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
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.
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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
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
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
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