Bejewelled Treasures - The Al-Thani Collection

“Bejewelled Treasures: The Al-Thani Collection” is evidence that time travel lies within the realm of possibility. Rewind to India, 17th century India where : turbans, ornaments, brooches, swords and clothing belonging to the Maharajas, were encrusted with pearls, emeralds, rubies, diamonds, and precious uncut stones. This was a time when the Nizams, sultans, and emperors of India commissioned luxury brands to design exclusive heirloom jewellery in a kundan style (kundan is a historic technique where diamonds and gems are embedded within a sheet of gold or platinum, and foil backing is used to “create a backless carpet of gold and gems.”) “The jewelled arts of India have fascinated me from an early age, and I have been fortunate to assemble a meaningful collection that spans from the Mughal period to the present day,” said His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al-Thani of Qatar, a private owner of the Al-Thani collection.

Gold finial from the throne of Tipu Sultan inlaid with diamonds, rubies, and emeralds

Although the Al Thani collection reportedly belongs to the Qatari royal family, it has single-handedly been curated by Sheikh Hamad, who grew interested in Indian jewellery at the age of 27. Al Thani’s collection was showcased from 2015 to 2016 as part of London’s Victoria & Albert (V&A) Museum’s India Festival, in 2019 at San Francisco’s Legion of Honour; in 2018 at France’s Chateau de Fontainbleau, and in the Beijing Palace Museum. In a daytime heist in The Doge’s Palace, Venice, items from the collection were stolen while on exhibit - earrings, and a brooch made of platinum, diamonds, and rubies. The nearly 6000-piece collection consists of precious gems, turban adornments, ceremonial weapons, jewellery and ornaments belonging to Al-Thani, and avant-garde jewels by Paris jewellery designer JAR and Mumbai-based Viren Bhagat. A Bhagat-designed brooch is set with remarkable Golconda diamonds and precious stones, while the brooch made by JAR consists of an emerald, seemingly floating on white agate, in a quintessential Mughal frame.

Diamond necklace: Originally in the collection of the Nizam of Hyderabad, one of the richest men in the world at the time, the magnificent Golconda diamond rivière necklace (circa 1890) has over 200 carats of highly prized Indian diamonds ranging in size from 9.9 to 24.38 carats

The Mughal dynasty ruled India from 1526 right up to the British rule starting in 1858. During this time, India was famous for its magnificent production of jewels and gemstones. With subsequent Mughal emperors and kings, Indian jewellery styles transformed, reflecting the zeitgeist, cultures, and traditions. Unlike their European counterparts, Indian monarchs or high-ranking aristocrats wore all the splendid jewellery on ceremonial occasions, another aspect that is deeply relevant in today’s context; wherein gender fluidity in dressing are significant topics of discussion. Wearing strands of pearls was customary for male rulers, a trend that eventually became a classic in a woman’s wardrobe. 

A spectacular diamond turban ornament that was made in 1907 and later remodelled in 1935 with 152.6 carats of diamonds, and a spray of white feather.

The stunning array of jewels and ornaments on display, representing a small fraction of the entire 6000-piece Al Thani collection

The arrival of the Mughals brought Persian and Islamic inspiration, seen particularly in the numerous diamond and ruby-encrusted turban ornaments. India was a focal point in diamond trade at the time, until the 1730s, supplying the world’s greatest diamonds both in expanse and the physical size. This is evidenced by the Idol’s Eye, a 70.2-carat diamond, also the world’s largest blue diamond. The Mughals had a particular fondness for jade, which they strongly believed counteracted poison. Perhaps the most identifiable and prominent piece in the collection is a fine dagger with a carved jade hilt owned by emperor Jahangir, which was re-modelled for his son, the builder of the Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan. The sculptural carving of the head is believed to be an incarnation of Jesus. The dagger was also in the collection of Samuel F. B. Morse, the inventor of the Morse code.

“It is not sufficient to see and to know the beauty of a work. We must feel and be affected by it.”     — Voltaire

This dazzling diamond necklace was made for the Nizam of Hyderabad in circa 1850

However, when the British arrived in the 19th century, European craftsmanship began to influence Indian jewellery. Silver and platinum replaced gold in diamond sets as well. On the other hand, India also had a powerful stylistic influence on European jewellery. Emeralds that were originally sourced from Colombia, traded by the Europeans, were cut and carved in an ornate Mughal style. Many of these emeralds and spinels have been inscribed with spiritual texts and royal titles.   

Jewellery was no mere adornment for the Mughals, who commissioned high-end design houses like Cartier and Bvlgari, and supplied stones from their repositories. Cartier would use brilliantly coloured and carved gemstones, making exquisite, Indian-style pieces. Two more iconic Cartier pieces in the Al Thani collection include ---  a ruby choker that served as an embellishment on a turban, referred to in India as a guluband. It was made for the Maharaja of Patiala in 1931, and is a noteworthy item in the collection. Another extravagant, and largest-ever commissioned Cartier piece that also belonged to the Maharaja, is a neckpiece studded with more than 3000 gemstones, and features the 234 carat De Beer diamond. Bvlgari, too, designed a ring set with a rare, engraved Mughal emerald. In 1922, Cartier designed a brooch set in platinum, studded with faceted diamonds, and a 109.5 carat sapphire in the centre, for the Maharaja of Nawanagar. As per Hindu astrology, sapphire was associated with Saturn’s planet (shani) and therefore implied inauspiciousness or danger. The legend goes that since the Maharaja belonged to the Sussex County Cricket Club (blue and white were the colours of the logo), he believed that sapphire was auspicious to him. 

Ruby necklace made for Maharaja Digvijaysinhji of Nawanagar, commissioned from Cartier in 1937

Few more highlights from the Al Thani collection include a gold finial inlaid with diamonds, rubies and emeralds, in a kundan setting, that belonged to Tipu Sultan’s throne (1790-1800). Sultan was an implacable enemy of the British East India Company, and the latter combined forces with the Nizam of Hyderabad to defeat Sultan, and eventually killed him in May 1799. This fierce tiger head, which was once a regal ornament, then became historically significant. 

This diamond and enamel peacock aigrette (1905) by Mellerio dits Meller of Paris was worn by the Maharaja Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala in his turban and also worn by his 5th wife Anita Delgado who used it as a hair ornament.

Post the museum exhibits, the FD Gallery in New York announced the sale of the Al Thani collection for June 2019. In what was labelled the jewellery sale of the century, the marathon 
24-hour auction included 400 lots from the Al Thani Collection that was led by five different auctioneers and made a record-breaking $109.3 million in total sales. Moreover, the lots represent less than 10% of the entire collection. Bidders and interested buyers belonged to 45 different countries on five continents, proving just how much international appeal Indian jewels and antiquities hold even in the present day.

The Arcot II Diamond, from the late 18th century, modified in 1959 and in 2011. This pear-shaped, brilliant-cut diamond of 17.21 carats belonged to Golconda.

The historically significant curation featured several magnificent Golconda diamonds, like the Mirror of Paradise, an unset D-colour diamond weighing 52.58 carats, which sold for $5,517,500, and the Arcot II. Of these, the Nizam’s (of Hyderabad) Diamond Riviere Necklace sold for $2,145,000, while an extremely precious, rare portrait-cut diamond of 20.22 carats auctioned for $1,095,000. An emerald bead and pearl necklace went for $855,000, a natural pearl and diamond necklace was acquired for $10, 95,000. Many arms and armour items belonging to the Nizam of Hyderabad, produced fierce bidding and set auction world records. These included the ceremonial sword and his necklace, both of which went for $1,935,000. A white gold jigha (turban ornament) Belle Epoque with diamonds and modern feather plume was acquired for $1,815,000; it belonged to Maharaja Ranjitsinjhi Vibhaji, a 20th-century emperor of Nawanagar. Also auctioned was the Cartier-made Maharaja of Patiala’s Ruby Choker, which is considered one of the most expensive ruby necklaces ever made in history - it fetched $975,000. While the museum exhibits were a showcase of India’s opulent jewels, the auction at Christie’s New York included artefacts, paintings, luxurious objects from the Mughal courts such as rose water sprinklers, ceremonial daggers, bejewelled pen and ink cases, medieval manuscripts, and precious ornaments. 

This rare, single-person owned private assortment is a sight to behold, telling stories of India’s rich heritage of jewelled artistry, the resplendence of the Nizams of Hyderabad, and the courts of 17th century Mughal India. The exhibitions continue to be cultural, firsthand narratives of how Indian design transcended boundaries, genders, politics, kingdoms, and cultures. As the exhibits continue international tours from Paris to Tokyo and New York, the collection stands as one of the highest expressions of Indian art, fashion, and culture.         –  Namrata   Loka