces. Conversely, in the early twentieth century, India became the most prevalent influence on Western jewelry, in both its style and the use of brilliantly colored and carved gemstones. 

Indian jewelry inspired great European jewelry houses such as Cartier to make pieces in the Indian style, using carved and brilliantly colored gemstones. This exhibition showcases famous gemstones such as the Arcot II diamond (formerly belonging to the British Crown Jewels), the vibrantly pink Agra diamond, and other treasures such as a jade dagger owned by Emperor Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal.

Legion of Honor

‘East Meets West, Jewels of the Maharajahs from the Al Thani Collection’ is organized by Martin Chapman, Curator in Charge of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco with Amin Jaffer, Senior Curator of the Al Thani Collection.

East Meets West: Jewels of the Maharajahs from The Al Thani Collection
Legion of Honor Museum
San Francisco, California
November 3, 2018 - February 24, 2019

Photography courtesy The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

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