Plentiful supplies of gold, silver and precious stones and an unbroken tradition stretching back more than 1,000 years made 19th-century India a treasure house of jewellery.
When Europeans colonized the Indian subcontinent, they found dozens of
principalities and two great cultures - Islam in the north and Hinduism in the south. Everywhere, though, there was a tradition of wearing jewellery, worn both for personal adornment and to reflect the wearer's status. To conform with Islamic law, northern jewellery was decorated with geometric or stylized patterns, rather than figurative work, while that from the south often carried depictions of people, gods and animals.
Jewellery was worn by men, women and children alike. Pieces were made to adorn the hair, turbans, ears, noses, necks, arms, wrists, hands, waists, ankles and toes.
Hindu men had specific jewels to show they had passed through ceremonies marking the principal stages of life, while Muslim men wore them to show off their wealth and status.
For a Hindu woman, her jewellery was her dowry, handed down through the generations. The rich had gold set with diamonds, rubies, emeralds and pearls, the less wealthy had gold set with less precious stones and the poor had silver. Even the lowliest classes had jewellery, made of base metal but ornately worked.
Muslim women's jewellery was lighter, and not so wrapped up in considerations of status. Widows of neither religion wore jewellery.
Goldsmiths were highly respected members of society, and worked only with pure, 24-carat gold. It was often lavishly decorated with repousse work, where the design is beaten out from behind with a hammer. Stones were generally set as cabochons; size was thought to be more important than brilliance, and flaws were not cut out.
LAC AND LUSTRE
Muslim pieces were rarely made of solid gold, but were hollow and filled with lac, a dark red, transparent resin. The reverse side of pieces like bangles was covered with lustrous coloured enamels, which were not only highly decorative but also prevented the gradual loss of gold due to friction with the skin.
By the end of the 19th century, the continued decline of the Muslim Mogul princes and the opening up of India to increasing western influences led to a change in the centuries-old style of
jewellery-making. However, the styles and setting remain popular and are still being reproduced today.
In traditional Indian jewellery, much of what glittered was pure, 24-carat gold. Soft and easy to work, it could be moulded and cast into all manner of attractive shapes. Goldsmiths working for wealthy, highcaste families used it to make large, lavish jewels that picked up the golden threads commonly woven into saris and other clothing.
INDIAN JEWELRY COLLECTOR'S NOTES
The original European settlers disdained Indian jewellery as vulgar, and the local craftsmen catered for them by reproducing European styles. These Indo-European pieces, such as repousse' lockets and bracelets embossed with Hindu gods from Madras, and sprays of filigree flowers in silver from Cattack, were imported by British goldsmiths.
Traditional styles were introduced to Britain by the Great Exhibition of 1851, and enjoyed a vogue in the 1870s and 1880s, as part of a fashion for all things oriental, boosted by Victoria's adoption as Empress of India in 1876. The London store, Liberty's, sold a great deal of traditional jewellery.
Another wave of imports has come more recently, as India has become a holiday destination. The great majority of these pieces are made specially for the tourist market, using silver and semi-precious stones.
Gems were traditionally set by the kundan method; they were placed in indentations in the gold and held there by thin bands of the metal. The European claw setting was not used until well into the 19th century. Later, as the power of the native rulers declined, foilbacked crystal often replaced precious gems in the kundan setting. At the same time, harder 22-carat and 18-carat gold began to be used. This was then polished and diamond-cut.
Though fine gold pieces are rarely sold today outside of specialist dealers and auction houses, cheaper Indian jewellery can be found in flea markets and shops selling oriental goods. It is rarely hallmarked. As a safeguard, always get a detailed receipt when buying a piece and check the quality of the gold or silver with a jeweller. If it's not as described in the receipt, take it back.