The remarkable collection of jewels, jeweled artefacts and jades from the Al Thani Collection has graced New York, Moscow and now London. Since November of last year, over one hundred items from the extraordinary collection have been on view at the Victoria & Albert Museum for the exhibition Bejewelled Treasures: The Al Thani Collection.
Exhibiting at the V&A brings the collection full circle, for it was there that the seeds for the collection were first planted. In 2009, Sheik Hamad bin Abdullah Al-Thani saw Maharajah, an exhibition about India’s royal courts curated by Dr. Amin Jaffer, the International Director of Asian Art at Christie’s, and Al-Thani found himself inspired to begin his own collection by buying items that he really loved. Thereafter, he started acquiring the rarefied pieces that form his collection today.
Considered one of the most important and comprehensive collections of Indian jewelry in the world today, the Al Thani collection features numerous Indian-made, and Indian-inspired, pieces ranging in date from the early 17th century to the present day. There are objects from the collections of the Nizams of Hyderabad, jades made for Mughal emperors, famous Art Deco jewels from prestigious maisons such as Cartier, and contemporary creations by renowned jewelers JAR and Bhagat. Each piece serves to illustrate the cross-cultural exchanges between India and the West throughout history.
The exhibition begins with The Treasury, where the founding of the royal treasuries of India and classification of precious gemstones is examined. The section also compares the difference in gem classification between earlier Indian customs according to Sanskrit treatises and 16th century Iranian traditions, the latter shaping the culture of the Persian-speaking elite and thus the Mughal court. Whereas diamond, pearl, ruby, sapphire and emerald comprised the top tier in India, it is the deep red spinels found in Central Asia that are considered the most valuable at the Mughal court from the late 16th century.
Among the jewels in this section is the famous ‘Timur Ruby,’ which is not a ruby at all but a very large engraved spinel of 352.5 carats; the ‘Arcot II’ diamond, one of two diamond drops originally weighing 33.7 and 23.65 carats, respectively, given to Queen Charlotte by Muhammad Ali Wallajah, Nawab of Arcot, the loyal ally of the British and controller of the famous Golconda diamond mines; the ‘Idol’s Eye’, a 70.21-carat light blue diamond that has passed through the hands of leading diamond dealers Salmon Habib, Harry Winston, Robert Mouawad and Laurence Graff; and the Indore sapphire, a roughly 27 carat faceted sapphire once owned by Yeshwant Rao Holkar II of Indore.
The next section, The Court, explores the lasting influence of Mughal rule on the arts and jeweled objects of India beginning in the late 16th century. Jewel-encrusted fly whisks, gold thrones, long necklaces of precious stones, and turban ornaments highlight the opulence of the Mughal court at the height of its power during the 17th century.
Enamel is an important aspect of Indian jewelry, one whose origins are examined in Kundan & Enamel. Developed by Mughal court goldsmiths in the late 16th century, this new style combines two techniques: setting precious stones using pure gold, or ‘kundan’, into ornaments and opulent artefacts and then adding detailed enamel to the back or inner surfaces of those objects. This distinct style remains popular in traditional Indian jewelry to this day.
Changes arrived during the political upheavals of the 18th and early 19th centuries, as the segment Age of Transition illustrates. Jewelry making became increasingly more commercialized, particularly after the establishment of British rule in 1858. The Western influence could be seen in the European styles and techniques adopted by Indian craftsmen as well as the incorporation of Western-cut stones, whose open European settings eventually replaced the closed settings of kundan jewelry. The commercialization of Indian jewelry allowed jewelers to sell to a wide network of patrons, from Europeans in the West to the Sikh maharajas in the far north of the Indian subcontinent, ultimately further expanding their unique craft.
The most impressive section, Modernity and India, highlights the continued artistic exchanges between India and the West in the early 20th century. This time, it is the Indian style that serves as a major source of inspiration at the dawn of the Art Deco era. Between the Indian motifs incorporated into Western designs and Indian princely patrons favoring Western jewelry, the popularity of Indian influences was ever present. Leading jewelers readily embraced the exotic culture, but the most famous of them all was Cartier. When Jacques Cartier visited India in 1911, he purchased large emeralds carved in India, as well as other carved precious stones, which he brought back to Paris and London to be set in the latest jewelry designs. This revolutionary idea sparked a wave of design influence across Europe.
Famous jewels in this section include a Ballets Russes-inspired carved emerald brooch with diamonds, pearls and sapphires designed by Paul Iribe in 1910; the turban aigrette of the Maharaja of Nawanagar, circa 1935; several spectacular Art Deco jewels by Cartier; and a ring set with the Indore ruby, by Mauboussin, circa 1930s.
The exhibition concludes with Contemporary Masters, where the style influences of India continue to inspire today’s jewelers in new, innovative ways. Inimitable creations by JAR and Bhagat find new frontiers for Indian motifs in modern jewels, combining traditional elements in cutting edge compositions as well as unconventional gem cuts. The thread of artistic influence from India can be seen over centuries of jewelry design and continues to weave well into those of the 21st century.
Bejewelled Treasures: The Al Thani Collection
November 21, 2015 – March 28, 2016
Victoria & Albert Museum – London