I spent Wednesday morning at the V&A gazing slack-jawed into glass vitrines at the dazzling objects on show at ‘Bejewelled Treasures: The Al Thani Collection’.
The exhibition – which opens to the public tomorrow – showcases around 100 pieces from or inspired by the jewellery traditions of the Indian subcontinent and is drawn from the private collection of Sheikh Hamad Bin Abdullah Al Thani.
Through a series of rooms designed to resemble the interior of a jewellery box the exhibition takes us on a chronological journey marked by precious stones: diamonds, rubies, jade, and oh – the emeralds!
We see items collected by Mughal Emperors during the 17th century, Indian-inspired pieces made by leading European houses such as Cartier in the early 20th century and contemporary pieces with an Indian theme made by modern masters including JAR and Bhagat of Mumbai.
A room dedicated to kundan and enamel (two fundamental Indian jewellery techniques) is a particular treat, as are highlights such as the gobstopper-sized Golconda diamond given in 1767 to Queen Charlotte by the Nawab of Arcot in South India and a luminous Deco-style brooch designed by Paul Iribe and made by Robert Linzeler in Paris in 1910.
My personal favourite, less for the piece (which is stunning) than for the story that accompanies it, is a peacock brooch and hair ornament bought by Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala when, on his way to Spain in around 1905, he fell head over heels for 16-year-old dancer Anita Delgado. He whisked Anita off to Paris, where she was transformed by the city’s couturiers and hairdressers and the happy couple tied the knot.
The story gets better. Several years later, now as the Sikh raja’s fifth wife, Anita one day spied a crescent-shaped emerald being worn by one of the royal elephants. Agreeing to learn Urdu in exchange for the gemstone, it was gifted to her on her 19th birthday and she later had it set as a brooch which doubled as a hair ornament, bracelet and necklace.
Both the peacock and the elephant’s gem are on show at the V&A and seeing them, and the other pieces of this wonderful collection, reminded me just why jewellery captures the imagination so powerfully. Sure, it’s beautiful and rare and sometimes priceless, but it’s the stories, the adventures and the mysteries which surround it that give it its enduring sentimental appeal.
Bejewelled Treasures: The Al Thani Collection, sponsored by Wartski, from 21 November 2015 – 28 March 2016 at the V&A vam.ac.uk/bejewelledtreasures
Words: Maia Adams