Precious Indian Jewels from the Al Thani Collection Sparkle at Legion of Honor
Aigrette, Mellerio dits Meller, Paris, 1905. Gold, platinum, diamonds, and enamel, 2 3/16 x 2 3/8 in. (5.5 x 6 cm). © The Al Thani Collection. All rights reserved. Photography by Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd
East Meets West: Jewels of the Maharajas from The Al Thani Collection
Legion of Honor | November 3, 2018 - February 24, 2019
SAN FRANCISCO – The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF) are proud to announce East Meets West: Jewels of the Maharajas from The Al Thani Collection, opening at the Legion of Honor on November 3. India has been renowned for its gemstones and jeweled arts for centuries, and visitors can now view more than one hundred and fifty precious objects from the collection formed by His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al Thani, featuring stunning pieces from the rule of the Mughals in the seventeenth century to those reflecting the influence of India on jewelers today. Audiences are invited to observe spectacular Indian jewels and precious objects firsthand while exploring themes of influence and exchange between India and the West. Objects on display will also provide visitors with an intriguing cross-cultural look at jewelry and gender.
“This exhibition provides a riveting look at how politics and culture influence aspects of society—in this instance, jewelry,” said Melissa Buron, Director of the Art Division at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “The collection, magnificent in both its expanse and the physical size of the jewels, is an intoxicating sight to behold. We are so pleased to welcome these incredible works to the Legion of Honor.”
The Mughals, a dynasty with roots in Central Asia, ruled India from 1526 until the establishment of British control, from 1858 to 1947. Throughout this time, India was known for its exquisite production of jeweled arts and precious gemstones. Under successive Mughal emperors and the maharajas, Indian jewelry and works of art developed different styles, influenced by the disparate cultures and monarchal traditions of the time. The objects in this exhibition highlight Indian jewelry traditions including pieces worn on ceremonial occasions; weapons such as swords and daggers; and precious works of art made of gold or jade for display or use.
Unlike the European courts where women wore the most splendid jewelry, in India the male rulers, the Mughal emperors, the maharajas, nizams, and sultans, wore the most significant pieces in dazzling amounts on ceremonial occasions. The Indian male rulers wore jewelry in great profusion as necklaces, armbands, bracelets, and even anklets, signifying their high rank in society.
“The spectacular jewelry worn by the rulers of India is a captivating look into the expectations of both high culture and society across a large swath of history,” said Martin Chapman, Curator in Charge of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture. “Audiences will find this aspect of the exhibit relevant to how we perceive gender today, where equality, fluidity, and choice are important topics of conversation.”
When the Mughals arrived on the subcontinent in the sixteenth century, they brought Persian and Islamic influences to Indian jewelry. This effect can be seen in the several turban ornaments on display, which show how Persian ideas were realized in diamonds, rubies, and emeralds for the Indian rulers. India served as a principal resource for diamond trade, providing the world’s greatest diamonds. Visitors will grasp firsthand the prestige of India’s diamonds upon seeing the Idol’s Eye, a 70.2-carat diamond and the largest blue diamond in the world. Other precious objects include jade, a hardstone that Mughal rulers associated with victory, fashioned into weapons such as daggers; the material was prized, moreover, for its curative powers and was therefore carved into cups and drinking bowls. Gold was also a favored material for physical expressions of royalty, seen in Indian jewelry up to the end of the nineteenth century and in precious ceremonial vessels. The wearing of strands of pearls, which began in India as a custom for male rulers, is now found throughout the world as a fashion for women.
With the arrival of the British Raj in the nineteenth century came the influence of European styles and craftsmanship on Indian jewelry. Gold was replaced by silver and platinum for diamond-set pieces. Conversely, in the early twentieth century, India became the most prevalent influence on Western jewelry, in both its style and the use of brilliantly colored and carved gemstones. Indian jewelry inspired great European jewelry houses such as Cartier to make pieces in the Indian style, using carved and brilliantly colored gemstones. This exhibition will showcase famous gemstones such as the Arcot II diamond (formerly belonging to the British Crown Jewels), the vibrantly pink Agra diamond, and other treasures such as a jade dagger owned by Emperor Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal.
East Meets West follows other exhibitions of jewelry and decorative arts at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, including Read My Pins: The Madeline Albright Collection (2016–2017); The Art of Bulgari: La Dolce Vita and Beyond (2013–2014); and Cartier and America (2009–2010).
East Meets West: Jewels of the Maharajas from the Al Thani Collection is organized by Martin Chapman, Curator in Charge of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco with Amin Jaffer, Senior Curator of the Al Thani Collection.
India’s magnificent and ornate jewels have captivated Westerners for centuries. Upon entering the exhibition, visitors will encounter such objects as the stunning Cartier Nawanagar necklace set with rubies, introducing them to both the marvel of pieces with East and West attributes and jewelry made exclusively for the male rulers of India.
The next gallery explores both India’s history as the world’s primary source of diamonds and its love for emeralds and spinels. Because the subcontinent was the world’s principal diamond supplier until the 1730s, many famous diamonds originated there, including the Idol’s Eye (the largest blue diamond in the world), the Arcot II (previously owned by the Queen of England), and the vibrantly pink Agra diamond, all shown in this gallery. In fact, when diamonds were later discovered in Brazil, they were traded through India in order to give them credibility.
Also in this gallery, visitors will see immaculate emeralds, iconic stones in Indian jewelry. Europeans traded the stone, originally sourced from Colombia, to India, where the emeralds were cut and carved in the Mughal style to make them appear specifically Indian. Look closely: many of the emeralds and spinels throughout the galleries are visibly seen adorned with inscriptions of spiritual texts or royal titles.
Proceeding to the next gallery, we explore the Mughal emperors’ fascination with hardstones, specifically jade. The stone’s association with victory led to its being used for battle weapons such as daggers. Jade was also regarded as an antidote to poison, which encouraged the Mughals to carve it into exquisite cups and bowls. The Mughals likewise carved jade into various other precious objects for court use, including hookah bases, crutch handles, and the charming tiny jeweled bracelets intended for falcons to wear during hunting.
In Indian royal life, gold was the most favored material for creating jewelry or ceremonial objects. Throughout the next two galleries, ceremonial pieces such as daggers, rosewater sprinklers, and boxes for spices can be seen set with the unique Indian kundan technique, which involves securing gems together with strips of pure gold rather than with claws or prongs.
Jewelry worn by the male rulers of India was an essential part of court culture. Such men donned necklaces, armbands, and bracelets in great profusion, but the turban ornament was the most characteristic of all Indian accessories. Featuring all of India’s famed artistry and an array of jewels, turban ornaments in this gallery sparkle with diamonds, rubies, and emeralds. Worn set with birds’ feathers, these emblems of authority became even larger and more elaborate in the nineteenth century.
The final gallery showcases Indian and European jewelry from the twentieth century to the modern day. European jewelry houses such as Cartier created some of the most spectacular pieces for the maharajas, who supplied stones from their own treasuries. The results are a hybrid, employing Western jewelry techniques but executed in traditional Indian forms. The Patiala necklaces, for instance, represent some of the most extravagant commissions given by a maharaja to a European jewelry house. The necklace that was made to cover the breast of the maharaja contained more than three thousand gemstones, which had included the 234.65-carat De Beers diamond, the largest-ever-commissioned necklace made by Cartier at the time. Other pieces on view by Cartier incorporate Indian carved gemstones, including emeralds and rubies, in a style known today as Tutti Frutti. With remarkable pieces by Mumbai’s Bhagat and Paris’s JAR, this final section illustrates how Indian jewelry traditions have persisted in the hands of contemporary jewelers, giving us a vision of how East meets West today.
Visiting | Legion of Honor
Lincoln Park, 100 34th Avenue, San Francisco. Open Tuesdays–Sundays, 9:30 am–5:15 pm. Closed most Mondays. Open select holidays.
For adults, tickets are $28. Discounts for students, youth, and seniors are available. Members and children five and under receive free admission. More information regarding tickets can be found at legionofhonor.famsf.org/visit-us.
An audio tour will be available for purchase to visitors.
The Museums have published a scholarly catalogue, East Meets West: Jewels of the Maharajas from The Al Thani Collection, to accompany the exhibition. The volume will include essays from Martin Chapman, Curator in Charge of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and Amin Jaffer, Senior Curator of The Al Thani Collection, with a preface specially written by His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al Thani.
Opening Day, Saturday, November 3: Join us for a closer look at the exhibition and the Indian jeweled arts with a talk from Amin Jaffer, Senior Curator of The Al Thani Collection.
This exhibition is organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Education and outreach programs are made possible through the generosity of Diane B. Wilsey. Additional support is provided by Jamie and Philip Bowles.
About the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco oversee the de Young, located in Golden Gate Park, and the Legion of Honor, in Lincoln Park. It is the largest public arts institution in San Francisco, and one of the most visited arts institutions in the United States.
The Legion of Honor was inspired by the French pavilion at San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 and, like that structure, was modeled after the neoclassical Palais de la Légion d’Honneur, in Paris. The museum, designed by George Applegarth, opened in 1924 on a bluff in Lincoln Park overlooking the Golden Gate. Its holdings span 4,000 years and include European painting, sculpture, and decorative arts; ancient art from the Mediterranean basin; and the largest collection of works on paper in the American West.
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