When You Go to Jaipur, Do This

Jaipur, the enchanting capital of India’s Rajasthan state, is a mecca for any jeweler, but especially for jewelers who love color. In addition to the thousands of homegrown jewelry enterprises located in the city, scores of designers from abroad come here every year to buy pearls and stones (especially emeralds, rubies, and rose- and flat-cut diamonds), work with manufacturers, and soak up Rajasthan’s rich and deeply spiritual culture.

The International Colored Gemstone Association’s biannual congress, which took place Oct. 21–24, brought me here, but I extended my stay so I could make the most of this fascinating city. Together with my boyfriend, Jim, who joined me for the second half of my visit, we painted the Pink City red. If you plan to go, please feel free to reach out for tips, contacts, or advice. (Here’s one big hint: Before you go, download WhatsApp—everyone uses it).

Without further ado, here are the top 10 highlights of my unforgettable trip to Jaipur (not counting my spectacular first night, which happened to coincide with Diwali, mentioned in last week’s post):

10. Charming snakes in the Old City

Before you freak out, let’s clear up one thing about the flute-playing yogis outside the City Palace charming cobras to sway up and out of their baskets: The snakes have been de-poisoned. Jim and I both took turns sitting on the ground and petting the cobras (Jim even made a necklace out of one!)—and we’re still laughing about it.

Nothing screams “Welcome to India!” quite like watching snakes dancing on a dusty roadside as a horde of local bystanders goad you into placing one around your neck. (Accessory bonus: I happened to be wearing extremely appropriate earrings—blackened silver cobras set with rose-cut diamonds, hoods flared, ready to strike.)

Swami Jim Sullivan

9. Moderating a panel on bloggers at the Congress

My entire trip to India—expertly organized by ICA’s Sudhir Kothari—was predicated on my role as a moderator for a blogging panel featuring Benjamin Guttery of @thirdcoastgems, Katerina Perez of @katerina_perez, and Tracey Ellison, aka @thediamondsgirl. At the risk of sounding boastful, it was a major hit. The colored stone community is starved for information on social media; during the Q&A period, so many hands went up that we far exceeded our time on stage.

A few wholesalers walked out during the session—we were told they didn’t see the value of social content sharing—but the enthusiastic audience members remaining made clear the gem trade is (way) behind the times when it comes to social media. They’re now anxious to promote their businesses to both the trade and consumers.

To emphasize the value of social, Benjamin raised his iPhone and declared that his most-liked post from Jaipur was a shot of loose gems snapped at a manufacturing facility—and that on the strength of his posts, two designers had pledged to reach out to the Jaipur-based firms he’d visited.

Selfie time with Tracey Ellison, Benjamin Guttery, and Katerina Perez

8. Catching up with Yianni Melas, Vincent Pardieu, and other gem adventurers at the lovely Fairmont Jaipur

The Congress concluded on Oct. 24 with a delightful gala dinner at the Fairmont ballroom, where the conference sessions had taken place. Men in Nehru jackets and women in elegant gold-trimmed saris swirled around us.

Then there was Yianni Melas. He came to the gala wearing what I assume is the same gear he wears when he’s out in the bush hunting gems: tan flak jacket open at the chest, revealing piles of beaded necklaces and a silver tusk pendant or two, tan safari pants, and a satchel wrapped around his thigh.

Yianni, aka @gemexplorer, is a Crete-based gem hunter, jewelry designer, social activist, and master of ceremonies, whose myriad connections in the gem trade helped make the Congress possible. He’s the one who invited me!

His equally adventurous comrade-in-arms, Bangkok-based gemologist Vincent Pardieu (@vincent_pardieu), also looked prepared for a gem-scapade. Peering out from his signature rhombus-shaped spectacles, beneath a floppy safari hat, the French adventure addict told me he was bound for Mauritius to attend a ruby auction. Cocky and charismatic, these colorful characters epitomize what I love about the gem trade.

At the gala dinner celebrating the conclusion of the ICA Congress with Yianni Melas

7. Drinks at the Polo Bar at Rambagh Palace

Jim had been in Jaipur for all of three hours when I whisked him to the Rambagh Palace, former abode of the maharajah—and beloved maharani, Gayatri Devi, whose likeness and legendary spirit permeate the place—to enjoy cocktails at the hotel’s Polo Bar. If you’re seeking an experience that combines epic service, unparalleled elegance, and a bit of time travel back to the early 20th-century heyday of the maharajahs, this is the spot. Order the ginger-infused vodka martini. Afterwards, take a stroll around the veranda and admire the singing of the palace’s many birds.

6. Dinner at Baradari in the City Palace

Samir Kasliwal is a ninth-generation member of the jewelry family that owns the legendary Gem Palace on M.I. Road. Not everyone knows that the Italian-Indian bon vivant is also a restauranteur.

His restaurant, Baradari, is one of Jaipur’s only contemporary restaurants located outside the grounds of a hotel and it’s an absolute dream. Gorgeously designed and elegantly lit, the space is built around a luscious atrium located within the confines of the City Palace.

Baradari is currently only open for lunch, but last week Samir invited me, Jim, and a gaggle of visiting friends to join him for dinner, where we had free run of the place. From rounds of gin and tonics and hors d’oeuvres at the sophisticated bar, our group of 11 moved to an elegant, long dining table to enjoy multiple courses of Rajasthani cuisine.

Before sitting, we wandered the empty courtyard of the palace, which typically heaves with tourists. It’s not the first time my jewelry connections have allowed me such privileges, but it’s certainly one of the loveliest.

5. Doing my best Indian bride impression at Amrapali

From its prominent location on the corner of M.I. and Bhagwant Das roads, Amrapali straddles a number of jewelry universes simultaneously. A purveyor of tribal silver jewels, 18k gold contemporary Indian styles suitable for American tastes, and big, imposing 22k gold necklaces from South India featuring the carved faces of dieties, the well-established Jaipur jeweler is a true destination unto itself.

I spent Saturday morning in the upstairs salon as creative director Tarang Arora, son of founder Rajiv Arora, brought out an endless parade of wedding jewelry sets, each more dazzling than the last. I draped a $230,000 multistrand gold and diamond bridal bib around my neck and was utterly mesmerized by my own reflection.

Tarang told me the necklace is designed to be split apart, to form two, three, or as many as nine different pieces, one each for the bride, her mother, and her sisters—but I’m not so sure I’d want to share! (For more affordable versions of Amrapali’s signature styles, check out Tribe by Amrapali, a sub-brand started in 2014.)

I do!

Emerald, pearl, and diamond pendant from Amrapali’s Jharna collection

4. Learning about the history of Jaipur’s jewelry industry from Sudhir Kasliwal

Sudhir Kasliwal’s presentation on Jaipur’s history as a hub of gems and jewels was one of the special moments of the Congress. “The legacy of jewelry in the Indian Subcontinent spans over 5,000 years,” he said. “The first evidence of making use of jewelry goes back to the Indus Valley civilization, almost 3000 B.C.”

Sudhir is the oldest member of the eighth generation of Kasliwals, which includes his two brothers: the celebrated designer Munnu, who died in 2012, and restauranteur Samir’s father, Sanjay, whose own brand maintains a lovely Madison Avenue boutique in Manhattan. Sudhir is a true gentleman with an encyclopedic (and personal) knowledge of the Jaipur jewelry scene, and the iconic figures past and present who reveled in it (including Gayatri Devi!).

3. Ogling enormous Golconda diamonds in the back room of The Gem Palace

A Jaipur institution since 1852, when the maharajah appointed the Kasliwal family crown jewelers, The Gem Palace is a veritable museum of Rajasthani craftsmanship, from the mustard-colored block prints that blanket the walls to the carved silver elephants and objets d’art that stand atop the showcases, which are filled with still more treasures.

I first visited the salon and adjoining workshop in 2006. On my return visit last week, Samir Kasliwal overwhelmed me in the best way possible: I lost track of the Golconda diamonds, the 70-ct. Colombian emeralds, the bridal sets, the 22k gold belts, and other treasures that passed before me.

Like the City Palace or Hawa Mahal, aka the Palace of the Winds, considered Jaipur’s signature building, The Gem Palace is an obligatory stop for anyone visiting the Pink City. No self-respecting jeweler should miss it!

Extraordinary diamond necklace from Sanjay Kasliwal/The Gem Palace (also at top)

2. Touring the Gyan Museum

Inside Jaipur’s gem and jewelry zone, you’ll find the factory space for Gem Plaza, founded 30 years ago as a manufacturer of colored stone jewels. Run by Arun Dhaddha, Gem Plaza recently launched its own fine jewelry brand, Gyan Jewels, which specializes in 18k gold gemstone jewels.

Named for Arun’s father, Gyan Chanda Dhaddha, who died in 2004, the brand oversees a fantastic museum that opened in December 2015. It’s an ode to Gyan’s superb collection of very fine, very old things: shisha pipe mouthpieces, Rajasthani block prints, Jain manuscripts, miniature paintings, engraved rifles, embroidered fabrics, 16th-century playing cards, and, of course, antique Indian jewels.

Designed by the French architect Paul Mathieu, the museum is a must-see destination for anyone with a love of history, design, and fine craftsmanship.

Arun Dhaddha at the entrance to the Gyan Museum

The Gyan Museum will amaze you with the breadth of its collection and the serenity of its expertly designed space.

1. Dinner at 1135 AD

Jim and I had the most romantic evening of our lives at this incredible restaurant tucked into the walls of Amer Fort, and it was all thanks to Amrapali’s Tarang Arora. At our Saturday appointment, I’d asked Tarang for a few dinner recommendations. He paused for a second. “I know,” he said. “1135. Let me know when you want to go and I’ll take care of it.”

From the moment we arrived (and were greeted by a shower of red rose petals) to our final goodbye (which involved the chef, the manager, and our charming waiter graciously thanking us for our patronage), we were treated to an experience that Jim and I will be talking about when we’re senior citizens!

The table on our private balcony overlooked the twinkling lights of Amer. Behind us, the imposing façade of Jaigargh Fort rose in stark silhouette. As we feasted on multiple courses of Rajasthani delicacies, two musicians, brothers Rais and Shahrukh Khan, serenaded us with traditional Rajasthani and Arabic love songs from an adjacent terrace.

I am not exaggerating when I say the experience brought tears to my eyes! To top it all off, we learned that Tarang had graciously picked up the check. WOW! Even in a trip filled with so many wonders, I know the memory of this exquisite meal will last a lifetime.

The staff at 1135 AD treated us like maharajas!

JCK Magazine Editor