Take a trip down India's gemological history

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Take a trip down Indias gemological history
Deepali Sawlani stands beside a famous painting of Maharani Gayatri Devi in Rajput Room at Rambagh Palace in Jaipur.

Gems, once resigned only to royalty, now embody a substantial part of India's cultural identity

By Melissa Randhawa

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Published: Sat 26 Jan 2019, 3:57 PM

Last updated: Mon 28 Jan 2019, 2:45 PM

For over 5,000 years, India's gem wealth orchestrated a nexus between its economic and artistic boom, thereby leading its kingdoms to realise unmatched pinnacles in the realm of jewels and gems. The subcontinent of India, which was richly and extraordinarily endowed with precious and semi-precious stones, married rather fortuitously with its handsome supply of craftsmen and ambitious royalty.

In recent times, this charismatic appeal for jewellery had swelled into Indian traditions and become a significant marker of cultural identity. Today, India's sophisticated gemological tradition and the artistry of its jewellery makers are gaining wider appreciation, and jewels from the Indian subcontinent are attracting a growing collectors market.

In just few years, a late emir from the Middle East had amassed one of the world's most impressive collections of Indian gemstones and jewelled objects, and more than 100 of them were on display during 2015 and 2016 at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The sheikh's collection, which was first exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in fall 2014, was inspired by the 2009 Maharaja exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum - where he had fallen in love with the jewelled arts of the Mughal era.

Gems and their collective significance
It must be noted that the Sanskrit word for gem is ratna which means 'bestowed'. The ruby stone, which was allied to the sun, is one of the nine gems to adorn an amulet called navratna. At one time, this ultimate symbol of status was worn exclusively by kings and royalty in order to denote their power and continuous prosperity.

In fact, amethysts, beryls, cat's-eye chrysoberyl, garnets, pearls, moonstones, sapphires and topazes were also mined from the southern part of India and the island of Sri Lanka, which also produced rubies. In northern Afghanistan, a fine selection of red spinels became highly prized for their size and intensity that overpowered the transparency of rubies and garnets.

In addition, folklore shaped its traditions of royal jewels through the practical advice it offered to kings. For almost two thousand years, India was the world's sole supplier of diamonds. The region located at the north of Maabar is home to the famous and finest Golconda diamond mines, cementing India's repute for being the only known source of diamonds at the close of the 13th century.

Gold - a jeweller's precious ally
It is easy to imagine how this unparalleled gem wealth presented India with an immense power to purchase gold. Gold, which is a sacred metal, was and still remains a favoured setting upon which to lay out and adorn many precious gems. Jewellery makers traditionally set stones in the kundan style, where tiny strips of highly refined gold are pushed around the stones to keep them in place.

History has noted that in the first century AD, a Roman philosopher and army commander named Pliny the Elder had complained about Rome's outflow of bullion to pay for pearls and gems imported from India. Over 1,600 years later, an Italian visitor to India discovered that all the gold and silver that circulates throughout the world, centres in India. Even today, it is said to have the world's largest undeclared gold reserve of any country in the world.

Most of the precious, honey-toned luminous metal is fashioned into jewellery, preferably using 22- and 24-carats, as to this day, gold remains a prime choice for several ceremonies and religious festivals celebrated all across India. Akshaya Trithiya, for one, is dedicated to the purchase of gold on the day in order to uphold its auspicious significance.

Expertise, longevity and prosperity
Superlative craftsmanship passed down through generations of Indian stonecutters bears a winning testament to Indian jewellery and its glorious 5,000-year history. These stonecutters, who possess remarkable and acute knowledge of the properties of different gemstones and their compatibilities, have been an empowering facet of India's gem industry for centuries.

Their understanding of minerals and the origins of precious stones, as well as knowledge of how to its conceal flaws in order to bring out their individual qualities, is one reason why Indian jewellery continues to be studied and emulated down the ages.

The fascination of jewellery and gems and our ancient relationship with them is still alive and underway in India. Cocooned cities like Jaipur continue to inspire visitors to what may be the last flowering of a centuries old tradition of regal splendour, of which today only an elusive, occasional glimmer remains.

Jaipur, jewels and palaces
On a visit to Jaipur - a heritage part of India and Indian royalty, gemmologist Deepali Sawlani is unable to shake off a familiar enchanting chemistry of the old palaces, its grounds and her last evening at the Rambagh Palace before returning to Dubai.

She said: "Even while dozing on the flight I continued to imagine elements of the palace, its carving and Maharajah's suite keys. Little did I know that seeing pictures versus walking through the palace, being totally emerged in the culture, and being surrounded by Rajasthani hospitality and warmth would have such a heavy influence on me. Everything involved gorgeous historical jewels, design and art. From the palace floors, doors to the windows and ceilings, fabric prints and jewels one would dress up in, everything was singing poetry to my eyes. Jewels were used in belts, head gears, armlets and even astronomy. Everything had an understanding that was beyond opulence.

"Upon seeing a large picture of the late Maharani Gayatri Devi in her graceful sari and jewels, one may notice that her jewels never seemed to overpower her. I had met her in person on her visit to Dubai, and she walked just like a graceful flower in a garden.

"In today's time if one were to see the same jewels and sari on someone else, it all speaks rather differently. Royalty had a way. A way of understanding art and the value of jewels and how to wear them, effortlessly. It was part of the family wealth."

"A gemmologist was the most important person in a king's palace. He was almost the validator of the currency of gems. The world's most famous jewellers had personally visited Jaipur and the Rambagh Palace to derive inspiration from Indian designs, their colour combinations and enamelling work. Royalty did not mimic. They had their individual tastes and were masters in their fields. Maharaj Jai Singh II was a genius mathematician and astronomer.

"I'd realised that the human calculator he had built at Jantar Mantar was beyond his time. It was like he had designed his own iPad for astrology to read the planetary system that included zodiac constellations. I'd enjoyed studying the planetary positions myself, given that the sun moved to the northern hemisphere on January 14 this year, and how it impacted the shadows on various instruments there while reading local Jaipur timing.

"When such intelligent minds use art and gems as aesthetics, the result is bound to be phenomenal and timeless. A true celebration of India's wealth contained in the minds of its people and in the mines across its land," Sawlani concluded.

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