Source: The New York Times
My grandmother was an avid traveler, and in every place she visited–Bangkok, Cairo, Rome–she bought a piece of jewelry. My sisters and I could move in your jewelry box and make a virtual tour around the world.
I still remember the silver earrings from Mexico and the black pearls of Tahiti. She also liked to buy gold pendants to hold on one of her golden bracelets. When she passed away, in 1979, she had assembled three bracelets, that my sisters and I inherited, besides her love for the voyages.
So it seemed natural, on a recent trip to India, that I tried to see part of the country through my grandmother’s eyes–delivering me to our mutual passion.
World’s largest gold consumer, India is a country with healthy appetite for personal adornments. This is very evident in Jaipur, the political capital of Rajasthan and the global center of gemstone cuts and jewelry design.
Jaipur is a typical Indian city, crowded with people and traffic. However, even the humble drivers of the three-wheel mototáxis know about the thousands of luxurious wholesalers and retailers of jewelry. The most famous of all is the Gem Palace.
As seven generations before him, Munnu Kasliwal family, who died in 2012 at 57 years, maintained the Gem Palace in the media offering products to the rich and famous and conquering the nickname “Jeweler of the Stars”. Today, his brother Sanjay Kasliwal family is the main designer and animator of the company’s shops, which is at the same time store of parts and museum.
Despite that, he didn’t seem rushed when I came in without warning and asked for a backstage walk. The Gem Palace can look like a museum and passes the impression of an exclusive enclave with private drivers parked in front of the entrance doors, but it is open to the public, with some more modest items on sale for less than $100.
We went through rooms where Lapidários, polishers, finalizers and goldsmiths transformed their concepts into dressing art. Artisans had all ages, thirty-few to well over 70.
After all this activity, the reception of the second floor was remarkably quiet. No millionaires were in the hall full of pillars where kings, sheiks and other VIPs are spoiled while spending six-or seven-digit values. I would soon learn about who already sat in velvet armchairs, when Kasliwal family caught the dusty presence books bringing the signatures of historical and contemporary clients: Lord Louis Mountbatten, Errol Flynn, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Princess Grace.
Kasliwal family showed them with the same enthusiasm as he demonstrated when displaying stunning necklaces. The books were on shelves; The jewels were everywhere, inside of plastic dishes and scattered over the tables. He opened a closet and withdrew a fantastic string of gems, gold and enamel.
I was amazed at a necklace of quad-wire pearls with a diamond the size of a coin, the back of the pendant as elaborate as the front. My grandmother could have taken that necklace, although it would be hard to bear the price of $160,000.
In the Midas Signature Jewellery, by Sunni Shekhawat, I discovered a niche of Indian jewelry created and sold specifically for weddings.
When I arrived on a Saturday, a bride, accompanied by her parents and uncles, was sitting on a huge marble table in the center of a modern salon, cream-colored, with an occasional antique adding a rustic and stylish contrast. The families that come to the Midas are there to buy custom parts for the big day and maybe other special occasions.
When the wedding staff came out, Shekhawat pulled a variety of styles for me to examine: thick necklaces adorned with polki (gross) diamonds in enamel, and bracelets with hung pearls. Lively, colorful, festive; The pieces were everything but subtle.
Shekhawat, of 52 years, began producing some items with a little less brightness, the kind of jewelry that fashion magazines describe as perfect for “The Office or a night in the city”.
To your surprise, these pieces are showing popular even amongst Indian women, who wish to use more the jewels they possess. A coral choker with a gold pendant, and a pearl necklace finished with a pair of enamelled peacocks, were two stunning creations that may not generate so many envious comments in the workplace.
My grandmother, on the other hand, wore a twin opal wire, which she called her “love Beads,” with a simple dress. So, I’m sure she would have approved my visit to Jashan jewels, an old family business administered by Pankhuri Dhingra.
I found Jashan jewels calling the Jaipur Design Academy and asking for names of alumni who were changing the landscape of jewelry in the city. Dhingra, 27 years old, was happy to greet me in his showroom and three-storey workshop. She said she understands that not everyone can buy gold and diamonds, and therefore produces gold clad jewelry using family designs, such as teardrop-shaped earrings and bells, and more geometric pieces.
In the workshops of the first floor, blacksmiths and stone-placers generated a constant hammering while working on one item at a time, with the same care that they would have if they were using more precious materials. That, according to Dhingra, gives more value to your costume jewelry.
She explained all this while we were in her office, using her desk as a table. She opened a set of metal containers, the food in her interior prepared and packed by her grandmother. It was destiny.
“I thought you’d appreciate an authentic Indian lunch,” she said. It was a delightful demonstration of appreciation for tradition, an approach that she also adopts in her parents ‘ company. “The pieces bring the essence of the ancient jewels, and are made by Indians to look even prettier,” she said.
On my last day in Jaipur, I had the company of two American expatriates I met at the hotel’s breakfast. Terry Ray Johnson and Phyllis Stuart had commissioned a hand painted enamel pendant and framed in silver, with the image of spiritual leader Sri Tathata, at Shivam Gems N Jewellery. We went down to an underground store that was full of storefronts.
Johnson intended to produce the pendant in quantity and sell it to other followers of the leader, such as a commercial and spiritual venture. I had not seen the traditional Indian painted enamel art called Meenakari, and Johnson invited me to examine the completed prototype. I immediately thought this would attract anyone who has a photo that wants to use as a jewel-from a beautiful scenery to the grandchildren.
In addition to custom parts such as the ones being produced for Johnson, Shivam Gems N Jewellery was full of Indian tribal parts, originals and reproductions, elaborated silver pendants adorned with balls and hung bells. Kushor Kumar, seller known as Sunny, stated that her clients are primarily tourists interested in purchasing jewelry as a souvenir of her visit.
I didn’t buy anything at the Shivam or the other shops I visited, as much as I admired the work. I knew I had the best souvenir in my jewelry box at home. My grandmother’s lucky bracelet was there, adorned with a small gold replica of the Taj Mahal.