Beyond Extravagance: The Al-Thani Collection of Early Mughal Jewellery

Gem-set tiger’s head finial from the throne of Tipu Sultan, Mysore, circa 1787-93

IN MUGHAL INDIA, everything was jewelled.  Across classes and faiths, gems and jewels were an integral aspect of daily wear; there were forms to adorn and beautify every part of the body in both secular and sacred spheres. However, jewellery was also part of an entire ensemble – it was not just something that was worn.  Mughal India was made up of a mass of splendid paraphernalia – art, architecture, furniture, arms and armour, and its jewellery is a manifestation of all of those things that reflect the richness of the Mughal court.

Beyond Extravagance: A Royal Collection of Gems & Jewels, the new book edited by Dr Amin Jaffer, and made up of essays by renowned jewellery specialists and scholars, looks at the diverse tradition of Indian jewellery through the lens of the Al-Thani Collection, which was amassed by the ruling family of Qatar. The Al-Thani pieces provide a narrative of the evolution of style and technique in Indian courtly jewellery, from elegant and refined commissions from the peak of Mughal Imperial patronage to chic and stylish Cartier-esque creations of the present day.

The first chapter, Gems & Jewels in Mughal India 1600-1739, written by Dr Robert Skelton (former keeper of the Indian Department at the V&A), and Michael Spink, who was in charge of Indian jewellery at Spink & Son, is devoted to the early Mughal pieces in the Al-Thani Collection. It showcases the early products of the period, and captures their refined aesthetic, elegant sensibility, sophisticated line, and decorative motifs.

The collection encompasses everything from conventional gems and jewels to jewellery boxes, vases, and weapons. A gold jewellery box from North India (1675-1725), decorated with enamelling and foiled kundan-set diamonds, emeralds and rubies, proves that cases can be as beautiful as the treasures that they house; and a flask from North India (1650-1700), carved from a single block of rock crystal and inlaid with foiled kundan-set cabochon rubies and emeralds, is a testament to the splendour of the vessels from which the Mughals drank. Each and every jewelled object is a further piece of adornment, a piece of jewellery in its own right.

One particularly significant jewelled object is the Shah Jahan Dagger (hilt: 1620-25; blade: 1629-36), passed down to Shah Jahan (r. 1628-58), builder of the Taj Mahal,  from his father Jahangir (r. 1556-1605). The blade is inscribed in inlaid gold with one of Shah Jahan’s titles,  sahib qiran-I thani (Second Lord of the Conjunction), and an image of an umbrella, a royal motif. The hilt, cut from a single block of jade, is carved with the curly head of a young boy, possibly inspired by one of the cherubs depicted in the allegorical paintings of the Jahangir period. The dagger is one of the most valuable pieces in the Al-Thani Collection. As Dr Jaffer explains, ‘The high quality of the jade carving and our knowledge of the history of piece make it a real rarity’. The dagger is depicted in a number of portrait miniatures of Shah Jahan, hanging from his belt on a long cord. It is a rare example of a well-documented imperial possession owned by at least two Mughal emperors.

Mughal jewellery, though of course appreciated for its beauty, was, like the Shah Jahan Dagger, regarded as much more than finery. Hindus believed that there was a deep meaning and symbolism attached to every gemstone; gems and jewels were surrounded by religious and mystical qualities, and different ones reflected strong cosmological purposes or invoked favourable horoscopes. In India, the jewellery worn by women was a reflection of their status – it indicated whether they were married or single, for example – it was a sign of their promiscuity. Jewellery could stand for a place or a region, act as a talisman and protect its wearer against illness or curse, or reflect rank, caste, religion, material status, or wealth.

Mughal emperors, as absolute rulers at the centre of courtly life, are of vital importance to an understanding of the Mughal tradition of wearing gems. The emperor was the greatest patron for jewellery in his domain (up until the fall of Delhi to Persian invader Nadir Shah (r. 1736-47) in 1739); he had exclusive imperial rights to a number of lavish gems and jewels, and he had his own royal workshop and imperial treasury.

Jewellery and jewelled objects played an important role in Mughal etiquette and court ceremonies. On the emperor’s biannual birthday, he was weighed against his jewels and other costly possessions, and objects of an equivalent value were then distributed to needy. There was a system for rotating the emperor’s jewellery so that he did not wear the same piece twice in a row – – his jewels were divided into groups so that he could wear a certain number each day. If he got bored of a piece, there was also the option of fobbing it off on a noble or a prince, as a gift and a mark of honour, of course. Wearing and giving jewellery was an integral aspect of articulating authority in the Mughal tradition.

One object in the Al-Thani Collection that has had an especially strong social significance is the rosewater sprinkler (1675-1725), a vessel that was used to sprinkle rosewater in a ceremonial context as a mark of favour or hospitality. The gold globular body rests on a low foot and extends upwards with a tall tapering neck that terminates in a floral finial; the vase-like object is set with pearls and foiled cabochon rubies and emeralds. The underside is inscribed with the weight of the piece given in tola and masha (Mughal units of weight measurement). Luxury sprinklers such as this were made in the imperial workshops and kept in the Mughal treasury. After the sack of Delhi by Nadir Shah, they were taken to Iran; now, these pieces are housed in The Hermitage in St Petersburg, Russia.

The Al-Thani Collection reflects the taste of one particular collector – Sheikh Hamad Bin Abdullah Al-Thani, who, as Dr Jaffer explains, prefers ‘the more substantial side, the pomp, the grandeur’. In terms of Mughal jewellery, this means that he is drawn to that which was worn by the men. Of course, courtly ladies owned jewellery, too. Mughal princesses wore three to five strings of pearls around their neck, a pendant with a diamond, ruby, emerald, or sapphire at its centre, earrings, armlets, anklets, and many rings, including a mirror ring on the thumb – there was no need for a compact in a handbag in those days.

Although both sexes in India were richly jewelled in the Mughal period, and have been since antiquity, the jewellery they wore was very different. Diamonds were associated with masculinity, because of their hardness and durability; coloured stones like rubies and sapphires were seen as prettier, softer, and more feminine. Women’s jewellery was decorative and refined, yet on a small scale – it was adornment; men’s jewellery was an expression of power. As Dr Jaffer observes, ‘A ruler wore his treasury around his neck. He was almost viewed as a deity and, as such, he was supposed to sparkle’. In 1619, the Flemish merchant Jacques de Coutre had an audience with Jahangir. De Coutre said that the emperor looked like an idol because of the quantities of jewels that he wore; he described the precious stones that hung around his neck, the spinels, emeralds and pearls that were wrapped around his arms, and the diamonds that caught the light on his multicoloured turban. Jewellery was an important aspect of an emperor achieving a heavenly state.

The book is full of pictures of emperors and maharajas clad in vibrant clothing and dripping with gems and jewels, however, depictions of women wearing jewellery are relatively rare. On the front of the slipcase is a folio image of Shah Jahan standing on a globe, from the Shah Jahan Album by Hashim (circa 1630-40). This gem-loving emperor features in the book in numerous guises: The most exuberant, a vibrant pink robe, in a folio of him decked in fine jewels and holding a pendant set with his portrait, from the Shah Jahan Album (1627-8) inscribed by Chitarman.

One of Dr Jaffer’s personal favourites amongst the early Mughal pieces is a locket pendant from North India or Deccan (1575-1625) of gold inlaid with rubies and emeralds. Two gold discs are attached with a hinge at one side and fastened with a clasp at the other. The locket is an object of the finest quality, comparable with other early 17th-century imperial Mughal objects, of which very few survive. The use of a thin gold sheet that is laid over the gems and pierced to reveal them is a technique that would have required gold-smithing skills of the highest order. Like the Shah Jahan Dagger, the locket has absorbed a Western concept into a Mughal format. Following the European fashion of the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the locket would most likely have contained a miniature portrait and been worn suspended from a ribbon around the neck, as English portrait miniatures were known at the Mughal court at the time. The decoration of the locket can be compared to early 17th-century Mughal architectural design. The inlaid florets on the front and back, including the lotus flowers and the rosettes, are similar to those that adorn the gateways and pavilions of the funerary garden of the tomb of Emperor Akbar (r. 1556-1605), at Sikandra, completed in 1614.

Identification of early Mughal jewellery styles is often based on evidence in Mughal miniature paintings. Beyond Extravagance consists of both photographs of the jewellery from the Al-Thani Collection and reproductions of portrait miniatures that represent them. Portrait miniatures, the highest Imperial art form, were often commissioned explicitly to record the jewellery that they depict. They attest to an item’s importance – to the need to document it as an Imperial possession – and they provide an idea of how that item was worn and in what context. The pictures illuminate the jewellery style of the early Mughal period and provide a setting and a narrative for each and every piece, and a further layer of information about the material culture, craftsmanship, and taste at the imperial court.

The House of Thani have been collecting art for more than 20 years. They could perhaps be thought of as modern-day equivalents of the emperors of the Mughal court. As with any private collection, this group of objects (that spans over 400 years) represents a unique, personal vision. Now this private pleasure has grown into a leading collection worthy of publication and exhibition and is being shared with a wider audience to encourage a greater appreciation of Mughal jewellery, to spread a passion for gems, and a love of Indian craftsmanship.

Dr Jaffer sums up the Al-Thani collection with a burst of unstinting praise: ‘This is the collection of a very focused and highly determined collector. The Sheikh formed this group of objects very quickly, in the space of four years, and he has gone to great lengths to get the very best. An extraordinary, old-style, connoisseur with a real feeling for the objects’.

CHLOE ASHBY

The Beyond Extravagance is published by Assouline, Paris.