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Arts / Galleries

A Covert Market in Royal Indian Jewels

Dallas Gem Master Quietly Builds a Museum Worthy Collection

BY // 11.08.16
photography Shayna Fontana
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Imagine India at night. It’s dark, and Jayshree Dalal has discreetly entered the home of one of India’s royal families. Over tea, she discusses heirloom jewels, hundred-year-old treasures in diamonds, emeralds, rubies, and gold, with the head of the household — usually a man, and someone who, for the sake of anonymity, she knows only by first name.

This meeting, and many others like it, were arranged by a middleman, all in the business of buying and selling royal Indian jewels.

“The maharajah knows this person, and that person knows me,” Dalal says. “I don’t have the whole history of who the gentleman is. I just know he belongs to a royal family. It is done mostly at night, so people don’t see who is coming or going to their house — to keep identity a secret.”

There is reason for the discretion: “The only time a royal family sells the jewels is when they have fallen on hard times and need the money,” she says. “That’s the reason: to not bring embarrassment and shame to the family.”

For two decades, Dallas-based Dalal — she designs her own fine jewelry line and and her husband, Pankaj Dalal, owns the antiques and home furnishings store Art of Old India — has been acquiring royal Indian jewels. It’s a passion rooted in her Indian upbringing. The daughter of a successful banker, Dalal was born in Mumbai and has lived all over the country, from New Delhi to Lucknow.

“My father was very high up in the bank,” she says. “He had high royal families as his clients. He would entertain them, and we would get to meet them. When I started my [jewelry] business, he passed on some of his clients to me.”

Since she had one foot in the door and a successful jewelry business in Dallas, connections to hard-to-source royal jewels eventually sought her. “My suppliers knew I was collecting, so they would keep an eye out, and tell me if anything came on the market,” she says. Dalal’s first acquisition is still her most cherished: a mother-of-pearl and turquoise pen set, a bit of lead still inside. “I wondered what this pen wrote. How many letters were sent, all the stories that had been written. I’m romantic by nature in that way.”

Today, Dalal has a collection of more than two dozen royal jewels and acquisitions. She doesn’t show them publicly, nor does she actively sell them. They are not meant to be worn, but rather intended, eventually, for a museum.

Her treasures are awe-inspiring, a testament to the workmanship and distinctly Indian design aesthetic: A 22K gold turban ornament in the shape of a peacock feather is encrusted with emeralds, rubies, and diamonds; a ruby Kum Kum box is topped with a diamond bird, whose wings mechanically lift up and down as if in flight; a set of armbands is anchored by massive sliced diamonds and embellished with pearls and lapis enamel; and even a set of tunic buttons, with precious stones flanking the front, have a painstakingly detailed enamel design on the back.

“It’s a work of art,” says Dalal. “All good Indian jewelry will have two sides to it.”

Royal Kum Kum box in 22K gold and rubies, originally belonging to a maharini, circa 1940s
Royal Kum Kum box in 22K gold and rubies, originally belonging to a maharini, circa 1940s

This attention to all sides of a piece is typical of Mughal jewelry, of which Dalal has several works. It is these opulent Mughal designs that inspired many works made by the world’s most revered jewelry houses. Most famously, Pierre Cartier took a note from the divine royal Indian jewels in creating his first Tutti Frutti piece — a necklace commission from Queen Alexandra in 1901, to be worn with her Indian gowns.

Thereafter, maharajas in search of haute jewelry flocked to Cartier’s workshop in England. In 1911, after his inaugural voyage to India, Pierre’s brother, Jacques Cartier, was so inspired by India’s vibrancy, colors, and textures that he began regularly incorporating Indian Mughal gemstones and style in his designs. It caused a craze for Indian jewels across Europe for the larger part of the early 20th century.

Most of the pieces in Dalal’s collection, which are Krishna in style, were made in Rajasthan. Though India’s top fine jewelers are still based there, much has changed since these jewels were created a century ago. Colored enamel was not just a chemical dye; if red enamel was desired, rubies were crushed and combined with liquid to create a sleek, smooth look.

“They would crush emeralds for nothing,” says Dalal. “You wouldn’t think of doing that today.”

While in the presence of a collection with such history, one can’t help but fantasize about the mystique of the maharajah — the wealth and the attention to fine detail that was paid to their everyday accessories. “Their writing instruments. Their perfume bottles. Their cigarette holders. They jeweled everything,” Dalal says. “Even their drinking cups had jewels! So much time and money was spent on these things.”

Sadly, it’s a dying art. Just as the ateliers that labor over handcrafted couture garments are quietly disappearing, so are the Indian craftsmen with the skill needed to create intricate jewelry. It’s a business of apprenticeship, after all, where a craft is passed from grandfather to son to grandson.

But now, says Dalal, “it’s not glamorous enough. They would rather be in an office, working on a computer, than making fine jewelry. It’s laborious. I’m afraid soon computers will be designing these things, and there will be very few people actually making anything by hand.”

For the romantic Dalal, unearthing such priceless, museum-quality jewels is more challenging than ever. She’s hit a bit of a dry spell of late, not having found a single piece worth purchasing in five years. In part, this is because people in India are realizing the value of their heritage and history. But there is also the issue of scarcity.

“The good families, the moneyed families, still hang on to their jewels,” she says. “But the smaller principalities have sold it all. It’s all gone. Or liquidated. Or melted down.”

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