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Mughal Magnificence

The Indian Mughal Empire spanned just over 300 years, but its heritage of art and jewelry continues to fascinate.

By Amber Michelle

Elephant Mughal bangles from Banaras, circa late-eighteenth century, courtesy Ashok Sancheti,
Pioneer Gems, New York.

The jewelry that came out of the Mughal period in India is perhaps some of the most celebrated and recognized, both inside and outside that country. It is the reflection of the blend of Islamic and Hindu cultures that merged for a period of time and left behind a legacy of art and elaborate jewelry that is both iconic and specific to Indian culture.
   “Mughal jewelry represents the finest period of jewelry manufacture in the Indian subcontinent,” explains Rahul Kadakia, head of jewelry, Christie’s Americas and Switzerland. “This was a time when gems were being inscribed, carved and then set into exquisite jewels for the ruling families. Large spinel beads, ropes of natural pearls, fine emerald beads and, of course, Golconda diamonds were all part of the Royal treasuries.”

Mughal History
   
The Mughals, who were Central Asian Turks from Uzbekistan, came to power in India in 1526. The first of the Mughal rulers, all of whom were Muslims, was Prince Babur, descended from Ghengis Khan on his mother’s side and Timur-i-Lang on his father’s side. Babur came to power when he defeated the Delhi Sultan Ibrahim Shah Lodi in the First Battle of Panipat. Babur’s rule was short lived — only until 1530, at which time leadership went to his son Humayun, father of Akbar the Great, who is associated with the glory of the Mughal empire.
   Akbar, who reigned from 1556 to 1605, was artistically inclined and culturally tolerant, allowing both the Islamic ways of his rule and the Hindu ways of India to flourish side by side. His tolerant reign was continued by his son Shah Jahan, who is best known for commissioning the Taj Mahal, considered to be the greatest work of Mughal architecture in history. The vast Mughal empire, which, at its peak, stretched through most of the Indian subcontinent and into what is now Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Afghanistan, began crumbling in the late-seventeenth century as the British East India Company started gaining political power. The Mughal Empire came to an end in 1857 when the Indian Army rose up against British control in the Sepoy Rebellion and the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar was arrested, tried for treason and exiled to Rangoon in Burma. The Mughal Empire was finished for good. 


Mughal earrings,
courtesy J.&S.S. DeYoung.

The Jewels
   
During the Mughal era, jewelry was an important part of the royal court, denoting status and position. Men were adorned as equally as women, with large jewels worn from head to toe. Jewelry created in the royal workshops were true works of art and of the finest craftsmanship. Several artisans — each with a specific area of expertise — worked on a single piece to create the finished jewel. Every visible surface — front, back and sides — of Mughal jewelry is covered in ornamentation. The Mughal style of jewelry combined enameling and Islamic motifs of flowers, paisley and birds with the Hindu style of goldwork and the generous use of precious stones.
   “The Mughal era rulers wanted to keep the stones big so they were generally not cut, but tumbled cabochons or beads to keep the size,” says Ashok Sancheti, owner and president of Pioneer Gems, New York, and a collector of Mughal jewelry. “There were a lot of table-cut diamonds in the pieces because India had the Golconda mines. They were the only known diamond mines until diamonds were found in Brazil in the 1700s. Emeralds came to Spain from Colombia and then were sent to India. Rubies came from Burma, sapphires came from Sri Lanka and Basara pearls, which are natural salt water pearls, from the Indian Ocean.”
   The enameling in Mughal jewelry is generally done in vibrant shades of red, blue and green with white. However, Sancheti explains that the elephant bangles (shown on the cover and opposite page), which he dates as circa late-eighteenth to early-nineteenth century, were from a specific area. “In the past, pink and white enameling was only done in Banaras in the Uttar Pradesh State. In Rajasthan, where Jaipur is located, they used red, blue and green enameling.” Banaras, also known as Varanasi, is the oldest and holiest city in India.
   Mughal jewelry has found favor with jewelry aficionados outside of India as well. “Real, historical Mughal jewelry is intriguing,” comments Janet Levy, principal of J. &S.S. DeYoung, who notes that American heiress Doris Duke was an avid collector of Mughal jewelry. “It was owned by maharajahs and maharanis and the pieces had the best of what was available at the time. The jewelry has great table diamonds and emeralds and it is exotic and beautiful. Mughal jewelry has huge Golconda diamonds and there is an awareness that those diamonds were there before any others.”
   Although the Mughal court jewelers are long gone, the tradition of Mughal-inspired jewelry making continues today, primarily in Jaipur. “It is the older generation today that is making the pieces because they care about the art. The older pieces were solid gold and very heavy; the newer pieces are hollow, but are sometimes filled with wax to add weight,” says Sancheti. While weight may be one way to determine if a piece is old or new, Sancheti notes that it is really experience that allows one to make the distinction. “Generally, if a piece is new, it is stated that it is new,” he says. “To find old Mughal jewelry is very hard. Some copies are made so nicely that even experts are fooled. More and more antique pieces are going to collectors who hold on to them as a family heirloom.”
   Kadakia explains further as to why it is so difficult to find antique Mughal jewelry. “Over the years, it has become increasingly difficult to find Mughal jewels in their original forms as many were taken apart and sold piece by piece,” he concludes. “This is why the appearance of great old period Mughal jewels at auction creates record prices.”

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - August 2013. To subscribe click here.

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