Monday, 18 February 2013

The Jewels of A Nation

A faithful European interpretation of a formal Indian necklace, featuring diamonds, pearls, and cabochon emeralds and rubies set in gold. It was made by the New York branch of Van Cleef & Arpels in 1965.

New Settings for Old Jewels

The princes faced a difficult road in independent India. Their lives were subject to a level of official scrutiny which exceeded anything attempted by Lord Curzon's penetrating eye. Although their former subjects remained loyal to them, and in many cases voted them into the new parliament the state itself appeared hostile. There were novel impositions, such as wealth and inheritance taxes, and strict laws governing the sale of objects classified as antiquities or national treasures. Without the customary revenue from their states, the tangible proofs of the princes' majesty their palaces, jewels, fleets of cars, and flocks of servants were no longer a source of pride, but a burden, costly to maintain and forever attracting the unwelcome attention of the taxman.

For over thirty years, official opinion sanctioned a characterization of the princes as parasites on the nation, former puppets of the British who were squirreling away undeserved wealth and cheating ordinary Indians of their rightful inheritance. The princes' difficulties peaked during Indira Gandhi's premiership. In 1970 their privy purses were abolished, leaving them to find their own means of maintaining themselves and their numerous retainers and money-guzzling palaces. For many princes, this was the ultimate betrayal of the promises made to them when they had surrendered their independence in 1947. For others, however, it came as a relief, freeing them from dependence on a hostile state and allowing them to claim the rights and privacy due to an ordinary citizen.

In the 1930s the spectacular turban-crowns of their wealthy Nepalese clients caused bemusement at the Van Cleef & Arpels showroom on the Place Vendome.  Throughout these tumultuous decades, many of India's royal possessions left India by unorthodox channels, especially the jewels, which posed a particular problem for the princes. 

As one maharaja complained anonymously to India Today in 1978 his jewellery was a totally worthless asset: 'We can't keep it here because of the wealth tax, and we can't sell it abroad.' At Independence the princes had been told that they could keep most of their jewels as personal property as long as they declared them to the authorities and paid tax on them. With some obvious state jewels this was not an option and the government demanded that they be held in trust for the nation. In response, many princes hid as much jewellery as they dared, for they were often cash-poor and the jewels themselves did not generate any income to meet the punitive tax burden they incurred. 

These taxes might not have mattered so much had the princes been free to sell their jewels in the open market, but legitimate sales abroad were rare because few of the best items qualified for an export licence. Any jewels with settings over a hundred years old were classified as antiquities, and any featuring noteworthy or historic stones were deemed national treasures. In either case their export was banned.

This emerald, pearl, and diamond necklace, worn by the Maharaja of R.ewa on state occasions, shows elements of European influence in its design, especially in the lacy delicacy of its setting and its bow-shaped pendant. It was part of the Rewa treasures bought by Claude Arpels in 1956.These laws applied even to jewels that had arrived in India relatively recently. In 1937 The Times reported that the Maharaja of Dharbanga, Kameshwara Singh, had bought at a London auction a necklace once owned by Marie-Antoinette. With documentation showing that it had originally been presented to the French queen by the City of Paris, the necklace of 43 large diamonds was thought well worth the £15,000 that he paid for it! Some years after his death in 1962 the same necklace left India attended by considerably less publicity; it is said that the highest officials in the country had been bribed to allow its exportation.

Occasionally sales abroad were halted or challenged. In 1954 in London the Maharaja of Burdwan, Uday Chand Mahtab, sold the Jahangir diamond, an 83- carat stone bearing historic inscriptions of the emperors Jahangir and Shah Jahan. Subsequently both he and a Calcutta jeweller were convicted of contravening the Antiquities Export Control Act, and they were fined the equivalent of £13,000, the sum the diamond had fetched at sale. On appeal, however, the Maharaja success-fully demonstrated that the government had failed to register its opposition to the gem's export until after the sale had taken place, and the conviction was quashed.' With more success but less expedition, the Indian government also prevented the hulk of the jewel collection of the Nizam of Hyderabad from being split up and sold abroad.

A diamond necklace assembled in 1865 by Khande Rao Gaekwar, Maharaja of Baroda, to showcase the Star of the South diamond (the top elongated cushion-shaped stone) and, beneath it, the English Dresden. The seventh Nizam, Mir Osman Ali Khan, died in 1967, leaving behind him a reputation as the richest man in the world and a fortune estimated at £500 mil-lion, much of it in the form of jewellery. Some of the stones in his collection left India either before or shortly after his death, for the Italian firm of Bulgari was set-ting rubies, pearls, and carved emeralds from it in the early 1970s.4 The finest pieces, however, remained in India and, in 1972, the Trust in charge of the jewels offered them to the government, but was rebuffed. In March 1978, having negotiated export clearance, the Trust put up a selection of the jewels for international auction, a prospect at which the world's leading gem dealers drooled. But on both this occasion and subsequent ones, erstwhile purchasers among Indian jewellers and foreign firms such as Bulgari. 

Rosenthal and Rosenthal of Paris, and Harry Winston of New York were to be disappointed. Each Above: time last-minute legal challenges blocked the sale. Finally, in January 1995, after a protracted legal battle, the central government coughed up the money to buy the collection itself, the Supreme Court of India having ruled that it was unlawful for government to continue to block the open sale of the jewels while at the same time perpetually delaying any payment that it might eventually decide to make for them itself. For the Ni721-11'S numerous heirs a labyrinthine struggle was almost over, but the price was a dear one. 

A hathpal (literally 'hand flower), of emeralds and cabochon rubies set in gold, created by Van Cleef & Arpels, 1968, for Barbara Hutton. A collection that was roughly valued at Rs. 1,500 crore was sold to the government for just Rs. 218 crore (approximately $70 million), much of which the heirs had to return to the government in the form of outstanding taxes. A specially built gallery now awaits the jewels' display at the National Museum of India in New Delhi, and diamond enthusiasts everywhere are eager to learn whether this is the venue where the Jacob diamond, lost to view since the 1890s, will make its public debut in the twenty-first century.'

For every jewel and historic gem that has been prevented from leaving India, however, many more have gone. Sometimes it is only apparent that a fabulous state necklace has been broken up by the reappearance of one of its distinctive diamonds on the international market. 

The De Beers diamond, set by Cartier in Patiala's ceremonial necklace in 1928, left the Patiala treasury not long after Bhupindar Singh's death in 1938. It came up for auction at Sotheby's in Geneva in May 1982, but was brought in when bidding stopped at 3.16 million dollars (E1, 750,000)." In 1998, the Eugenie diamond, probably also owned by Patiala, resurfaced in Paris at the 19th Biennale des Antiquaries with a price tag of ninety million francs; for some years previously it had been owned by Mrs. N.J. Dady of Bombay.' 

Original design for a platinum set necklace in emeralds and diamonds created by Van Cleef & Arpels for Sita Devi of Baroda in 1950. As with most of her other commissions, Sita Devi provided the stones for this piece. Other Patiala treasure known to have reached the international market include the silver dinner service that Bhupindar Singh had made for the Prince of Wales' visit in 1921-2; this was auctioned in London in the 1980s amidst allegations that it had been smuggled out of India. And an elaborate emerald, ruby, and diamond sarpech, as worn by Bhupindar Singh in a photograph of 1911, has also appeared in international sale-houses most recently in October 1999 at Christie's, London, where it fetched £95,000. In 1959, the New York jeweller Harry Winston bought seventeen emeralds weighing a total of 256.30 carats from the successor of Ranjitsinhji of Nawanagar. 

Among these was the 69.15-carat rectangular stone and its five large companions from Abdul Hamid H's collection which had featured in the emerald and diamond necklace set by Cartier for Ranjitsinhji in 1926.9 In March 1960, Sotheby's auctioned in London a rare pink diamond, weighing 34.64 carats, that was rumored to have come from the collection of the Nizam of Hyderabad.

A watchful portrait of the Nawab of Pataudi known to his friends and family as 'Tiger
In 1983 the Mahjal, a 139.38-carat yellow diamond of South African origin, was sold by Christie's in Geneva for 1,320,000 Swiss francs (£412,500). It was said to have come from the collection of Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala, who had worn it as a turban ornament. Most recently, the Star of the South has come to light again too, indicating that the triple-tiered diamond necklace put together by Khande Rao Gaekwar in the 1860s featuring both the Star of the South and the English Dresden no longer exists in its original form. The necklace had almost certainly been taken out of India by Sita Devi of Baroda in the 1940s.

Less distinctive Indian jewels and stones have been sold internationally in vast numbers. European and American jewellers visited India with increasing frequency in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, principally to appraise collections and to buy jewels for export. Harry Winston began forging links with Indian princes in the 1930s, among them Baroda, Indore, and Nawanagar. The toehold that he gained in this market is indicated by the frequency with which the watershed year of 1947 appears in the Winston company history of the jewels with Indian connections bought and sold by him." Other big purchasers in the royal market after Independence were Van Cleef & Arpels, Bulgari, and the Parisian father-and-son team of gem dealers, Jean and Hubert Rosenthal, who continued the Asian business built up Jean's father and uncles back in the 1890s. 

European jewellers who were well established in India, like Cartier and Garrard, also maintained their contacts with the princes, and although mew commissions did not entirely cease, the cost of this work was often met by sales of other stones or jewels. In 1960 for example Cartier offered for sale in London the Queen of Holland diamond which they had bought from the Maharaja of Nawanagar; this was the stone that, thirty years previously, Jacques Cartier had set for Ranjitsinhji in his fancy coloured diamond necklace.

The Maharaja of Patiala, Bhupindar Singh, photo-graphed in Europe after the First World War. The spectacular sarpcch he is wearing has passed through several international sale rooms in recent years.Clinching these jewellery purchases was rarely a straightforward business. Many princes would only sell jewels or allow them to be viewed by a prospective buyer at a time and date that the court astrologers had calculated to be propitious Harry Winston often experienced delays in concluding a deal because the negotiations could not be completed within an auspicious time slot. Similarly, Claude Arpels learned never to expect to see royal jewels until they were actually placed before him: 'More than once before I had traveled great distances to be told by a Prince, after counting the beads of his "rosary," that it would be unlucky for him to show us his rubies or emeralds."' Another European dealer recalls that it could take months of patient negotiations to finalize a sale. 

Moreover, if the seller wanted to be paid in India, rather than through a foreign bank account, there were difficulties in finding locally sufficient Western currency to make the payment. India's rupee currency is a closed one, and until recently the issue of foreign bank notes was rationed, which meant that many princes demanded payment for their jewels in scarce and highly desirable American dollars. But if patience and resourcefulness were necessary attributes of the successful dealer, so too was the ability to work at speed and in less-than-ideal conditions.

The Jewels of A Nation Jewellers were often called in to appraise a collection at short notice. Working in poor light and without recourse to comparable items or recent sale catalogues, they were expected, within just a few hours, to be able to gauge the prices that scores of pieces might fetch on the international market. Secrecy too was paramount, for who knew which of his competitors might have been asked to value the same jewels?

Claude Arpels (1911-90), head of the New York branch of Van Cleef & Arpels, has left one of the most detailed accounts of a foreign jeweller's experiences in India in the years after Independence. The firm of Van Cleef & Arpels, founded in 'Paris in 1896 had worked for a number of Indian princes before the Second World War, including Baroda, Gwalior, Hyderabad, Indore, Jaipur, Morvi, and Nepal, and, in common with other French jewellers, their creations of the 1920s and 30s had drawn heavily on the styles and motifs of traditional Indian jewellery. 

These Asian links were strengthened in the winter of 1948 when Jacques Arpels, head of the Paris branch, visited India as a guest of Pratapsingh, the Maharaja of Baroda. Over the next few years both Jacques and his brothers Claude and Pierre travelled extensively in India, always with an ear cocked for news of possible jewellery sales. In the early months of 1956 Claude enjoyed an especially successful trip there. From a Bombay dealer he secured a beautiful oval-shaped sapphire: the Neela Rani, or 'Blue Queen', weighing 114 carats. 

Another necklace of Indian inspiration created by Van Cleef & Arpels in the 1960s, The gold and diamond caps on the emerald drops imitate the enamel caps found on pendent beads in much Mughal jewellery. In 1965 this was set for the American socialite Florence Jay Gould in a sumptuous diamond and sapphire necklace; at the posthumous auction of her jewels at Christie's in New York in April 1984 it fetched $1,320,000. He also acquired several heavy diamond necklaces from the small Gujarati state of I.unavada and, from Delhi, some top quality pearls:3 But his biggest coup was in the central Indian state of Rewa, where, with the aid of a retired British colonel who acted as a go-between, he negotiated the purchase of some of the best jewels in the collection of Maharaja Martand Singh. 

After enjoying a day or two of lavish hospitality in Rewa's Chhota Mahal, or 'small palace', during which neither Rewa's treasury nor the purpose of Arpels's visit was mentioned, the jeweller and his colonel were rowed across a lake to the fairytale 'Palace of the White Tiger' where a cornucopia of fabulous gems awaited them. Later Arpels recalled the scene:

The largest diamond in the necklace worn by Sita Devi of Baroda is the Star of the South, a Brazilian diamond which had been bought with state revenues by Khande Rao Gaekwar in the 1860s. The diamond was probably smuggled out of India in the 1940s by Sita Devi herself.Arpels was allowed to select freely from the jewels on display, and only one of his choices was rejected. This was a necklace in which most of the large stones were carved in the form of a Hindu god. Martand Singh refused to sell this piece on religious grounds although he let Arpels have from it a cabochon emerald which weighed over a hundred carats. 

No religious scruples applied to the other pieces that Arpels selected, among them a necklace of large and well-coloured diamonds, including a very large pink diamond; another necklace of interlacing emeralds, diamonds, and emeralds which, with a magnificent bow-shaped pendant, reached down to the wearer's waist; a navaratna necklace-cum-tiara, featuring the nine planetary gemstones of Hindu astrology; pairs of solid gold and gem-studded karas, or animal-head bracelets, and, for the upper arm, pairs of bazubands; and a number of daggers with handles and hilts of carved jade inlaid with rubies and emeralds. 

Interestingly, several of these pieces, far from being 'hundreds of years' old as suggested by Arpels, showed marked signs of recent Western influence in their design; this was especially true of the latticed emerald, pearl, and diamond necklace in which the metal holding the stones in place was reduced, Western-style, to a minimum. 

A multi-coloured necklace of rubies, sapphires, emeralds and diamonds, set in gold in the manner of traditional Indian kundan work, created by Mauboussin in 1967.Through the colonel, a price was fixed for these gems and, a week later, Arpels's selection was delivered to his hotel room in Delhi. After another two weeks of haggling for export licences, he was free to take his precious cargo back to New York with him, where, in March 1956, a select audience was invited to view his purchases.

The haul from this one trip alone was substantial, and, as with their competitors who were purchasing in the same market, it had a dramatic effect on the jewellery which Van Cleef & Arpels produced in the 1960s and 70s. It was like a return to the years of Oriental influence immediately before and after the First World War. In some cases, Claude Arpels simply broke up some of the huge ceremonial necklaces he had bought in India into smaller components, to serve as they were as brooches or pendants for Western clients. 

But he and his brothers in Paris also pioneered a line of Indian-inspired jewels which imitated the design, colour combinations, and settings of traditional Indian jewels, especially necklaces, earrings, and arm ornaments. In this they were also encouraged by the pieces commissioned by some of their surviving Indian customers, among them Sita Devi of Baroda and Shah Karim, Aga Khan IV. In one case the Paris branch even produced a remarkably faithful version of a hathpal, the traditional hand ornament of Rajasthan, for Barbara Hutton, heiress to the Woolworth's fortune.

The Maharaja of Mysore, wearing a splendid array of ornaments, leads a religious procession in the city of Mysore, c. 1970, shortly before the government of India abolished the princes' privy purses. In Italy, jewellery created by Bulgari in the same decades also revealed distinctive Indian elements as a result of their purchases in the Indian market. These included the privileging of cabochon stones; the bold combination of stones of different colour; the creation of rounded or smooth settings, often in gold, in which the metal of the mount was not viewed as the `enemy' of the stones' brilliance; and the resurgence of the buta or stylized flower-spray motif. 

Because of the firm's preference for coloured stones, Bulgari did not usually set many diamonds, but in the late 1950s they acquired an extraordinarily fine and large collection of naturally coloured diamonds from an unidentified French dealer. Given the timing of the purchase and what we know of the masses of coloured diamonds that existed in the treasuries of Hyderabad, Nawanagar, and Patiala, to name but a few, it seems more than likely that the dealer's source was India.

The Eater of Diamonds

In 1943, Pratapsingh Gaekwar Maharaja of Baroda scandalized Indian society by turning his back on his first wife to marry a beautiful and willful divorcee, Sita Devi (born c. 1917). To obtain her divorce, Sita Devi had briefly converted from Hinduism to Islam, an act of expediency which, when it became known added to her reputation as the Wallis Simpson of India. She appeared to have cast a spell over Pratapsingh, and the state officials looked on aghast as their ruler emptied the treasury of its finest jewels for his new wife to use as she saw fit. Many of these she promptly transferred to her homes in Paris and London, mansion-block apartments which she crammed with images of herself decked in royal finery. 

The famous silver 'port and dessert' train in the banqueting hall at Gwalior. The ruler who commissioned it, Madhava Rao Scindia, loved practical jokes and it was noted that the train always sped past those diners who were thought to be too fond of their liquor.After Independence in 1947, this unbridled self-indulgence became a liability for all the princes, as the press and government seized upon her high-profile partying in Europe and America as proof of royal India's disdain for the new nation. In 1949 the government demanded the return of the state jewels that she had taken to Europe. 

Pratapsingh handed over a necklace of seven rows of Golconda diamonds dating from Khande Rao's reign, and six of the seven strands of the famous pearl necklace, but other gems, including a section of the pearl carpet that he had given to her, were not forthcoming. Shortly thereafter, the government forced Pratapsingh to abdicate in favour of his son and the once proud state of Baroda was subsumed within the province of Bombay.

It is questionable, however, whether even in 1949 many of the Baroda treasures could have been returned, for Situ Devi adored having her jewels reset. From the late 1940s to the 1960s the New York and Paris branches of Van Cleef & Arpels remounted thousands of her old stones in new settings. Matching the stones in these new pieces with those in old Baroda jewels is virtually impossible, but two photo-graphs allow us to speculate on the fate of one of the grandest pieces of the Baroda treasury. In 1953 Harry Winston bought from Sita Devi a pair of anklets featuring cabochon emeralds and rose-cut diamonds that closely resemble the emeralds and diamonds in one of the necklaces owned by Khande Rao in the 1860s. 

A rare and beautiful jigha, dating from the late 18th century, of golden sapphires, rubies and emeralds, set in gold, with green, red, and white enamelled reverse. It was sold for £40,000 at Christie's London in October 1999.
The stones in the anklets have the same traditional gold setting as the stones in the necklace, which rein-forces the supposition that the anklets were derived from it. If this supposition is correct, it is ironic that when Winston acquired the anklets he should have fashioned them once more as a necklace. This he sold to the Duchess of Windsor, who had the misfortune to wear it to a New York ball in 1957 which was attended by Sita Devi herself. While the other guests were gasping in wonder at the beauty and size of the stones, Situ Devi was heard to comment loudly that they had also looked very nice on her feet. 

It was a bizarre meeting of the two 'Mrs. Simpsons', East and West, each feted by society but each also widely disliked. Seething at her humiliation, the Duchess returned the necklace to Hairy Winston, who promised not to sell it to anyone likely to know of its recent history or to wear it in her presence. As a result of these conditions, Christina Onassis was turned down as a purchaser and the Baroda necklace-cum-anklets finally found a home in Texas.'

Ultimately Situ Devi's glamour and riches faded. She and Pratapsingh separated and their marriage was dissolved in 1956 the year in which she became a national of Monaco. He died in lonely exile in London in 1968: she spent her remaining years dodging the taxation officials of several countries, with only her son, 'Princie', for companionship.

A sautoir created by the Italian jewellers Bulgari in 1969-70, formed by a chain set with cabochon amethysts, citrines, turquoises, emeralds, and rubies, supporting a carved emerald of 127.40 carats. Many of the stones were acquired by Bulgari from the collection of the Nizam of Hyderabad. His life in her gilded cage ended dramatically one night in May 1985. soon after his 40th birthday, when he slit his throat with a knife, bringing to a close aimless years of alcoholism, drug addiction, and seedy sexual adventures. Sita Devi herself died in Neuilly, an incapacitated and cantankerous old woman, soon after. Today her jewels occasionally appear in international salerooms, but much remains hidden. It is unlikely that the extent of her jewellery mania will ever be quantified.

A Fragile History

Today jewels and gemstones from royal collections still leave India, but in a more measured flow than the flood of exports that inundated the international market in the period 1950-80. The jewels which remain in princely hands form a hidden, unquantified store of relief to be called upon in hard times.Even those royal families who have adapted best to new economic realities, and who have successfully marketed their palaces as hotels and conference centres and trained their sons and daughters in lucrative professions, find occasional need to sell off a noteworthy jewel or perhaps some gold or silver plate that has escaped detection by the authorities. 

This diamond and emerald necklace was worn by the Maharaja of Baroda in the 1860s. It may have been broken up in the 1940s to provide stones for anklets for the new Maharani of Baroda, Sita Devi. And for the families who have proved less skilled at making the change or whose palaces are simply too shabby or awkwardly located to cash in on the tourist dollar, such sales remain their principal way of raising cash. As before, the sales are conducted with caution, even when, as it often happens, the jewels have been sitting in a Swiss bankvault for decades, put by in the 1950s or 60s perhaps for a time when funds might be needed or the market had improved. The jewels appear quietly in the catalogues of international auction houses, discreetly labelled as the 'property of a gentleman' or of a lady. Little specific information is provided.

They are sold as examples of a type, such as 'a sarpech of European manufacture', or 'a fine example of a pearl and ruby sat larha' generic representations of a grand jewellery tradition rather than unique items each with its own story to tell. The contrast with the auctioning of a Western historic jewel is striking. A noteworthy Western jewel excites attention; its provenance is exhaustively researched, and every known scrap of information or documentation is marshalled in the certainty that it will enhance its price. It is easy to see why the difference exists. 

A necklace, c. 1954, of rose-cut diamonds and cabochon emeralds (in their original Indian setting) which was fashioned by Harry Winston from a pair of anklets belonging to Sita Devi of Baroda. Purchased by the Duchess of Windsor in 1956, the necklace was returned to Winston's after the Duchess discovered that Sita Devi had worn the stones around her feet.
The chequered history of the maharajas in independent India is too raw and too recent for any princely family to risk giving the jewels they sell a better provenance. And although information about them survives for a time in personal memory and the confidential records of the auction houses, it seems that by the time the difficulties over their sale have eased much of this knowledge will have been dissipated or rendered inaccessible. It is a sad twist of fate that the royal jewels of India, which are some of the worlds most characterful and fascinating treasures, should be doomed ultimately to having no history at all.

Writer – John Adamson
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