An exhibition of the Al Thani Collection in San Francisco highlights the currents of mutual admiration and influence that flowed back and forth between Indian and Western jewelry traditions.
In India, it was the men of power, rather than the women, who wore the biggest jewels. Not only elaborate rings but brooches, turban ornaments, bracelets, and necklaces adorned kings, princes, and courtiers of the Muslim and Hindu princely states that predated the British Raj, uneasily coexisted with it, and finally came to an end with the creation of the independent nations of India and Pakistan in 1947. In particular, the members of the Mughal dynasty—descendants of Central Asian Turks who invaded India in the early 16th century and ruled the greater part of it until their decline in the 18th century and demise in the 19th—sported the most magnificent jewels, richly colorful creations that captured the imagination of Western travelers, traders, and jewelers alike.
They also captured the imagination of a modern-day Muslim prince, the very deep-pocketed Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al Thani of Qatar, who has managed to acquire an array of Indian royal jewels, as well as jeweled objets d’art and pieces of ceremonial weaponry, that is unparalleled in today’s world. Originally the collection was a personal quest, inspired by his admiration for the work of two contemporary jewelers, one Indian and one American, and his love for Mughal paintings, which frequently portray jewels and their wearers. However, in the past eight years, the Al Thani trove has grown into a truly comprehensive historical jewel archive which is a source of loans for museum exhibitions and book publications. A major show at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2009–10 revealed to the world a cross-section of the Al Thani collection, using it as means of chronicling the history of taste in India, Britain, and Europe. In 2014–15, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York hosted around 60 pieces in the exhibition “Treasures from India: Jewels From the Al Thani Collection,” and portions of the collection have also been loaned to exhibitions in Paris, Venice, and Kyoto.
On November 3, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco will open “East Meets West: Jewels of the Maharajas from the Al Thani Collection” at the Legion of Honor, showcasing a larger selection of pieces in order to demonstrate how the jewelry arts of the Indian courts both transmitted their influence to Europe and received influences from it, starting at the beginning of the Mughal era and going up through the Art Deco period and right down to the present moment. Organized by Martin Chapman, Curator in Charge of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and Amin Jaffer, Senior Curator of the Al Thani Collection, the exhibition will be on view at the Legion of Honor through February 24, 2019.
“This show is much larger than the Met show and incorporates the collection according to a different agenda,” says Chapman. “It is concerned with the intersection between India and West, as well as with gender roles and their expression though jewelry.” By way of illustration, he points to some of the royal portraits that are included in the exhibition as documentary supplements.” A photograph of Queen Alexandra, the wife of Edward VII, taken on the day of her husband’s coronation as King of England and Emperor of India, shows the queen draped in string upon string of large pearls—a look originated by the Mughal Emperors of India. Although there is political truth and a degree of irony in this look, Alexandra’s act of appropriation doesn’t just reflect the British takeover of India; it reflects the Indian conquest of the world of fashion. A style of jewelry created for Eastern men of power became de rigueur for women of taste in the West and eventually all over the world. The reverse of this gender-to-gender movement (and geographic movement) can be observed in another photo in the exhibition, a portrait of Sir Bhupinder Singh, Maharaja of Patiala, from 1911. The multiple loops of pearls with pendant gems adorning the neck and chest of this modern-day Indian prince, so elaborate that they look almost like a breastplate, were originally made for the jewelry trendsetter Empress Eugénie of France, wife of Napoleon III.
India has long been a source of gemstones—most famously from the mines of Golconda, which supplied most of the diamonds in the world until the modern discovery of diamonds in South America and then in South Africa. Kashmir produced the best sapphires, and Badakhshan the finest spinels. India also occupies a fortunate position at a trade-route crossroads which allowed it to obtain gems from Ceylon and Burma, and pearls from the Persian Gulf. So it is hardly surprising that jewelry has always occupied a special place in the Indian aesthetic cosmos and rose to a level of artistry that is unique. In Hindu culture, each stone had mythic and magical associations with astrological signs and talismanic properties, as well as cultural associations with rank, marital status, and political and military power. Gazing into the depths of a gemstone, one may imagine oneself contemplating a tiny universe; for Indian connoisseurs, this was literally true.
The Mughals, who were Muslim and foreign-descended, assimilated native Indian jewelry and gemological traditions and added touches of their own, deriving not only from the Islamic and Chinese traditions that traveled over the Silk Road. At their court, based in Delhi, the art of jewelry and jewelry appreciation reached a level that is arguably the highest of any culture in the world at any time. In this exhibition, the sense of wonder inspired by Muslin courtly jewelry arts comes through particularly powerfully when viewing the non-wearable objets d’art, such as a rosewater sprinkler from circa 1675–1725 encrusted with rubies, emeralds, and pearls held in a matrix of gold strips, a circa 1740–80 flask from North India or the Deccan made of pure rock crystal with diamonds, rubies, and emeralds set in gold and silver embedded in it, or a magnificent 18th-century figure of a green parrot mounted on a jeweled stand and carrying an emerald in its beak. Another astonishing piece is the Wine Cup of Jahangir, from 1607–08, made of jade on personal commission from the Emperor and covered with ornamental script spelling out Persian poetry and the titles of Jahangir. There is also a profusion of artistry on view in the form of intricately jeweled and enameled sword and knife hilts and scabbards.
The eclectic Mughals also absorbed influences from the West, even at the very beginning of their reign, since Portuguese traders had already set up shop in Goa, on India’s west coast, before the Mughals even established their empire. (In fact, the emeralds so prized by the Mughals were imported to India from Colombia, in South America, by the Portuguese.) Among the European techniques the Mughals made their own was gemstone carving, which, Chapman explains, “is an art that is partly elevated under the influence of the West, as Venetian gem cutters reached India and were working in the trading posts.” The Mughals came to especially favor carved gemstones, particularly emeralds and spinels. These frequently featured Persian and Arabic inscriptions, primarily of a religious nature. Such stones, Chapman says, were worn with the inscription against the skin, since the writing was meant for the wearer, who would thus absorb its beneficent energies. Sometimes they carried inscriptions betokening rank, such as the famous Shah Jahan Emerald, a massive 30.31-carat cabochon-cut stone which is carved with the name and title of the Emperor who built the Taj Mahal (it actually dates from 1621–22, around six years before he became Emperor).
Mughal openness to Western influence extended to gemological technology. The 17th-century French gem merchant Jean-Baptiste Tavernier did a lot of business in Mughal India, helping to create a taste for diamonds in the French court, “establishing the preeminence of diamonds in the West never dreamt of before,” says Chapman. “In a way, Louis XIV is echoing what the Mughals do. Before him, although diamonds are much admired in the West, they are not worn in the same profusion or acquired with the same passion.” At the same time, in the West there came about a change in the way diamonds were cut, prefiguring the modern brilliant cut. “This runs directly counter to the Indian culture, where they polished the existing facets of the stone to preserve the weight, because the value is in the weight,” explains Chapman. “In the West, they took an approach that is, in a way, braver. Working with the principles of reflection and refraction, which is a different science, they lose weight and gain sparkle, proportion, and symmetry.” This approach to cutting caught on with the Mughal emperors, especially Jahangir and Shah Jahan. “At the height of its confidence, the Mughal Empire is outward-looking—toward other cultures, toward Western technology and innovations,” says Chapman. “Diamond culture is part of this.”
With the decline of Mughal and other native Indian power in the 19th century, Western influence on Indian court jewelry became stronger and stronger. Some maharajas, as we have seen, were quite happy to wear pieces that had been designed for Western women, and many had their own traditional Indian pieces sent to Europe to be reset or recast in Western styles. The French jeweler Cartier became the go-to source for this, and it was Cartier that ushered in the next phase of the often paradoxical and ironic history of cultural interchange between India and Europe in the arena of jewelry. In the 1920s and ’30, during the Art Deco period, Cartier (and other jewelers) created completely new and in many ways modernistic designs that incorporated influences from traditional Indian courtly jewelry. For example, multicolored arrays of carved gemstones became the basis for Cartier’s iconic “tutti-frutti” style, so called because of its perceived resemblance to hard candies.
In the 21st century, contemporary art jewelers are taking inspiration from older Indian styles and even techniques, and the San Francisco exhibition ends with a section on their work. When the Sheikh Al Thani started his collection, he was particularly enthused by the American-born, Paris-based craftsman JAR (Joel Arthur Rosenthal) and the Mumbai-based Indian jeweler Bhagat. Both are interested in Indian approaches to gem cutting that go against the prevailing practice of geometric faceting. In search of this look, JAR has incorporated historic stones into his pieces, some of which also draw on classic Indian motifs. Bhagat uses custom-cut flat diamonds in his work, which is more modernist and even minimalist in style, while adhering to the ancient Indian technique of kundan, or setting gems in almost invisible settings. With these artists, the East-West circle closes—or at least takes one more turn.
By John Dorfman