The most extravagant displays of jewellery today (at the Oscars or adorning the knuckles of a rap star) pale in comparison to the jewellery worn by the rulers of bygone societies. Special pieces of jewellery are now for special occasions and in polite society, less is more. Generations past did not abide by such petty social etiquette: they were the absolute rulers of their worlds. They had total power, often including the power of life and death over their subjects, and in order to reflect their omnipotence they bedecked themselves with the best that the mineral world had to offer.
Perhaps because of this association between jewellery and power, or perhaps because the most prized gems came from the bowels of the earth itself, different precious and semi-precious stones were frequently associated with gods and goddesses. Jewellery became intertwined with religious ceremonies and took on mystical as well as royal significance. The two cultures that perhaps best demonstrate this dramatic magnificence are Ancient Egypt and the principalities of India.
Tutankhamun’s death mask, recovered by Howard Carter during the 1922 excavation is arguably the most famous symbol of Ancient Egypt. Weighing in at over 11kg, the gold mask is decorated with intricate inlaid glass and semi-precious stones including lapis lazuli, carnelian, quartz, turquoise and obsidian. It was but one of the many jewelled artifacts that was discovered: the tomb was littered with musical instruments, articles of furniture and sculptures.
The young King’s body and mummy wrappings were intertwined with large numbers of jewels including amulets, necklaces and bracelets. The innermost coffin (there were nine in total, one within another, like Russian dolls) was fashioned from 110.4kg of pure gold. The temptation that such treasures posed was too much for Carter and his team who literally dismembered the mummy – even severing the head from the corpse – in order to remove every single piece of jewellery from the body and the sticky layers of congealed anointing oils used to mummify it.
The elaborate use of jewellery in the tomb of Tutankhamun reveals much about the Ancient Egyptians’ relationship with jewellery. The earliest examples found date back to the forth millennia BC and jewellery was worn by both men and women. Nor was it used solely for decorative reasons but also functioned to display the wealth and status of the wearer – hence why Tutankhamun, a pharaoh, was entombed with so much – and in addition had a great deal of religious significance.
Different materials, designs, colours and stones were associated with different deities and had different meanings. For example, gold was considered to be the skin of the gods and was used extensively. Copper and malachite were linked to Hathor, the goddess of love, beauty, music and joy. Red was associated with Isis, believed to preside over the dead, and the Book of the Dead consequently advised that one be buried with a red necklace in order to satisfy Isis’ desire for blood. Green was associated with fertility and it was perhaps this that led to their being so prized by Cleopatra who was said to have worn many strands of emeralds when seducing Caesar.
Rudyard Kipling wrote that “God created the Maharajas to provide a spectacle to humanity,” and this was certainly true. Perhaps more than any other group in history the maharajas and rajas of the Indian principalities defined opulent lifestyles. Western visitors to their courts wrote awed accounts of the vast wealth displayed by these individuals.
The Maharaja Tukojirao bought 1200 pieces during his reign alone and his collection included the Indore Pears, the Porter Rhodes and Jonker diamonds, a bejeweled peacock turban and wonderful emerald and pearl necklaces. The Maharajas seemed especially fond of necklaces, decorative turban ornaments and garlands of pearls.
Some of these were of traditional design but they also became great patrons of western jewellers such as Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels. The famous Patiala necklace, completed in 1928 was commissioned by Bhupinder Singh, the ruler of Patiala (1900 – 1938) and was part of the largest single commission ever undertaken by Cartier. It contained 2,930 diamonds, including the famous De Beers diamond.
As in Ancient Egypt, jewellery held religious significance for the Maharajas. Large stones were inscribed with sacred texts and images and used as talismans. Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal in memory of his wife, had an emerald inscribed in this manner.
Gold is considered to be sacred by Hindus, an incarnation of the goddess Lakshmi. As the feet are believed to be unclean gold was not worn on the feet by anyone except royalty so as not to insult the goddess. The giving of an anklet therefore denoted the transfer of status to the recipient and was the equivalent of a knighthood.
A feature common to both eras was the willingness of individuals to recycle the gems and jewellery in their possession. Gemstones were obviously considered to be a vehicle for demonstrating the creative talents and taste of their owners. The Maharaja Kameshwar Singh of Darbhanga bought two famous diamonds that had been part of a necklace given to Marie Antoinette by the city of Paris at her wedding and used them as part of an elaborate turban decoration which he wore in the 1930s.
The Patiala necklace mentioned earlier was only complete for a few years; the De Beers diamond was removed from it in the 1930s by the Maharaja for use in another setting and then later sold on. Similarly the pharaohs were not above using the burial treasure pilfered from the tombs of their predecessors as part of their own collections, which were later buried with them and occasionally stolen in their turn. Their view of jewellery was therefore much more fluid than our own.
Gemstones imprisoned in glass cabinets as part of historic collections seem a repudiation of everything that jewellery meant to the cultures that first created such pieces. Although the collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum (London) and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (Washington DC) are magnificent, I prefer to visit the preeminent jewellery houses such as De Beers, Cartier and Harry Winston whose collections are ever changing or to see pieces come and go at auction, as they should.