Ever since His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al Thani of Qatar visited in 2009 the “Maharaja: The Splendour of India’s Royal Courts” exhibition at London’s V & A Museum, the 30-something Sheikh wanted to collect bejeweled Indian treasures. During the following five years, he procured over 6,000 items for what is likely the finest collection of Indian high jewelry in the world. The collection spans 400 years from the rule of the 17th-century Mughal emperors, to the era of the Maharajas, to Cartier’s Art Deco items designed for the Indian elite, and finally, to modern examples that reflect the influence of India on jewelers today. Pieces of The Al Thani Collection have been traveling to museums throughout the world while their permanent home in Paris is being constructed (completion is planned for 2020).
The Legion’s “East Meets West: Jewels of the Maharajas from The Al Thani Collection” contains more than 150 of these precious objects. You’ve never seen anything like the opulence, lavishness, and intricacy of these objects made with rubies, emeralds, diamonds, gold, jade, and pearls. The male rulers wore the most extravagant jewelry and other ceremonial ornamentation to underscore their prestige and power. In the first room of the show, note that the men’s more elaborate adornments are on the right side, while the women’s are on the left.
The Mughal emperors, who were descendants of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, took over most of India in 1526. They soon became a world power by trading Indian diamonds and other gemstones with Europe in exchange for European goods and technology. Louis XIV, for example, bought more than 1000 diamonds from India during his reign. On display is the magnificent Idol’s Eye Diamond, the largest cut blue diamond in the world, weighing 70.21 carats.
The Mughals developed a unique style of art, combining traditional Indian style with Islamic design. They favored emeralds because the green color was considered sacred. Don’t miss the Taj Mahal emerald (1650-1700), which is delicately engraved. Rubies and spinels (another red gemstone), which were thought to improve stamina, were common and were frequently engraved and passed through the generations. The Imperial Spinel Necklace (1607-1755), strung with pearls and emeralds, is a fabulous example.
When the Mughals’ power waned in 1739, the Maharajas took over the rule of India, with help by the British. They lived in lavish palaces and led sumptuous lifestyles. In 1947, when India gained independence, the Maharajas officially lost their rule. But it wasn’t until 1970 that their titles and revenue were abolished. It was considered a sign of power for the male sovereigns to be bejeweled from head to foot with turban ornaments, crowns, earrings, armbands, bracelets, rings, bells, and anklets. Some fascinating items from this era are the Nawangar Turban ornament (1907) with feathers and many brilliant cut diamonds, and the pair of stunning anklets (1800-1850) comprised of gold, white sapphires, pearls, glass beads, and enamel. The bedecked Maharajas rode in great processions with their jeweled elephants. The British had a saying to the effect that women shouldn’t bother to bring jewels to India, as they would be outshone by the elephants.
Toward the 20th century, the Indian rulers began to visit the finest jewelers of Paris and London and adopted the Art Deco style. The spectacular Nawangar ruby necklace (1937) of diamonds, rubies and platinum, originally made for the Maharajah of Nawangar by Cartier was later redone for women. The remarkable Tiger’s Eye turban ornament, also made by Cartier (1937) contains a 61.5-carat tiger’s eye diamond.
“Jewels of the Maharajas from The Al Thani Collection” not only explores the history of a civilization now vanished but also, it is a “can’t miss” exhibit for anyone who appreciates fine gems and the talent and creativity that turns them into works of art.
Emily S. Mendel
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