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Centuries of Opulence: Jewels of India

Large flawless diamonds from the Golconda region. Rich green emeralds from Colombia. Blood-red rubies from Burma. Only the most visually striking would do, set in the purest gold. For more than 5,000 years, jewelry has played an integral role in the history of India. Wars were fought and empires won and lost in pursuit of these riches.

Yet, because of cultural practices, relatively little of the historic jewelry exists, the gems and precious metals repurposed by succeeding generations. The jewels in this exhibit, on loan from a private collection, showcase more than 300 years of adornment in India primarily from the 17th to the 20th century, including several from the magnificent Mughal Empire (1526–1857).

In fact, it was a thirst for the fabled riches of Northern India that drew Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire, from Central Asia. Lavishly adorned with the jewels they had won, received as “gifts” or created from the vast stores of gems and gold in their treasuries, the Mughals and other rulers of India continued to honor the religious, metaphysical and social importance of the precious materials and the forms they took.

Intricately designed pieces celebrated Allah and Hindu gods, such as Shiva, Krishna and Vishnu. Other jewels were integral to the marriage contract, as seen in the elaborate wedding necklaces, in depictions of snakes or fish as symbols of fertility, and in nose rings worn as testament to happiness in the union. Brightly colored gems and enamel symbolized the forces of life: red as blood, the life force of the animal kingdom; green as the plant life created by the blue sky combined with the yellow sun. To this day in India, gems and jewelry carry potent messages of power, honor and love.

Journey of the Gem

For centuries, traders hiked along the rugged Hindu Kush Mountains of what is today Afghanistan and Tajikistan, traveled east to the fabulous ruby mines of Burma (Myanmar), and sailed south across the Gulf of Mannar to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in search of fine gems for Indian royalty. With the opening of a sea route from Western Europe to India, Portuguese merchants introduced fabulous emeralds from the New World.

What did these adventurers hope to get in trade? Nothing less than the most beautiful diamonds in the world from what was long the only source. Some of our most celebrated diamonds—including the infamous Hope and Koh-i-Noor—originated from India’s famed Golconda mining area. The Indian aristocracy kept the best for themselves and traded the balance for rubies, sapphires, spinels and pearls from all corners of the earth.

Quality was a key factor. Only the finest gems and purest gold would evoke maximum power to honor the gods and serve as talismans to ward off evil. Gemologists were valued members of most royal courts in India. The Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb (reign 1658–1707) had three in his entourage: one to care for the gems, a second to estimate their value, and the third to grade them and detect treated gems or imitations. Gemological knowledge was passed from father to son for generations, but also taught in texts such as the notorious Kama Sutra.

Today, GIA conducts research and educates thousands to continue this tradition of expanding and perfecting gemological knowledge: investigating how gems form and establishing clues to their origin from some of these fabled sources.

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