Indian court jewellery

A new exhibition at the V&A may showcase an unrivalled gem collection, but owning even a few pieces makes the spine tingle, says Vivienne Becker

20th-century gold, carved-ruby, diamond and emerald sarpech from Samina
20th-century gold, carved-ruby, diamond and emerald sarpech from Samina

In 1616, Sir Thomas Roe, British ambassador to the Mughal court described the emperor Jahangir as “the treasury of the world”, so lavishly laden was he with sumptuous gems and jewels. Ever since – through the 17th century, when French gem-merchant-adventurer Tavernier brought Indian diamonds back to the Sun King; the 19th century, when the Koh-I-Noor fell into the British Crown Jewel box; and the 20th century, when bejewelled maharajahs frequented London and Paris – the west has indulged in a long-standing love affair with Indian court jewellery. Today, a renewed fascination with the artisanship and spirituality of these jewels has nurtured an enthusiastic collectors’ market – one that has been especially vibrant in the past couple of years, says Netherlands-based Bernadette Van Gelder, who has dealt in Indian jewels for 35 years, and shows annually at TEFAF.

Samina Khanyari, London dealer in rare Indian jewelled arts, agrees: “New collectors mean fabulous prices are being achieved for fine pieces, which is persuading owners, often princely Indian families, to sell.” The most high profile of those new collectors, Sheikh Hamad Al Thani, has spent the past five years assembling a superb collection, some of which is being exhibited in November in Bejewelled Treasures: the Al Thani Collection, at London’s V&A. Such shows, says Benedict Carter, Sotheby’s head of auction sales for Middle East and Indian art, have also contributed to an increased appreciation of Indian court jewellery.

18th-century gold, pearl, ruby, emerald and enamel (back) armband, £17,500, from Samina
18th-century gold, pearl, ruby, emerald and enamel (back) armband, £17,500, from Samina | Image: Keith Davey/Prudence Cuming Associates

The jewelled magnificence of the Mughal courts, particularly in the 17th century, under the leadership of Jahangir and his son Shah Jahan, means pieces from this era are most sought after. They are also the rarest. Renowned for fluidity of line, floral ornamentation and richness of materials, they set the benchmark in terms of style and craftsmanship. “The 17th century is a key area,” says Christie’s senior international jewellery director David Warren. “A fine, authentic Moghul jewel sends a tingle down your spine, but you’d need at least £10,000. A jade, gem-set archer’s – or thumb – ring might start at around £50,000, but these beautiful works are a good investment.”

However, London-based property magnate Nasser D Khalili vehemently states that buying for financial gain “is the enemy of any collector”. He has one of the world’s two most spectacular and comprehensive collections of Mughal jewels, the other being that of Sheikh Nasser al-Sabah of Kuwait. The Khalili collection spans the 17th to the 20th centuries, a highlight of which are exquisite thumb rings in gem-set jade and rock crystal. Khalili believes the strength of Indian jewelled art lies in its “soulful” artistry. His collection is also rich in carved emeralds, among the most prized of collectors’ items, which came to India from Colombia. London-based dealer Sue Ollemans has a 17th-century, 56ct emerald carved in a flowing foliate design and set in a 19th‑ century diamond-accented ring (£60,000).

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Also treasured by collectors are 17th‑ century wine-coloured spinels in pebble shapes, especially if engraved with names and titles of Mughal rulers in Timurid custom. In May 2014 at Christie’s Geneva, a necklace composed of seven rare spinel beads engraved with names and dates of Mughal emperors sold for nearly $1.8m.

Diamonds, meanwhile, first discovered in India’s legendary Golconda mines, were traditionally either polished to keep their natural shape or, for more important stones, cut flat, with a broad “table” facet and smaller faceting around the edges. (Bernadette Van Gelder has a c1900 necklace, €98,000, Kundan-set with table-cut diamonds.) This, says Warren, can be a “reassuring” sign of authenticity.

18th-century enamelled and gem-set navaratna necklace, sold for £15,000 at Sotheby’s
18th-century enamelled and gem-set navaratna necklace, sold for £15,000 at Sotheby’s

After the 17th century, jewels were often enamelled on the side that touched the skin. Floral designs in brilliant red and green on a white ground were typical of Jaipur work, while more esoteric pale‑pink enamels were the speciality of Benares (Varanasi). London dealer Simon Ray says the finesse of enamelwork can be an indicator of date – the whiter, the earlier the piece, while later pieces look creamier. A superb, early-18th‑century bazuband (£17,500), worn on the upper arm, available at Samina, is set at the front with Golconda diamonds, and ornamented on the reverse with enamelled red flowers and green foliage on a white background. This piece also shows the Kundan style of gem setting, where the stones are enclosed in gold cups – one of the most distinctive features of Indian court jewellery.

Buyers who want Mughal jewels may first look at 17th‑century pieces and only later gravitate towards those of the 18th and 19th century due to scarcity and cost, says Ray, but these can be extremely attractive and wearable, and found, he says, for £2,500-£6,000. He currently has an impressive 19th-century gold bangle set with table-cut sapphires, decorated with Makara heads (a mythological creature) and richly enamelled in brilliant red for £5,800. At Sotheby’s, however, Carter says the £236,500 paid last October for a spectacular mid-19th-century diamond and enamelled khanti (ceremonial necklace) is evidence of the appreciation for 19th-century jewels.

19th-century gold, sapphire, ruby and enamel bangle, £5,800, from Simon Ray
19th-century gold, sapphire, ruby and enamel bangle, £5,800, from Simon Ray | Image: Simon Ray, London

For buyer-wearers, understanding the spiritual element is key. Faceted, wedge-shaped amuletic taweez beads and navaratnas jewels composed of nine coloured stones representing the planets and their influences are especially sought after. Last October a decorative navaratna necklace sold at Sotheby’s for £15,000.

Meanwhile, traditional jewels like the nath (nose ring) or sarpech (palm-shaped turban ornament) tend to appeal to purist collectors, says Ray. Samina recently sold a lavish early-20th‑century sarpech made from gold and set with 17th-century Mughal-carved Burmese rubies, diamonds and emeralds, and currently has an 18th-century gold, silver and rock-crystal design (£16,000). Meanwhile, Bernadette Van Gelder has a gold 19th-century Benares/Lucknow nath (€22,500) set with rubies, turquoise and pearls.

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But whatever your taste, style or pocket, Khalili advises would-be collectors of Indian jewels not only to research the subject but to “listen to your heart. If you’re attracted by colour, shape or form, this is the soul of the work talking to you.” Blended with sumptuousness, he says, soul is what makes Indian jewellery “one of the wonders of the world”.

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