Field Report

Jewellers to the Maharajas of Jaipur and Modern-Day Moguls

, , , , , and

Indian necklace
Fit for a maharaja, this Kundan meena necklace combines 23K and 24K gold, uncut flat polki diamonds, emeralds and, of course, colourful enamel for an opulent look. Photo courtesy Surana Jewellers.

Jaipur, India, in the state of Rajasthan, is home to families of jewellers who have been creating masterpieces of wearable art since the early 1700s. When Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II, the Raja of Amer, founded the city, these families were invited to settle there and create opulent jewellery for the royals of Rajasthan.

Moguls and Maharajas
Take a glimpse into Jaipur and India’s jewellery traditions going back to the early 1700s. Large diamonds, coloured gemstones and enamel are used for Kundan meena, some of the most opulent jewellery in the world. Originally meant for the Mogul emperors and the maharajas, this jewellery is now made for the consumers of today.

So what are some traditional styles of Rajasthan jewellery?

In Kundan jewellery the gems are set in a metal foil, typically thin 24K gold, worked around the edges of the stones to secure them. Kundan meena consists of 24K thin foil–set stones combined with the beautiful Rajasthan art of enamel, usually on 22K to 24K gold jewellery.

Pendant and earrings
The royal look of Kundan meena jewellery is colourful and opulent. Photo courtesy Surana
Jewellers.

Polki diamonds are flat uncut diamonds, or diamonds cut to look flat, set in the Kundan style with 24K gold foil. They are backed with a silver foil that acts as the diamond’s makeshift pavilion, giving it the appearance of depth and greater reflection. The silver foil diamond assemblage is secured into a 22K to 24K gold frame with a wax-like substance, and then the uncut diamond is secured with 24K gold foil around its edge.

Polki Diamond Necklace
Fit for a maharaja or a bride from a wealthy family, this 23K gold necklace is set with flat uncut polki diamonds. Photo by Andrew Lucas, courtesy Surana Jewellers.
Our customers are the moguls of today.
—Pracheer Surana, Surana Jewellers

In 2015 a GIA field team visited Jaipur to study its gem and jewellery industry, including traditional jewellers who still manufacture and sell the jewellery popular almost 300 years ago and a modern company that produces its own interpretation of traditional tribal jewellery. Through interviews and tours of their retail and manufacturing facilities, we learned the secrets of these jewellers and their customers, from the maharajas of Jaipur and British royalty to the super-wealthy of the Arab countries and stars of Hollywood and Bollywood.

Historic maharaja photo
Surana Jewellers has provided jewellery for the maharajas back to the early 1700s.
Photo courtesy Surana Jewellers.

SURANA JEWELLERS

Surana Jewellers started out as family jewellers to Jaipur’s maharajas in 1735, although their history as jewellers dates back even further. By 1951 they had formed a modern company. Before India’s independence in 1947, few jewellers were set up as structured businesses. Even at that time Surana Jewellers usually had only five customers a day, by appointment. These were serious, wealthy customers, however, commissioning remarkable jewellery and objets d’art. Today they average around 60 to 70 customers a day, still serious buyers.

Bill Clinton, Chelsea Clinton and others at Surana Jewellers
As the maharajas did in the past, wealthy and famous people, like former U.S. President Bill Clinton, visit Surana Jewellers to buy jewellery. Photo courtesy Surana Jewellers.

Surana continues to make Kundan meena jewellery with polki diamonds and other Kundan-set gemstones, using similar techniques to those used in the jewellery made for the maharajas. They typically use a jewellery frame of 23K gold. A wax-like substance is placed in the frame and heated to form the surfaces that will hold the silver backings and stones. The silver backings are indented to make a pavilion for the flat uncut diamonds or flat coloured gemstones. 

Drawing design on jewellery
Creating Kundan Meena Jewellery Gallery

For coloured gemstones the silver foil may be painted the same colour as the stone so the reflection enhances the colour. This setting style is considered the art of illusion. After the wax-like substance cools and hardens the gems and foil in place, 24K gold foil further secures the stones. Most pieces have the front and back completely finished, with enamel often also used for the back of the piece.

Kundan meena bracelets
This suite of Kundan meena jewellery made by Surana Jewellers is finished with enamel on the back as beautifully as on the front. Photo courtesy Surana Jewellers.

While Surana also creates more modern jewellery lines incorporating modern-cut diamonds, Kundan meena jewellery with polki diamonds remains in strong demand. They use over 100 kg of gold a year to manufacture their jewellery, and a traditional Indian wedding may include Kundan meena jewellery weighing over a half kilogram of gold for the bride alone.

Surana Jewellers
Learn about Kundan meena jewellery, polki diamonds and other jewellery still produced as if for the maharajas of Rajasthan. 
Kundan meena vase
Surana Jewellery and Objets d’Art Gallery

GEM PALACE

Visiting Gem Palace was like visiting a museum and a modern jewellery store at the same time. Jewellers to the maharajas since the early 1700s, Sanjay Kasliwal’s family has one of the richest traditions of any jeweller in Jaipur, or indeed India. The shop was full of both antique and newly produced Kundan meena jewellery with polki diamonds. We saw maharajah headdresses with large polki diamonds; a 24K gold and enamel chess set that was over 250 years old; a 24K gold and enamel drinking flask in the form of a parrot, also over 250 years old; and an infant’s enamelled spoon and plate made from solid gold and polki diamonds.

In the West you say, ‘born with a silver spoon'. In India they are born with diamond spoons.
—Sanjay Kasliwal, Gem Palace
Maharaja headdress
Over 250 years old, this polki diamond and emerald headdress graced the head of a Rajasthan maharaja. Photo by Andrew Lucas/GIA, courtesy Gem Palace.

Since the time of the maharajas, Gem Palace’s clientele has expanded to include royalty including Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charles, Lady Diana, the queen of the Netherlands, the king and queen of Sweden, the king and queen of Spain, and U.S. President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jackie Kennedy. Customers have also included celebrities like Errol Flynn, Richard Gere, Gwyneth Paltrow and Oprah Winfrey, as well as business leaders such as the Agnelli family, owner of Fiat and Chrysler. Some of the richest people in the world are customers, such as the Emir of Qatar. Fifty per cent of Gem Palace’s customers are Indian, and wedding jewellery is very important to the core business. Clients from Europe, the United States, the Middle East, and a growing new market in Central and South America also play an important role.

Traditional Gem Cutter
Gem cutting at Gem Palace is still done with the cutters sitting comfortably on the floor, holding the gems in their hands as they feel their way through the cutting process. Photo by Andrew Lucas/GIA, courtesy Gem Palace.

Along with the antique pieces, we saw the design and creation of magnificent pieces of Kundan meena jewellery with polki diamonds and other gemstones, completed in the same building as the current store, which was built in 1842. Craftsmen were cutting coloured gemstones from rough; manufacturing the gold frames with traditional methods, including using blowpipes for soldering; enamelling the jewellery on the front and back; and setting the stones. 

Jeweller with blowpipe
The master jewellers working on Kundan meena jewellery at Gem Palace still often use a
blowpipe for manufacturing. Photo by Andrew Lucas/GIA, courtesy Gem Palace.

Gem Palace always finishes the backs of their jewellery pieces with enamelling and sometimes diamonds or other stones as well. The philosophy is that when the wearer holds a necklace up to put it on, she should see that the piece is as beautifully finished on the back as others see from the front.

Kundan meena choker front
The front of this choker is laden with uncut flat polki diamonds and cultured pearls. Photo by Andrew Lucas/GIA, courtesy Gem Palace.
Kundan Meena Choker Back
The back of the same choker is beautifully finished with enamel. Photo by Andrew Lucas/GIA, courtesy Gem Palace.
The owner of our jewellery should see the same beauty and quality on the back when she lifts up a necklace to put it on as all others do when seeing it worn.
—Sanjay Kasliwal, Gem Palace

Sanjay Kasliwal also blends jewellery styles, as in his Indo-Russian line, in which the back of the piece is finished with Russian-style filigree and diamond setting, blending styles while maintaining jewellery that is completely finished on both front and back. These new styles can incorporate flat uncut diamonds, rose-cut diamonds and modern full-cut diamonds. Gem Palace creates jewellery with price points from US$500 (£350) to US$10 million (£7 million) and beyond to try to ensure that there's a piece of jewellery to suit everyone who enters the store.

Indo-Russian choker front
The front of this Indo-Russian choker is rich with rose-cut diamonds and tumbled emeralds. Photo by Andrew Lucas/GIA, courtesy Gem Palace.
Indo-Russian Choker Back
The back of the same Indo-Russian-style choker is finished with polki and modern-cut diamonds and filigree, blending the rich traditions of two cultures. Photo by Andrew Lucas/GIA, courtesy Gem Palace.
Everyone entering our store should leave with a piece of jewellery they will cherish.
—Sanjay Kasliwal, Gem Palace
Gem Palace
Entering Gem Palace is like finding a museum of treasures that continues to produce magnificent creations.

AMRAPALI

Man in jewellery store
Tarang Arora, a member of the new generation of the family business, surrounded by jewellery in one of their stores. Photo by Andrew Lucas/GIA, courtesy Amrapali.

Amrapali contrasts greatly with the other jewellers, which have been active for generations. The company is a modern-day venture, founded in 1978 and known for its interpretations of traditional Indian jewellery, including tribal jewellery and Kundan meena jewellery. Amrapali was founded by two entreprenueral history students with just a few hundred rupees in their pocket and a tremendous passion for Indian culture and expressing that culture through jewellery. Driving to remote areas of the country, they purchased tribal jewellery and recreated it for their jewellery lines.

Our family business was started by two history students on ten dollars and tremendous passion.
—Tarang Arora, Amrapali

Their jewellery transformed traditional Indian tribal jewellery into fashionable high-end jewellery for the Bollywood crowd, among which they have a strong following. These stars have made this type of jewellery an “in” look in the country as well as with foreigners. Today 60 to 70 per cent of Amrapali’s business is the Indian domestic market.

When the company started, most of its manufacturing was done by the Jaipur cottage industry of craftsmen working out of their homes. Today its factories employ between 1,600 and 2,300 craftsmen, depending on the season, manufacturing their jewellery in-house.

Jeweller making gold frame
Amrapali Factory: Kundan Meena Jewellery Gallery
Our jewellery ranges from seven U.S. dollars to whatever the customer wants to pay.
—Tarang Arora, Amrapali

Amrapali’s jewellery includes plated base metal for their more fashionable affordable lines to silver jewellery to gold jewellery ranging between 18K and 24K. They have elaborate pieces of traditional Kundan meena jewellery, including pieces with polki diamonds and other coloured stones. The Kundan meena jewellery is 22K to 24K and almost always enamelled on the front and back. The average price of jewellery on their website, which is more fashion oriented, is US $120 to $400 (£85 to £275); their gold gifts start from $500 to $5,000 (£350 to £3,500); pieces for occasions like birthdays can be $10,000 to $15,000 (£7,000 to £10,500), and pieces for weddings are usually over $50,000 (£35,000). They also produce very elaborate high-end pieces. Their jewellery lines range from tribally influenced to Kundan meena to modern lines with a strong Western influence.

Amrapali
The story of Amrapali is that of passion and hard work to bring tribal-inspired and traditional Indian jewellery themes to life in today’s world as both modern treasures and fashionable jewellery. See the traditional Indian jewellery as well as the fashionable modern lines created in their factory. 
Jewellers at work
Amrapali Factory: Modern Production Gallery
 


GLOSSARY OF INDIAN JEWELLERY TERMS

Chambala: Bud-shaped decorations based on the fragrant yellow flower of the champa tree, strung in a series on a long necklace.

Chandbala: A type of earring incorporating the shape of the half moon.

Jadau Jewellery: Gemstones set with gold or silver foil beneath them to enhance their brilliance. It is the oldest form of jewellery made and worn in India and is believed to have originated in the royal courts of Rajasthan and Gujarat.

Jhapta: A wedding ornament, usually crescent shaped, which hangs on one side of the head and is fastened with a pin.

Jhumki: Earring style incorporating an ornament or ornaments that are three-dimensional around the vertical axis.

Kadas: A wide bangle, with or without a hinge.

Kundan: Very thin 24K gold foil, usually pounded into long strips. In Kundan jewellery, the gold foil is burnished around gemstones to help set them.

Meenakari: Enamelling.

Polki: Uncut diamonds or diamonds fashioned to resemble uncut diamonds.

Rajasthani aria/ariya/aad: A choker necklace, usually gold, embellished with polkis, coloured stones and pearls.

Rani Haar (also known as Queen’s necklace): A multi-strand neckpiece with a large pendant hanging at the centre front. There are usually an odd number of strands, and the strands are often of gold beads.
 

Andrew Lucas is manager of field gemmology for education at GIA Carlsbad, Nirupa Bhatt is managing director for GIA India and Middle East, Manoj Singhania is director of education at GIA India, Kashish Sachdeva is a gemmology instructor at GIA India, Tao Hsu is Technical Editor of Gems and Gemology, and Pedro Padua is video producer at GIA Carlsbad.

DISCLAIMER

GIA staff often visit mines, manufacturers, retailers and others in the gem and jewellery industry for research purposes and to gain insight into the marketplace. GIA appreciates the access and information provided during these visits. These visits and any resulting articles or publications should not be taken or used as an endorsement.

The authors gratefully thank Gem Palace, Surana Jewellers and Amrapali.


You are being redirected to GIA Alumni Association, LLC.

5