Updated: Jul 29, 2020
It is 1926, imagine a trunk full of jewels, precious stones, and the De Beers diamond, being delivered to Cartier. In the largest single commission executed by Cartier or any other jeweller till date, the Patiala necklace was created for Maharaja Bhupinder Singh consisting of 2930 diamonds and weighing over a 1000 carats.
It would take Cartier three years to transform the Maharaja’s gems into a collection of iconic jewels with an untouchable magnificent value in the history of jewellery.
Hardly anyone can surpass the ingenuity of Indian royalty when it comes to larger-than-life luxury.
Unfortunately it has barely been chronicled.
The royalty is notorious for their whims and fancies, to which Cartier, Boucheron, Christofle, Rolls Royce, Jaeger-Le Coultre, Louis Vuitton, to name a few, have bowed down to.
The maisons served the royal families and the aristocracy for decades.
The deep love for beauty and style was evident in their bespoke orders to jewellers and watchmakers like Cartier and Van Cleef and Arpels. The Maharajas and Maharanis were instrumental in building these luxury maisons because of the sheer magnitude and volume of business, making them the icons they are today.
Indian royalty became huge patrons of some of the major European fashion and luxury houses in the British era. Luxury maisons, which went through more than 150 years of existence, have had long connections with India. And India, with its landscape of luxury, has inspired many of these fabulous creators.
The creations did wonders for the images of the maisons in the west, and inspired certain eastern-style collections. Cartier incorporated Parisian settings to the Maharaja's gems while taking inspiration from the Indian style for its own line of creations for it's western clients.
The royals were known for their admiration for splendour. They appreciated the work, creativity craftsmanship of the now iconic maisons. Only the most exclusive would do for them.
Gems, precious stones and jewelry were not solely for indulgence and flaunting wealth, they were considered to have metaphysical properties. They also depict power and hierarchy.
It is no wonder that wars have been fought, and empires won and lost in their pursuit.
Maharajas wore them and displayed the elaborate designs in a magnificent manner. To this day, gems and jewelry in India carry potent messages of power, honour and love.
The Maharanis, always elegantly dressed and adorned, were icons of timeless style; fond of fast cars, hunting, fashion and jewellery. They were patrons of couture from Jean Patou, Elsa Shiaparelli, Jeanne Lanvin, the most exclusive fur coats from Mainbocher, chic French chiffon imported from Paris for sarees and headdresses from Reboux.
The concept and notion of luxury in India is about customisation, service and gifting.
It has been about the 'family jeweller', the 'family seamstress', the service at home. It still is.
Vintage and luxury cars were given as gifts and many a time customised. 800 Rolls royce were delivered to India between 1903-1945, some gilded in gold.
(From L to R : Maharani Gayatri Devi, Princes Esra and Maharani Sita Devi)
The lifestyles of the royalty were such that they dined and served in the best china from Royal Worcester, fine silverware from the best silversmiths of India, drank in Lalique and Baccarat, had fragrances from France and stationery from Bond Street. Born with a silver spoon, quite literally, silverware was famed in royal families. Infact, eating in silverware was and has been known to fortify food, as silver is known for it's anti-viral properties.
Nothing was too spectacular for them.
This sort of indulgence was accessible to the wealthy and elite. They led mystical, magnificent, enigmatic lives.
Having said that, indulging in luxury is not new to India. Whether it is rich silks, intricate embroideries, elaborate handwork, all of which involves hours of labour, it resonates with our heritage, culture and history.
India's luxury story has no specific beginning, and I am not sure it has a specific end either. It has transformed into being more accessible.
The lineage may not have kingdoms to run anymore or the magnanimous levels of indulgence, but their enigma still remains. The blue blood-line continues, they run industries and businesses, while some faded out or chose to live classified lives.
(A recommended read on the fascinating stories of the Indian Royals is, Made for Maharajs: A design Diary of Princely India, by Amin Jaffer.)