maharaja history

The Mughal period lasted roughly from 1570 to 1857. It is generally considered the time of ultimate expression of artistry and magnificence in the Indian subcontinent. The Mughals were of Persian and Mongolian descent, including ancestry to the great Genghis Kahn. Much of the jewelry on this site is reminiscent of and inspired by the extraordinary wealth of these Mughal Maharajas.

The first dynasty starts with Jalaluddin Akbar (1556-1605), who brought a cultural identity from the area now known as Iran when he invaded and conquered much of the Indian subcontinent. The last Mughal Maharaja was Bahadur Shah who was disposed by the British after the tragic Indian rebellion in 1857.

In 1575 Akbar built Fatehpur Shikri (Giant Palace), and welcomed Hindu’s Moslems, Jains Christians, Zoroastrians, Parsis, and others. He ruled with utmost religious tolerance and intellectual curiosity. His grandson, Shah Jahan, epitomizes the golden age of Mughal aesthetic with his creation of the Taj Mahal, a temple honoring his deceased wife.

Early Portuguese and Dutch explorers embarked on trading expeditions and made contacts with the Maharajas but were unable to probe deeply into the continent. It wasn’t until the British East India Company solidified its presence that the vast riches of the Maharajas were truly understood. In the 17th and 18th centuries and the first half of the 19th century, the Maharajas were the most sumptuous, richest and bejeweled people on the planet. Gems, pearls and gold were the world’s ultimate commodities in an age when futures markets and stock portfolios did not exist.

The world’s most productive mines were located in India and its surrounding territories. Worldwide gold deposits found between 1848 and 1859 (Yukon, Colorado, California, etc.) greatly added to the supply of gold. An extraordinarily large percentage of this gold went to India to satisfy the demands of the Maharajas. They sold their jewels to pay for the gold, but kept the best gems for themselves.

Through the influence of the East India Company and the military might of the English Empire, India became an English colony in 1858, signifying the end of Mughal Era. A great deal of jewelry and gems were sent to England as tribute. However, the influence of the Mughals did not go away, despite the title of Maharaja becoming only symbolic and no longer powerful. By the early 20th century and in particular after the first World War, the Maharaja’s influence seemed to regain strength and importance as the British Empire diminished. Many Maharajas were educated in the West, and there is a period of intermingling between East and West on a very luxurious and grand scale.

This lasted until 1947, when India regained its independence from the British crown. The new democratic government of Nehru and Indira Gandhi did not favor the personal excesses and extravagances of the Maharajas. Taxes were levied, and their jewels became nationalized. However, many were smuggled out and most found their way to the United States in the 1950s-70s through auction houses or dealers such as Harry Winston. Many of the opulent necklaces and turban ornaments were broken up for pieces with a more discreet Western utility. back to top

 

court jewels

Because India has always had an abundant source of gems, the courts of rulers have been resplendent with adornment. Marco Polo and other explorers made reference to these riches. Additionally, emperors and Maharajas were in the habit of wearing the largest gems and covering themselves in gemstones and jewelry as a display of power and wealth, and also to show a deep-rooted cultural appreciation and love for jewelry.

The early courts of Akbar were awash in gems. When Portuguese—and later English—officers were presented at court, they were stunned by the magnitude of the riches. The accounts of excess became legendary in the West.

Only Maharajas, Mughal lords and their immediate consorts could wear jewelry. Much was produced, but it did not spread widely to the citizenry until the slow demise of the Mughal Empire during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. back to top

 

social/religious

The precious metals of gold and silver play an important role in Indian belief structures. According to Hindu belief, gold represents the sun and immortality. Silver represents the moon. According to the Hindu explanation of the creation of the universe, a sphere was split in two; half was gold for the heavens, half was silver for the Earth.

Gold was desired for nearly every rite of passage from birth to death, and was particularly esteemed for marriage. Gold jewelry originally was not allowed to be worn on one's feet, so as not to disrespect the sacred metal.

Gemstones also played an important role, and all gems carried significant spiritual weight. Most courts needed an astrologer to advise on the most auspicious days to wear various types of gemstones. This was also true for the purchasing or selling of gems. Nine gemstones were considered sacred, each one representing a planet in Indian astrology. Diamonds were the most important gem in this group. The nine-stone pendant, or navaratna, is the most sacred type of jewelry. It is typically a square pendant with eight semi-precious stones around the edge and a diamond in the center.

Various medical conditions were considered enhanced or blocked with the assistance of the proper gemstone. Jewelry was capable of influencing the destiny of individuals, and it also played an important role in courtship for attracting lovers and enhancing sexual attraction and performance.

We seldom see sapphires, as these were associated with Saturn. Undesirable outcomes could forsake the wearer if worn on an inauspicious day. back to top

 

scarcity

There are extremely few pieces of jewelry that preceded the 18th century. It has been the custom of Maharajas to rework pieces into grander or more modern styling. Thus, many of the finest older pieces have been cannibalized; the gold melted down, and the stones reset. We tend to rely on jewelry that presents itself through sculpture and painting to understand ancient jewelry origins. It is typically the desire of Maharajas to pass down their jewelry from generation to generation. Due to changing economic conditions, however, their pieces are often sold off to Europe and the Americas where they are most certainly reworked into Western motifs.

This was particularly true in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as many of the Maharajas have fancied the work of Western designers. It is known that many commissioned houses such as Cartier, Fabergé, Van Cleef and Arpels, Boucheron, Garrard, Chaumet, and Chaupard rework as well as create new pieces from trunks of materials. Additionally, domestic Indian jewelry houses were asked to make pieces with Western elements as commissions for princes. Claw, or prong, settings are found in items such as turban adornments instead of the more traditional Kundan settings.

Simultaneously there was a movement to restore and maintain the aesthetic and style of traditional Indian Maharaja jewelry. In the late 19th century during the popularity of the Arts and Crafts movement espoused by William Morris and others, irregularly shaped diamonds and traditional Indian settings were lauded and had influence on Western jewelry design. back to top