For historical insight into the Mughal empire, a comprehensive examination of the creative influence of this period in antique, modern and contemporary jewellery design, and an afternoon with some sensational jewels look no further than the recently opened ‘Bejewelled Treasures: The Al Thani Collection’ at the Victoria & Albert Museum.
The exhibition forms part of the Indian Festival at the V&A and offers a treasure trove of pieces, predominantly from the collection of Sheikh Hamad Bin Abdullah Al Thani but with a few pieces loaned by Her Majesty The Queen, which chart the history and influence of Mughal and Indian jewellery design. The exhibition has been sponsored by London-based jewellery dealers Wartski.
One of the main things that struck me when viewing the pieces of bejewelled art was how abundant the use of gemstones and colour was in Mughal works – cats and birds crafted in gold have hardly an inch of space having been frosted with diamonds, emeralds and rubies; deadly daggers lull you into a false sense of security with the beauty and tactile nature of their handles; seemingly commonplace tools such as back-scratchers have been thoughtfully and delicately crafted from milky green jade, accented with tiny diamonds. These pieces are testament to how ubiquitous gemstones were in India at the time. Having said that, whilst gemstones were certainly prevalent, the size, quality and volume of stones used in jewellery and objets d’art were indicative of your status in society – the better the gems the more powerful you were.
I was also intrigued to see how often spinels were used in jewellery – since the sale of the Hope Spinel by Bonhams earlier in the year it seems like they are popping up everywhere. One piece in particular, a necklace loaned by the Queen, has the most juicy and unctuous looking spinels in it. Often confused with rubies, as they can be found in the same areas, they have long been the stone of lesser value – although with recent auctions this view seems to be changing. Certainly when you consider the contemporary pieces on show by masters such as JAR, Viren Bhagat and Amrapali, it is evident that the big four (emeralds, sapphires, diamonds, and rubies) are no longer holding court as the gemstones of choice in jewellery making.
Exhibitions such as this are valuable as it gives the public a glimpse into private collections, many of which are culturally and historically important. I left wondering what else there is in the Queen’s crown jewels and the Al Thani collection and how we could make them more publicly available in the future. The British Library, with funding from Daniel Crouch Rare Books, is digitising the King’s Map Collection, ultimately expanding the academic resources available to people all over the world who are learning about cartography in the digital era. Perhaps this is the answer to making what is private public, as the resources required to put on an exhibition like ‘Bejwelled Treasures’ means that they cannot be done regularly.