When the light, sparkle and shine became nearly blinding, instinctively I reached for my sunglasses. Instead perched on my head were maang tikka and chot, Hindi for diamond and jewel encrusted ceremonial forehead and braid adornments. Adding two massive diamond and gemstone necklaces, earrings and rings, I was donning a mind-blowing 716 carats of artisan-crafted, bejeweled largess. I also felt 25 pounds heavier.
Not attending a regal coronation or glitzy Bollywood wedding, I was upstairs — by appointment only — in the private atelier of Jaipur’s Gem Palace. Dubbing it the fuchsia funhouse owing to its bubble gum pink décor, really it was my personal happiness hotspot.
Though jewelry has social, historical and economic significance around the world, perhaps nowhere is it greater than in India. Here jewelry and its entire gestalt, from cutting, artisanship creation, viewing, acquiring and wearing it posses almost a life of its own.
Jaipur was established in 1727 by astronomer/diplomat Maharajah Sawai Jai Singh II, who settled the new town with pan-Indian craftsmen and traders. Evolving into an artistic nerve center that expanded in the 19th century, artisanship ultimately became part of its cultural patrimony.
At explosively colorful Indian weddings, often with a thousand or more guests, brides traditionally have 16 essential adornments, 10 of which are jewelry. Not to be left out, grooms often wear serious jewelry in their turbans and coat-like sherwani as well as brooches, cuff links and rings.
Candy without the calories
My own glittery love affair is genetically predisposed, reflective of my ancestral gene pool. My great uncle was jewelry maven Ben Bridge and my grandfather dealt in sparkling diamonds, had retail stores in the South and was dispatched around the globe to assess some of the world’s finest timepieces, including the magnificent Wynwood clock once owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt. Together they and other family members spread the shiny across the U.S. and around the world.
Around the dinner table while other families perhaps discussed character flaws, physical traits and sports prowess, we instead spoke of color, cut, clarity and carats. In our world, bling was king and size always mattered.
Following India’s independence, Jaipur became the capital of the newly formed Rajasthan state and is considered to be the world’s gemstone capital. So if jewelry floats your boat, Jaipur is Eden. Here mountains of stones are inspected, cut, polished and set, while shops are replete with skilled artisan-crafted pieces.
A magical residence
Arriving at Sujan Rajmahal Palace, it began raining red rose petals. Seeing no human on the roof, I never did figure out how that was accomplished, but it set a floral tone for an unforgettable hotel experience. Formerly the Jaipur royal family guesthouse, Sujan was converted to a hotel in the 1970s and recently remodeled into a magnificent 13-room masterpiece.
My room was marble floored, luxuriously appointed, generously sized and contained beautiful books like Valmik Thapar’s “The Sex Life of Tigers.” Its five restaurants and bars were each distinctively decorated in knockout shades including shimmery turquoise and bright fuchsia. Service was impeccable and expansive, and manicured grounds and an enormous swimming pool offered a quiet respite from the city and marathon-like jewelry viewing.
In the opulently furnished “living room,” afternoon tea is served. Sipping amid historic photos of previous guests, including Lord Mountbatten, Queen Elizabeth and Jackie Kennedy left me feeling positively aristocratic. www.sujanluxury.com
A sparkling heritage
Any conversation about jewelry and Jaipur must necessarily commence with Gem Palace and the Kasliwal family that established themselves seven generations ago first as jewelers to royal maharajas, then to British and European royalty. Jackie Kennedy visited Gem Palace in 1962, while Kasliwal creations have been exhibited worldwide, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum.
The great-grandson of Gem Palace’s founder Maniram Kasliwal, Siddharth, joined me upstairs in the breathtakingly pink atelier designed by Dutch fashion connoisseur Marie-Anne Oudejans. Siddharth explained “family archives and late father Munnu” provided his greatest inspiration. This made perfect sense, given that Munnu created some of the brand’s most extravagant and remarkable pieces, including a plum-sized vermillion powder box Siddharth showed me containing 927 rubies that took seven months to create.
Gem Palace’s main showroom contains a series of small rooms with tribal jewelry, silver baubles set with semi-precious stones and of course fine gemstone and diamond jewelry for every taste and budget.https://www.gempalace.com
A museum for the ages
Opened last January, the Amrapali Museum of Jewelry houses the extensive and outstanding private collection of Jaipur jewelers Rajiv Arora and Rajesh Ajmera. The museum contains over 4,000 historic pieces of rare jewelry and antique silver treasures collected during 40 years of traversing India.
A personal favorite was a 1929 detachable Parsi necklace that could also be worn as bracelets. Inlaid with blue enamel were the words “Humata, Hukhta, Huversta” from the Avestan credo of Zoroastrianism, meaning “good thoughts, good words, good deeds.” How could one not deeply love jewelry that tripled the karmic value of wearing it?
The Amrapali Museum contextualizes the historical, social and anthropological aspects of jewelry in India. So even long suffering spouses or jewelry aficionados’ travel partners will enjoy this beautifully curated 6,500-square foot collection reflective of a labor of love. https://www.amrapalimuseum.com
The Amrapali Jewelry House founded in 1978 by Arora and Ajmera started out selling tribal-inspired jewelry, and 10 years later, fine jewelry. Today Amrapali employs over 1,500 people in three Jaipur workshops.
At Amrapali’s upstairs salon with its abundance of sparkling, rose-cut diamond pieces, controlling my inner jewelry lust was challenging. Especially once Rajiv Arora’s son Tarang, the affable CEO and creative director showed me how multiple items can be easily separated for different uses. A pair of long dangling earrings I admired could be worn three different ways depending on the occasion’s formality.
Tarang also showed me the backs of several pieces that were colorfully enameled or set with precious stones. This way “not only the viewer appreciates the detailed aesthetic, but the wearer equally gets pleasure while putting it on.” This is jewelry that’s win-win for everyone!
Interestingly, Tarang pointed out that in the West most items are “created start-to-finish by one jeweler” — certainly my grandfather’s case — “however in India, one piece is made by several artisan specialists.” What results is a communal, creative effort culminating in an aesthetic for the ages. www.amrapalijewels.com
Baubles at every price point
There is some extremely expensive jewelry in many of Jaipur shops, fit for both royalty and Hollywood/Bollywood glitterati. However, many pieces are fantastic yet very affordable.
Viewing jewelry in Jaipur, I was reminded of its power. At my own nuptials, I was adorned with items both borrowed and blue. Wearing jewelry that had survived wars, dislocation, relocation and refugee status, I felt an intense familial pull connecting me to the past. Jewelry, like important stories, thankfully lives on for future generations.
I could probably have spent the rest of my life looking at jewelry in Jaipur while admiring exquisite artisanship. Not wanting to leave but needing to catch an onward flight, consolation in my bag was an amethyst necklace and a tribal bracelet — both interesting, beautiful pieces that paid homage to their artisans. Most importantly, their acquisition would not require that my progeny drop out of medical school.
Julie L. Kessler is a travel writer, attorney and legal columnist based in Los Angeles and the author of the award-winning travel memoir “Fifty-Fifty: The Clarity of Hindsight.” She can be reached at Julie@VagabondLawyer.com.
Some vendors hosted the writer however content was not reviewed by them prior to publication and is solely the opinion of the writer.