Treasures from India: Al-Thani Collection

Finial from the throne of Tipu Sultan, Mysore, circa 1790, gold, inlaid with diamonds, rubies, and emeralds. The Al-Thani Collection © Servette Overseas Limited 2013. All rights reserved. Another larger tiger’s head from the throne is currently on display in London in the exhibition entitled Gold, at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace and is part of the Royal Collection.

THIS EXHIBITION OF some 60 Mughal jewelled and other objects from the private collection formed by Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al-Thani provides a glimpse into the evolving styles of the jewelled arts created in India from the Mughal period until the present day, with emphasis on later exchanges with the West.

Treasures from India provides a chance to explore the evolving styles of this art form in India from the Mughal period until the early 20th century, with the emphasis on later exchanges with the West and the ruling houses of India.

India has long been a vibrant and important centre for the jewelled arts for many centuries, with its own mines yielding gold, diamonds, and many other precious and semiprecious stones. India’s Mughal rulers and their successors appreciated ceremonial and functional objects made of luxury materials.

India’s Love of Precious Ornaments

This country’s love of precious ornaments is expressed in these arts created for the court, temple and household. Indian jewellery styles range from opulent creations for the court, which could cover almost every visible part of the body, to simple amulets worn around the neck on a cotton string. Within the context of India’s princely world, gems and jewels for the ruling families magnified their glory and enhanced the prestige of the court – and their right to rule. Ceremonial court objects made from gold, ivory and jade – decorated with gemstones and enamel were also favoured.

Treasures from the Indian Courts

The display of Mughal treasures dating from the 17th century is well represented, as well are pieces from various courts and centres of power in the 18th and 19th centuries, including the influential court of Hyderabad. Beyond the imperial Mughal realm, the 18th century saw an efflorescence of artistic tradition at diverse courts, under the rule of various largely Hindu maharajahs all over Rajasthan, the Punjab Hills, and central India, and under Muslim nawabs and rajas in important successor states such as Lucknow and Murshidabad.

These kingdoms, more than 500 in number and dotted with forts and palaces, came under Mughal political and cultural sway, but were also semi-independent, each with its own distinct traditions, lineage, and tastes. Several forms of jewellery worn by the nobility at these courts, such as the turban ornaments known as the sarpesh and jigha, are represented in the Al-Thani Collection. The majority of the 18th-century pieces gathered in this exhibition are from Rajasthan, Lucknow, Varanasi, Hyderabad and Lahore.

The Kundan technique

Historically, the gem form favoured throughout India has been the cabochon. In the traditional kundan technique, stones are set into foiled beds of highly purified gold and held in place by pressing and shaping the soft metal around the edges, sometimes resulting in entire surfaces covered with rubies, emeralds, and diamonds, as well are other precious gems. A technique that is well represented in the Mughal treasures on show.

Tipu Sultan’s Throne

A highlight of the exhibition of Treasures from India is a gem-set tiger head finial originally from the throne of Tipu Sultan (1750–1799), which uses this technique and incorporates numerous cabochon diamonds, rubies, and emeralds in a kundan setting. Tipu Sultan reigned from 1782-99 and was known as the Tiger of Mysore, because of his fierce resistance to British rule and the deeds of the East India Company.

Tipu Sultan (1750-99) succeeded his father, Haidar Ali, as ruler of the South Indian state of Mysore in 1782, building a sophisticated and modern court around his palace at Seringapatam in the south. For much of his reign he was engaged in hostilities against the British. An octagonal throne was made for Tipu, however, he may never have use it. Every part was covered in sheet gold 2 millimetres thick and some individual decoration and heads were solid gold and set with rubies and diamonds.

Although the tiger was an ancient symbol of kingship in India, Tipu made it his own, as he declared that it was ‘better to live a single day as a tiger than a thousand years as a sheep’. Eventually the British signed a peace treaty with Tipu in 1792, but the discovery of secret communications with Napoleon (the French also had interests in India at this time) brought about a renewed campaign against him, culminating in Tipu’s death during the sack of Seringapatam in 1799.

The golden throne was broken up and distributed to the troops, but the most important elements were dismantled and the life size gold tiger’s head and paws from the base of the throne and the large jewelled huma (Persian mythical bird of power or kingship) that surmounted the canopy are now housed in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle.

The large gold head is currently on show in the exhibition, Gold, at The Queens Gallery in Buckingham Palace until 22 February 2015. Other parts of the throne are now dispersed, with the whereabouts only four out of the eight finials being recorded. One finial is in the Al-Thani collection and on display in this exhibition. These finials were the gem-set mounts that surrounded the railing of the throne.

20th-Century Jewels on Show

Also on show in the group of Mughal treasures are a group of late 19th- and 20th-century jewels made for India’s maharajas by Cartier and other Western firms, as well as contemporary commissions inspired by traditional Indian forms. In these later jewels, several antique gems have been incorporated into modern settings by Maison Cartier, jewellery designer Paul Iribe, and other designers.

Western influenced on Indian jewellery came to India’s maharaja’s in various forms. The 19th and 20th centuries saw the transformation of the old styles by using new techniques and the creation on new forms that still used the traditional methods.

Jacques Cartier’s Trip to India

By the time Jacques Cartier made his fruitful trip to India in 1911, many royal clients had already patronised Western jewellers or had commissioned ‘Westernised’ pieces from their Indian jewellers.  Cartier’s visit on the occasion of the Coronation Durbar in honour of King George and Queen Mary, exposed the French jeweller to a new world of jewellery making and also brought many new clients to his company.

Cartier was entrusted with remounting older stones in new settings, frequently in platinum, in keeping with the newfound appreciation for Western style and fashion by using highly faceted and polished stones (rather than the traditional cabochon). Possibly the most opulent Cartier commission during this period was a necklace made for the Maharaja of Patiala in 1928, a multiple-stranded extravagance set with many large diamonds, include the 234.69 carat De Beers Diamond.

India continues to be a centre for jewellery, while the tradition of jewelled objects is now largely overshadowed by decorative and marriage jewellery, towns such as Jaipur remain a strong centre for gems, gem-cutting and gem setting, Hyderabad is still known for its pearls and Bombay and the state of Gujarat for its diamond industries.

Treasures from India: Jewels from the Al-Thani Collection, 28 October 2014, until 25 January 2015, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, A catalogue accompanies the exhibition Treasures from India: Jewels from the Al-Thani Collection, and a book on the collection, Beyond Extravagance: A Royal Collection of Gems and Jewels edited by Amin Jaffer, published by Assouline, ISBN 978-1614281290, priced at £120.