Rapaport Magazine
Style & Design

A walk through the palace

A new book celebrates the innovative creations of Indian designer Munnu.

By Phyllis Schiller

Image: World Diamond Museum

Artist-jeweler Pramod Kasliwal — known as Munnu, or “little one” — already had deep roots in the trade when he began his design career. Born in Jaipur, India, in 1958, he came from a family of gem merchants and jewelers who had moved to the city in 1728 at the invitation of the maharaja Jai Singh II, establishing The Gem Palace in 1852. Although Munnu died in 2012 at the young age of 54, his influence on the family business and Indian jewelry was profound. A new book — Munnu: Vision and Passion by jewelry historian Usha R. Balakrishnan — pays homage to that legacy.

Lavish color photos amplify anecdotes about the man and accompany the discussions of his jewelry creations’ nuances and influences. While there have been previous publications about Munnu, they were “purely pictorial and for private distribution only,” explains Balakrishnan. “This is the first book that presents the design journey of Munnu Kasliwal of The Gem Palace, Jaipur, a jewelry house synonymous with luxury, sophisticated style, flamboyant statement pieces and exquisite craftsmanship, and chronicles the metamorphosis of The Gem Palace from a local jewelry firm to an international jewelry house — an evolution synchronous with Munnu’s life.”

The designer’s son Siddharth personally requested that Balakrishnan “undertake the writing of this tribute to his father,” she recalls. She had met Munnu during her earlier projects and curated his works for the 2014 exhibition “India: Jewels That Enchanted the World,” which World Diamond Museum founder Alex Popov had organized at the Moscow Kremlin Museum.

Balakrishnan has studied and documented multiple Indian jewelry houses and firms, “especially those that have a historical legacy and are renowned for their craftsmanship,” she says. “The Gem Palace is one such institution, with a historical continuity that goes back to the time of the Mughal empire.”

Mughal muses and beyond

While Munnu loved and admired traditional Indian opulence and grandeur, he brought a “rare sensibility and elegance to all his designs,” according to Balakrishnan. “Whether original or revival, inspired by ancient civilizations or various cultural movements, influenced by Victorian, Art Nouveau or Art Deco, Munnu’s jewels are contemporary, timeless in their beauty, and offer a range of aesthetic choices to consumers of fashion.”

Spinels were his favorite stones, she says, but his designs are punctuated with the “rainbow colors” of semiprecious gemstones, which he used “like precious gems in his jewels. He worked with gold and silver and drew inspiration from the classical to the modern, from the past to the present, and from architecture, nature and geomorphic modernist forms, coaxing his artisans to realize the designs that he conceived.”

The extreme refinement of the Mughal period “remained a benchmark for his work,” she continues, and many of his pieces “are audacious interpretations of the traditional jewelry of India. Jaipur was his home, and in many respects, his muse. The architecture of the palaces, ornamental elements like arches, openwork stone screens, domed kiosks and mural paintings were a constant source of inspiration. Lotus flowers, lovebirds, and all manner of flora and fauna are exquisitely detailed with intricately cut semiprecious stones in a typical Munnu palette, which ranges from the fiery red of rubies [to] the lush green of emeralds, the fire of opals, and the limpid blue of aquamarines.”

Free of constraints

Munnu’s designs liberated jewelry from “the confines of the conventional,” the author states. “From the creation of the ‘T-shirt’ necklace to dreaming up settings that fused gemstone and metal in unique ways, Munnu produced a new genre of jewels that bridged the historical past with an uber-stylish present.”

The liberation of his jewelry extended to its form as well: “Boxes transform into bracelets, rows of pearls in necklaces can be unhooked and hooked together to create a variety of different styles, majestic turban ornaments separate into brooches and pendants, turtles and birds metamorphose into rings, and lovebirds and lotus blossoms take [up] residence in earrings,” says Balakrishnan.

Sharing an anecdote that she feels best reveals the man behind the jewelry, she points to the care he took even with elements very few would see. “Dotted with diamonds or pierced like lace, the backs of his designs are as outstanding as the fronts. ‘Why should I pay for this?’ a customer once asked him, figuring what wasn’t readily visible wasn’t all that important. ‘Why do you buy expensive underwear?’ Munnu retorted.”

Beauty that lasts

Indeed, it was more than just his designs that attracted an elite group of customers. “His infectious laughter, the mischievous glitter in his eyes, his unassuming charm, his generosity, and his rapport with his artisans brought him a clientele from around the world,” relates Balakrishnan. “They included European royals, princelings and princesses, international society queens, movie stars, rock stars, Arab sheikhs, world leaders, design tsars, and the merely moneyed. Like bees to honey, they all flocked to The Gem Palace and fell in love with Munnu’s jewels — jewels that epitomized luxury and sophistication and embraced art and heritage.”

His two sons, Siddharth and Samarth Kasliwal, have taken up his mantle, having “learned from a very young age from their father,” she says. “The Kasliwals are committed to upholding the reputation of The Gem Palace as a high-end jewelry firm distinctive for the contemporaneity of traditional idioms, impeccable manufacture, technological sophistication and high-quality gemstones.”

As Munnu would often say: “Jewelry is not for one generation; my quest is for everlasting beauty.”

Munnu: Vision and Passion was published in March by the World Diamond Museum.

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - May 2022. To subscribe click here.

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