Field Report

Jewelers to the Maharajas of Jaipur and Modern-Day Moguls

Andrew Lucas, Nirupa Bhatt, Manoj Singhania, Kashish Sachdeva, Tao Hsu, and Pedro Padua
March 18, 2016
Indian necklace
Fit for a maharaja, this Kundan meena necklace combines 23K and 24K gold, uncut flat polki diamonds, emeralds, and, of course, colorful enamel for an opulent look. Photo courtesy Surana Jewellers.
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Jaipur, India, in the state of Rajasthan, is home to families of jewelers 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 jewelry for the royals of Rajasthan.

Moguls and Maharajas

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

So what are some traditional styles of Rajasthan jewelry?

In Kundan jewelry 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 style of enamel, usually on 22K to 24K gold jewelry.

Pendant and earrings
The royal look of Kundan meena jewelry is colorful 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 jewelry industry, including traditional jewelers who still manufacture and sell the jewelry popular almost 300 years ago and a modern company that produces its own interpretation of traditional tribal jewelry. Through interviews and tours of their retail and manufacturing facilities, we learned the secrets of these jewelers 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 jewelry for the maharajahs back to the early 1700s.
Photo courtesy Surana Jewellers.

SURANA JEWELLERS

Surana Jewellers started out as family jewelers to Jaipur’s maharajas in 1735, although their family of jewelers dates back even further. By 1951 they had formed a modern company. Before India’s independence in 1947, few jewelers 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 jewelry 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 jewelry. Photo courtesy Surana Jewellers.

Surana continues to make Kundan meena jewelry with polki diamonds and other Kundan-set gemstones, using similar techniques as for the jewelry made for the maharajas. They typically use a jewelry 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 colored gemstones. 

Drawing design on jewelry
View Gallery
Creating Kundan Meena Jewelry Gallery

For colored gemstones the silver foil may be painted the same color as the stone so the reflection enhances the color. 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 jewelry 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 jewelry lines incorporating modern-cut diamonds, Kundan meena jewelry with polki diamonds remains in strong demand. They use over 100 kg of gold a year in manufacturing their jewelry, and a traditional Indian wedding may include Kundan meena jewelry weighing over a half kilogram of gold for the bride alone.

Surana Jewellers

Play Surana Jewellers Video
Learn about Kundan meena jewelry, polki diamonds, and other jewelry still produced as if for the maharajas of Rajasthan. 
Kundan meena vase
View Gallery
Surana Jewelry and Objets d’Art Gallery

GEM PALACE

Visiting Gem Palace was like visiting a museum and a modern jewelry store at the same time. Jewelers to the maharajas since the early 1700s, Sanjay Kasliwal’s family has one of the richest traditions of any jeweler in Jaipur or indeed India. The shop was full of antique and newly produced Kundan meena jewelry with polki diamonds. We saw maharajah headdresses with large polki diamonds; a 24K gold and enamel chess set 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 enameled spoon and plate of solid gold and polki diamonds.

In the West you say, ‘born with a silver spoon.’ In India they were 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 such as President John Kennedy and First Lady Jackie Kennedy, Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles, Lady Diana, the queen of Holland, the king and queen of Sweden, and the king and queen of Spain. Customers have also included celebrities like Errol Flynn, Richard Gere, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Oprah Winfrey, as well as business leaders like 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 percent of Gem Palace’s customers are Indian, and wedding jewelry 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 jewelry with polki diamonds and other gemstones, completed in the same building as the current store, which was built in 1842. Craftsmen were cutting colored gemstones from rough; manufacturing the gold frames with traditional methods, including using blowpipes for soldering; enameling the jewelry on the front and back; and setting the stones. 

Jeweler with blowpipe
The master jewelers working on Kundan meena jewelry 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 jewelry pieces with enameling 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 jewelry 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 jewelry styles, as in his Indo-Russian line, in which the back of the piece is finished with a Russian style of filigree and diamond setting, blending styles while maintaining jewelry 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 jewelry with price points from US$500 to US$10 million and beyond to try to have a piece of jewelry to suit everyone entering 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 jewelry they will cherish.
—Sanjay Kasliwal, Gem Palace

Gem Palace

Play Gem Palace Video
Entering Gem Palace is like finding a museum of treasures that continues to produce magnificent creations.

AMRAPALI

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

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

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

Their jewelry transformed traditional Indian tribal jewelry into fashionable high-end jewelry for the Bollywood crowd, of which they have a strong following. These stars have made this type of jewelry an “in” look in the country as well as with foreigners. Today 60 to 70 percent 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 jewelry in-house.

Jeweler making gold frame
View Gallery
Amrapali Factory: Kundan Meena Jewelry Gallery
Our jewelry ranges from seven U.S. dollars to whatever the customer wants to pay.
—Tarang Arora, Amrapali

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

Amrapali

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


GLOSSARY OF INDIAN JEWELRY 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 Jewelry: Gemstones set with gold or silver foil beneath them to enhance their brilliance. It is the oldest form of jewelry 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 bracelet, with or without a hinge.

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

Meenakari: Enameling.

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

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

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

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