Diamond Necklace for a Prince (kanthi) Punch Dagger (katar) Turban Ornament

Left: Mid- to late-nineteenth-century Diamond Necklace for a Prince (kanthi). Middle: Punch Dagger (katar) c. 1680-1720. Right: Mid-nineteenth-century Turban Ornament in gold and diamonds (Sarpesh). Images: © Servette Overseas Limited 2013. All rights reserved. Click on images to enlarge them.

Treasures from India: Jewels from the Al-Thani Collection, a small one-room exhibition that ran from October 28, 2014, to January 25, 2015, exemplifies the Metropolitan Museum of Art's practice of mounting small shows that simultaneously delight and educate. The Al-Thani collection surprises on several counts: for those of us who know little about the history of South Asian jewels and jewelry other than what we've read in Wilkie Collins's Moonstone, it's a delight to see these opulent aigrettes, seal rings, necklaces, turban decorations, and belt brooches. All the pre-twentieth-century examples of these lavishly embellished and bejewelled objects decorated men rather than women — the exhibition does include some twentieth-century examples of women's jewelery — and such adornment goes a long way toward explaining the much-criticized European habit of feminizing the men of the Indian subcontinent. Imagine with what shock an Englishman garbed in dark colors might encounter such conspicuous splendor! (Of course, the armies of the East India Company and Great Britain itself wore brightly colored uniforms embellished with gold braid and medals but not jewels, which were considered largely women's decoration.)

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One of the most striking objects in Jewels from the Al-Thani Collection did not appear enclosed in glass but hung on the wall that I saw as I entered the room — a large photograph of the bejeweled men and boys of a maharajah's or sultan's family that showed both how these gems were worn and the enormous wealth carried on the persons, young and old, of those in power. When I shared some of the photographs of objects in the exhibition with Dr. Jacqueline Banerjee, the Associate Editor of the Victorian Web who visits India frequently, she immediately e-mailed her photographs of two wonderfully garbed Sikhs she had met in last year's trip. I include them because the sight of these men's bracelets, turban ornaments, weapons, and other decorations shows the ways the jewels in the Al-Thani Collection would have been worn.

Since Cartiers created some of the more lavish pieces shown, the exhibition also represents a perhaps unexpected merging of East and West, such as continues today in the equally elaborate bibs or breasplates of gems created by American, European, and East Asian jewelers for wives of Middle Eastern princes.

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Created 21 January 2015

Last modified 9 April 2016