Jewellery has formed an auspicious and important part of Indian society and history for over 5,000 years. Spanning India’s rich cultural history, numerous different techniques, gemstones and designs have been utilized in the resulting in distinct regional styles of personal adornment. Solid gold jewellery with an inspiration from the natural world for example was typical of Kerala and Tamil Nadu regions, whilst silver beads have traditionally been popular in Rajasthan, Pradesh and Gujarat. The Manipuri region habitually saw teeth, shells and animal claws incorporated into jewellery design. The dawn of the Mughal Empire era however, brought about a wave of cultural change that was reflected in a rapturous appreciation for artistry, treasures and fine jewellery. The Mughal artistic traditional borrowed from Iranian, Indian, Chinese and Renaissance European styles, resulting in magnificent and opulent creations of personal adornment.
Ruling from 1526 to 1857, the Mughal era was established by Babur the Conqueror, a descendant of the great Turkish-Mongolian general Tamerlane. First settling in Bikaner in the state of Rajasthan, Mughal Royalty formed coalitions with Northern Rajput rulers, often via Rajput-Mughal marriage arrangements. During this period of rule, jewellery became the ultimate articulation of status, power and wealth. Sumptuary Laws ensured that only the upper echelons could wear particular elaborate styles that were intricately detailed with enamel, diamonds, and gems. Jewellery making flourished with everything from turban pins, to huqqas to toe rings being wildly embellished and proudly displayed.
Much like traditional Indian jewellery, the Moghuls also appreciated the auspicious nature of jewellery. Navaratna jewellery for example was popular during the era, worn by a Maharajah as a symbol of his divine power. Referring to jewellery design details with nine different gemstones to symbolize the power of nine Hindu deities, it was believed the wearer would be protected from evil influence and illness, instead encouraging prosperity and longevity. The nine stones used were diamond, emerald, ruby, pearl sapphire, cat’s eye chrysoberyl, topaz, coral, and yellow sapphire.
The Meenakari enameling technique was popular during the Moghul era, likely developed after the viewing of European Renaissance jewels at the Imperial court. The technique itself is complex, involving variously coloured enamels, each painstakingly applied and individually fired. The designs were often intricate depictions of flora and fauna. Whilst conventional Rajput jewellery had predominantly centered around ancient scriptures and Hindu gods, a strong Iranian influence of the Mughal empire saw a gravitation towards floral enamel designs.
Kundan gem setting was another technique employed in Mughal style jewellery, originating from the royal courts of Rajasthan and Gujarat. It is an elaborate process which begins with a skeletal framework which is set with wax. The precious gemstones are then set into the wax design and finished with high carat gold leaf to hold the stones in place. As a final step, the stones are polished to create a dazzling effect.
The techniques of Kundan, Jadau, Meeakari and Lacquer continued to flourish well into the 19th century and continue to be utilized in contemporary jewellery design. A spectacular collection of Indian jewellery will be presented at auction at 10am on Thursday 29th of August.
Bethany McGougan, Head of Fine Jewels & Timepieces