Indian Jewelry

Fifty years in the tortuous 5,000-year history of India is but a teardrop in the Arabian Sea. Despite chaos during the past five decades – the assassinations of two leaders, religious and political conflicts in certain regions, a tragic toxic gas leak at Bhopal – a half-century of freedom that began at midnight on Aug. 14, 1947, in this world’s most populous democracy (about 950 million people) is cause for celebration. Enchantment with India lives on.

The fascination with India that was sparked around the world over 10 years ago by the films Gandhi and A Passage to India, along with the television treasure “The Jewel in the Crown,” has been rekindled. This year, exhibits and programs in museums and institutions in the U.S. and abroad focus on India’s rich culture: antique carpets, 16th to 19th century court paintings, dance, textiles and jewels. At the forefront of these events was the arrival this summer of the dazzling book Traditional Jewelry of India by Oppi Untracht.

Three major events in London in October will top off the Indian celebrations. After a four-month blockbuster showing at the Metro-politan Museum in New York City, “Cartier 1900-1939,” a major exhibition on the jewelry designed by the House of Cartier will open at the British Museum on Oct. 3. It will remain in London until Feb. 1, 1998. Included in the exhibit are many pieces influenced by Indian motifs.

Christie’s will hold two auctions of Indian jewelry in London. On Oct. 7, Christie’s South Kensington branch will hold a sale of 150 pieces with presale estimates ranging from $500 to $15,000. A second auction, featuring 150 pieces with presale estimates of $10,000 and up, will take place Oct. 8 at Christie’s King Street.

These events will attract an international glitterati of socialites, royalty and the American, European and Indian film stars who have replaced the maharajas on the glamour scale in India since princely power waned and privy purses (government allowances) disappeared.

Before raising a paddle to bid at Christie’s, it would behoove buyers to view the magnificent Cartier exhibition at the British Museum (if you missed it in New York City) and to take a long look at Traditional Jewelry of India. The book is a monumental work on a monumental subject. The complexity of enigmatic India, the vastness of the country and the magnitude of the subject may account for the short shrift western jewelry historians have given Indian jewelry until now.

Untracht, a jewelry designer and an expert on making jewelry, was dauntless in setting this matter straight. The author, an American who makes his home in Finland, researched his subject for 35 years, living in various areas of India for a total of six years. The result is weighty.

Traditional Jewelry of India contains more than 400 pages and more than 800 illustrations, including 220 color plates. The text is readable, backed by scholarly research, the author’s knowledge of the subject, a sense of fantasy of the India that is no more and the mystery and mystique surrounding present-day India.

Untracht tackles 5,000 years of self-ornamentation on the subcontinent – from the Stone Age to the present. The book explores Paleolithic mud and ash body painting and dye tattooing. It details ornaments such as shells, seeds, feathers, beads and flowers. It chronicles the Moghul period from 1526 to 1862, when extravaganzas of luscious jewels and miles of pearl roping were entwined on maharajas, their courtiers and retinues of jewel-bedecked elephants, camels and horses. Photographs and paintings of lavish jewels and extravagant ceremonies offer a glimpse of what life might have been like for the rich and royal of India, a very small part of the populace.

Untracht explores the Hindu contribution to jewelry design, the concept of Temple Jewelry – jewelry for weddings and rituals. He also documents the era from the end of the 19th century until independence from the British in 1947, a period known as The Raj, when there were 565 princely states of various sizes with maharajas, nawabs, princes, rajas and their heirs with fortunes of various sizes.

The completion of the Suez Canal in 1869 shortened travel time between Europe and India and the Indian princes discovered a new playground among the fashionable jewelers of Europe – Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Chaumier and Boucheron. Europeans welcomed these exotic easterners into their salons and tried in a subdued, Victorian way to emulate their colorful guests. A cross-fertilization of Euro-Indian design began to take place.

The Indians had their massive jewelry restyled and lightened along more sophisticated lines. The Europeans enlivened Victorian pieces with colored gems or had Indian pieces, such as a guluband or Indian choker, adapted for their wear.

World influence

For centuries jewels came into India from many directions. The Portuguese brought gems from their colonies in Brazil to Goa in western India. European jewels came over caravan trade routes or by ship around Africa. The Spanish shipped Mexican and South American booty across the Pacific through the Orient to India. Many gems were called Philippine stones because the Philippine Islands were often the last port of call on the treacherous Pacific journeys.

The famous Golconda diamond mines in India were said to have produced 12 million carats of diamonds before giving out. The princes had masses of them. They were fascinated with faceting and carried uncut stones to Europe to be cut and polished. They brought along giant tumbled emeralds, carved emeralds, Kashmir sapphires, pigeon-blood rubies from Burma – all so big they astounded the Europeans.

There were buckets of pearls from the Red and Arabian Seas. And there were trinkets. The maharani of Baroda was said to have smoked cigars in a ruby holder, while the maharani of Cooch Behar used a gold tongue scraper.

Indian stones were reset, sold, traded and fashioned into wearable jewelry. The Indian turban ornament, a sarpech and the European aigrette, a feather first worn on a hat and later in one’s hair, were a natural marriage. Victorians adored them.

The opening scene of Martin Scorsese’s 1993 film The Age of Innocence, shows Victorian ladies in their opera box. Prim May Welland wears a delicate necklace that might have been inspired by an Indian har – pearls interlaced with gold units.

The camera pans to the ear and hair and neck of the Countess Olenska, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, who wears a crescent moon and stars of diamonds in her tresses. The sensuous ornament is an interpretation of an Indian sarpech more than an English aigrette.

The Maharaja Jugatjit Singh of Kapurthala had one of the legendary collections of emeralds in India. A Suez commuter, the maharaja owned a house in the Bois de Boulonge. He took a French architect back to India to build for him a replica of Versailles in Kapurthala. In 1928 His Highness asked Pierre Cartier to create a new sarpech for his turban. The finished piece contained 15 large emeralds, four smaller ones, 16 lustrous pearls and masses of diamonds. It was so impressive European nobles made special visits to Cartier on the Rue de la Paix to view the glorious ornament.

David Warren, director of Christie’s jewelry department in London, visited India as a tourist years ago. “Just long enough to feel the thrill of India and fall in love with Indian art,” he says. More recently, he visited New York City scouting for antique Indian jewelry for Christie’s sale. “It’s difficult to find pieces over 100 years old in mint condition. They must also come with the proper documentation or we’re not interested. I’ve been working on this sale for two years.”

“Jewelry, like everything else in India, is astonishing,” says Geoffrey Ward, noted historian/biographer and author of “India: Fifty Years of Independence,” the May 1997 National Geographic cover story.

“When I was growing up in India in the ’50s there was a lot of Indian jewelry available. The variety was incredible. Pieces that my father gave my mother weren’t ostentatious or expensive,” he says. “As a boy I was fascinated by the way Indians decorated themselves from head to toe. I discovered later that self-ornamentation, no matter what the material, is an ancient tradition woven into every aspect of Indian life: religion, family, economics, politics and social structure. It runs very deep. Jewelry is used to impress. It commands respect. It makes a statement of power.”

Power can melt like ice cubes in the Indian sun. After World War II, princes who understood their time of splendor was over – or those who needed to finance fantasies that it was not – called on their European jewelers, knowing they would be discreet and minimize the loss of face that would accompany the sale of their jewels.

In his New York City office on Fifth Avenue, Claude Arpels once recalled the time he represented Van Cleef & Arpels for such a sale. After days of social activities without a glimpse of the jewels or his hosts, Arpels waited in the palace of the Maharaja Sahib Bahadur of Rewa for an indication they would negotiate. It was finally announced they would all visit the Palace of the White Tiger.

In his journal Arpels wrote: “The courtyard was covered with jewels of every hue. I was momentarily blinded by their brilliance. Emeralds of every shape and size lay side by side with diamonds that reflected the colors of the sapphires and rubies. Jeweled daggers with elephant-head-studded hilts, enameled anklets and bracelets too heavily studded to be worn, tiaras for coronations and pendants of every possible design were on view.

“The experience was not without pathos. His highness seemed to be living for a few moments in the glamorous past.”

When I met Claude Arpels some years ago, he showed me a glorious pair of earrings Van Cleef & Arpels had fashioned with 10-ct. briolette emeralds. Two stones had been cut from one pear-shaped tumbled gem that had once hung among the clusters around the edges of a turban belonging to a prince of Nepal.

Discreetly, the jewelry company had placed a picture of the prince wearing the turban rimmed with emeralds safely out of sight in a back room.

It could be said that old gems fade away, but many of them reappear – different perhaps in a different time and a different world – saved by the omnipotent power of their beauty.