The discovery of billions of dollars worth of coins, silver, gold and gems in a Hindu temple in southern Indian last year was dazzling and amazing, but hardly shocking. After all, Indians have always had a flair for jewellery. And now demand is booming again, as economic growth in the region drives an increasing number of clients to seek out exclusive local ateliers.
The love of adornment in India runs deep. Precious stones and metals carry religious connotations - gold represents the sun and immortality; silver, the moon. Nine gemstones represent the planets in Indian astrology and are considered sacred, the diamond being the most revered. Regardless of wealth, most members of society own some sort of jewellery, be it a simple gold-plated bangle or a diamond-encrusted tiara. At many of India's extravagant traditional weddings, it is a wonder that some of the women - and often even the men - can stand upright with all of the jewellery they are wearing.
Emerald and Diamond Bhagat Earrings.
The history of jewellery in India goes back about 5,000 years. The Mughals, perhaps the most ostentatious of India's rulers, were famed for their bedazzling appearance. They possessed some of the world's best stones, and many productive gold mines were based in India during the height of their rule in the early 1800s. The Maharajas became enthusiastic clients of European jewellers, and the houses of Boucheron, Fabergé, Cartier, Jaeger-LeCoultre and Van Cleef and Arpels were only too happy to comply.
When the British colonised India, the Mughals lost much of their power and even more of their jewels. When Queen Victoria was declared Empress of India in 1877, for example, the Koh-i-Noor diamond - once the largest known diamond in the world - was seized and placed among the British Crown Jewels. It is currently set in the Crown of Elizabeth II. Many exquisite Mughal pieces were melted down or reset, refashioned for European tastes. For a while, fine Indian jewellery seemed to fade into obscurity.
However, with the economic rise of the subcontinent, demand is booming once more. This time, exclusive local ateliers are being sought out by a growing number of customers who can afford the very best jewels that the world's mines have to offer.
One such fine artisan is Viren Bhagat. Bhagat produces 60 to 70 unique pieces for clients per year in seven workshops located throughout Mumbai. His creative process, which can last up to ten years for a single item, begins with a sketch. He then seeks out the right stones with which to adorn the item. He considers his creations to be no different than a sculpture or other piece of art. The results are rings, necklaces and bracelets that have a distinctly Indian elegance and traces of a Mughal past. This comes as no surprise - Bhagat is clearly inspired by Indian art, architecture, painting and textiles, especially those from the 16th and 17th centuries. Some pieces, such as his sapphire and diamond earrings, appear so heavily loaded with jewels that one wonders how they don't rip the wearer's ears to shreds. Yet upon picking them up at a lucky private collector's home, they are actually as light as the sparkles of sunshine that they send flickering across my fingers.
There were a few local houses at the time of the British invasion whose skill and aesthetic could match the best work to come out of Paris and Geneva. One such atelier was C. Krishniah Chetty & Sons. Two decades after its founding in 1869, this atelier became "Jeweller to the Royal Court" of the Maharaja of Mysore. The Maharaja's preferred bejewelled motif was the double-headed eagle, now the official symbol of the state of Karnataka. The company survived the decline of the Mughal era, British colonisation and through to eventual Indian independence. Thanks to the current economic boom, demand for the jeweller's intricate gem work is thriving once again today. Now in its sixth generation, C. Krishniah Chetty has recently teamed up with the De Beers group of companies to launch a high-end luxury diamond brand in India called "Forevermark."
The range will be out of reach for most, but not everyone who purchases fine jewellery is a VVRP (an industry term for a Very Very Rich Person - several levels above your run-of-the-mill VIP). Luckily, there are other craftsmen who cater to the market of mere mortals. Amrapali, for example, prices their jewellery at no higher than US$150,000. This falls far below the million dollar price tags of most other fine jewellers, yet is still high enough to appeal to luminaries like Penelope Cruz, Sandra Bullock and Jennifer Lopez, along with a full constellation of Bollywood stars. Once again, there are echoes of India's Mughal past, with the marriage of traditional Hindu style and Muslims motifs. The British have had their influence here as well - there is a range of Victorian-themed jewels - but the emphasis remains on local flavour. Whether their more traditional, ornately-crafted accessories or their sleeker, more modern range of simple, single gem pieces, Amrapali's message is still clearly: "we are Indian."
And why not? With such magnificently talented homegrown jewellers, modern-day Maharajas need look west no longer - it seems that the best jewellery ateliers are now firmly established in India.
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