A handout from the exhibition featuring one of the objects. Click on image to enlarge it

Expecting that the Victoria & Albert Museum’s 2015-2016 Bejewelled Treasures: the Al Thani Collection would be essentially the same show as one drawn from the Al Thani collection in New York, I was delighted to find a much larger, more scholarly, and more exciting exhibition. Bejewelled Treasures was not only a far larger and more instructive show, it also boasted several important pieces from the royal collections, a valuable catalogue by Susan Strong, Joanna Whalley, and Anna Ferrari, and an informative video presentation of contemporary Indian jewelers demonstrating traditional techniques of diamond polishing and setting as well as enameling. It also made much more use of Indian painting to show how and where the jewels were used. Unfortunately, unlike most other V&A shows, the museum did not provide either press or installation photographs, which is a great pity since some of the stunning objects need photographs to be believed. (Bejewelled Treasures included two of the three objects whose photographs appeared in my review of the Metropolitan's exhibition; the dagger, which may have been from the Met, was not.)

Reviewing the earlier exhibition of a small portion of the Al Thani collection, I remarked that it surprised 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 [Not the case at the V&A!] — 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.)

Bejewelled Treasures has quite a few more surprises, one of the most fascinating being the cross fertilization of South Asian and European jewelers and jewelry as East and West both learned from each other and made precious objects for the Other. Indian jewelers learned Western diamond cutting techniques, and Westerners found themselves influenced by traditional Indian jewelry. Another valuable point of the exhibition appeared in its distinction between Persian-influenced style and technique and those of the Indian subcontinent. Whereas Indian jewelers had preferred diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds, and pearls, the Muslim conquerors ranked most highly spinels — a red jewel of which I had never heard before. As the catalogue explains, “the defining characteristic of Mughal jewellery is its use of ‘kundan’ setting for precious stones combined with brilliantly coloured enamelling. Kundan, meaning ‘finest’ or ‘purest’, refers to the highly refined gold that holds gemstones in place without the need for obtrusive settings. Its softness means that a molecular bond can be formed simply by applying pressure with mechanical tools” (87; the fabrication of kundan jewel-setting was demonstrated in one of the exhibition videos).) The Mughal jades, such as a crutch handle (28), fly whisk (37), wine bowls (29-30), and various boxes and containers, decanters (35) and flasks (36), made yet another important part of the exhibition.

One of the more interesting objects in the earlier Metropolitan exhibition was a large photograph of bejeweled men and boys, showing both how these gems were worn and the enormous wealth carried on the persons, young and old, of those in power. The V & A show did even better by projecting more than a dozen photographs of men — and women — wearing these precious ornaments. In fact, Bejewelled Treasures had many examples of women’s jewelry, such as the 13.7 mm wide nineteenth-century gold and diamond hair ornament (no. 61), the slightly later diamond, ruby, and pearl hair ornament in five detachable sections (no. 61), and earrings and nose rings. It therefore provided a more balanced view.

As in all shows, contemporary attitudes color the comments about the objects displayed. One of the rare inane examples appears in the museum label, though not in the scholarly catalogue, for a dagger and scabbard owned by Robert Clive (no. 41), which comments in passing that he infamously conquered India and then tells us that a local ruler gave him the bejewelled weapon and scabbard as a reward for his victory. The catalogue more helpfully explains that Clive may have received the dagger when “the [Mughal] emperor conferred upon him a high rank in the Mughal administration, or the following year when he was given the infamous jagir, or grant of land revenues” (90). Embarrassed by the fact that the British had an empire, a rather large one at that, the person who created the case label confused the description of local taxation with the British empire. This, I must emphasize, is a tiny blemish on a magnificent show. Last year this same space housed a rather unsuccessful exhibition centered on the theme of luxury — unsuccessful because the organizers seemed quite embarrassed by the very undemocratic notion of luxury. This show in contrast revels in luxury enjoyed by those very unlike us, in bejewelled objects of enormous cost, and in very unfashionable imperial conquests, not only the British conquest of South Asia but (to this show) the more important Muslim Persian conquest of Hindu India.

Created 9 April 2016