Lot 56

A turban ornament with three foliate cluster panels centrally set with polki diamonds, with a similarly-set surround, suspending a fringe of seventeen pearls from below, to the tapered aigrette kalgi suspending a pearl. The reverse is finely decorated in a floral design cutwork with meandering branches and flowers of pavé-set diamonds, joined by a link-chain set with diamonds. The aigrette is detachable and can be worn as a brooch or pendant, and the five foliate panels can be worn as a sarpatti turban jewel or as a necklace.

Emerald: 18.88 carats
Pearl: 204 carats
Diamond: 109.25 carats
Gross weight: 295.84 grams

Height (total): 15.20 cm
Length (without the chain): 20.50 cm
Width of the necklace: 6.20 cm

The Gem Palace, Private Collection, India

"I love seeing how our creations become alive when worn. For me, each piece is unique and has a soul" - MUNNU KASLIWAL


It is virtually impossible to make a quick visit to The Gem Palace in Jaipur. It is an experience that involves peeling away the layers of what one simply sees. There is a depth here that emerges in understanding the inspiration behind the jewels, whether it's a Mughal motif, the light from a newly cut stone, or the finesse in enamelling as you turn over an antique jadau necklace. There are generations of family input in this veritable palace, however, the aura of Munnu Kasliwal and his imprint on these jewels is indelible. Perhaps it's the hours he spent gazing at his miniature paintings through a magnifying glass, the days he spent examining the patterns on the antique textiles he collected, or the hours he spent looking through precious gems to find 'the one', Munnu's ability to see and create went beyond what was visible.

The treasures one finds here are transformative. They can mesmerise visitors into staying for hours on end, discovering unique pieces to add to their personal collections. It comes as no surprise, then, that the flagship store's clients include a veritable who's who of aristocrats, fashion designers, celebrities - such as Jackie Kennedy, Oprah Winfrey, Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana, and of course, the late Maharani Gayatri Devi. According to Countess Muriel Brandolini, named one of the world's top 100 designers by Architectural Digest in 2016, "Gem Palace was like the den of Ali Baba, and you could never leave with empty hands." (Guy Trebay, "Munnu Kasliwal, a Favorite Jeweler of Connoisseurs, Dies at 54," The New York Times, 10 September 2012, online)

While the splendid jewellery played an important role in bringing these celebrities to The Gem Palace, an equally important role was played by the late Munnu who led through the 20th and 21st centuries with innovation, extraordinary design and craftsmanship based on magnificent and historic Indian jewels.

Jaipur today is not only known for its impressive forts, legendary tales of magnificent kingdoms and royal treasuries, but also for being the gathering ground for many skilled artisans and jewellers who excel in meenakari, kundan, and gemstone cutting. "Lured by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II (r. 1688-1743) to the city, which he founded in 1727, craftsmen from around the country sought work and patronage in the royal ateliers and the many workshops around Jaipur and established a tradition of manufacture there that became renowned for both excellence and innovation." (Usha R Balakrishnan, "The Gem Palace: The Genius of Munnu Kasliwal," Ekaterina Shcherbina ed., India: Jewels that Enchanted the World, London: Indo- Russian Jewellery Foundation, 2014, p. 353)

This tradition of skilled craftsmanship was taken to new and unique heights by the Kasliwals, the nine-generation atelier of jewellers to the royal family of Jaipur. Located in the heart of Jaipur, The Gem Palace is currently housed in a three-storied old haveli on the bustling Mirza Ismail Road.

Owned and run by the Kasliwal brothers, i.e., Sudhir, the late Sanjay, and the late Munnu, The Gem Palace is home to handcrafted jewellery that consistently manages to challenge the conventions of the art form. The Kasliwal family were originally the court jewellers for the Mughals for nearly three centuries and were based out of Agra where they created "opulent, whimsical pieces that would awe and reinforce the high status of the wearer." ("The Gem Palace Story," munnuthegempalace.com, accessed online on 1 October 2021) Following their relocation to Jaipur in 1728, the Kasliwals became the Maharaja's personal goldsmiths and jewellers, setting up shop in the newly constructed City Palace in the early 18th century, and later moving to their present-day location on Mirza Ismail Road.

Following India's independence in 1947, The Gem Palace "transitioned from a royal atelier to a retailer of the finest jewels in the country, keeping alive ancient traditions of craftsmanship under the able stewardship of the three Kasliwal brothers." (Balakrishnan, p. 353) Today, the firm is run by Sudhir, Munnu's sons, Siddharth and Samarth, as well as Sanjay's son, Samir.

With a passion for jewellery and the craftsmanship that binds them together, it was Munnu who led the movement of design that made The Gem Palace a name to reckon with in India as well as across the world. It was his "signature designs - headdresses inlaid with thousands of rose-cut diamonds, emeralds, and natural pearls; "poison" rings with cabochon tops that open to reveal a chamber for the snuff of own's choice (or merely the suggestion of it); old mine cut diamonds bought from down on-their-luck maharanis and remade in contemporary settings; boxes inlaid with rubies in graduated fretwork so fine it looks like enamel to the untrained eye - that transformed the Gem Palace from a mostly traditional local business into a globally recognized name." (Whitney Robinson, "The Dashing Heir to a Jewelry Empire Takes on the Legacy of the Maharajas," Town & Country, 16 February 2017, online)

Munnu's talent lay in his ability to uphold the jewellery-making traditions of his forefathers and the renowned Mughal aesthetics of art and jewels, while adding an exquisite contemporary twist to his designs, making him one of India's most famous jewellery designers. His designs were veritable labours of love where he paid equal, if not more, attention to the back of the jewellery as he did to the front. This is evident in the intricate detailing seen on the back of the present lot.

There is no dearth to the variety of jewels that can be found in The Gem Palace - they range from antique pieces of royal heritage to the more modern pieces that have been designed by generations of Kasliwals. And yet, Munnu's designs remain unique. He chose to look beyond traditional designs within jewellery, instead focussing on international trends within the field, seeking constant inspiration from other countries and civilisations with a centuries-long heritage of jewellery making. He went beyond the existing ethnic trends within Indian jewellery that focussed primarily on the use of gold set with diamonds, rubies, and emeralds, and introduced "a wide range of semiprecious stones such as tourmalines, peridots, citrines, and amethysts into traditional ornaments... He shaped them into briolettes, table cuts, and rose cuts, treating them like precious gems. He created ornaments for the hair, ears, neck, arms, fingers, and feet - hundreds of varieties, to suit tastes ranging from understated elegance to flamboyant bling. While upholding the heritage that he had inherited and the tradition of his predecessors, Munnu always wanted to change and move forward." (Balakrishnan, p. 354)

What made Munnu's work so special, then, was his joy in the process of creating and in seeing how a piece of jewellery transformed once worn. His goal was to take jewellery past the obvious and create an entire story around each piece that was unique to the wearer. His imaginative designs ensured hidden layers to the piece of jewellery in one's hand. For Munnu, a ring was never just a ring, nor was a box simply a box. His designs were a veritable Wonderland where a box could transform into a cuff bracelet or a clutch, and a sarpech, or turban ornament, could become a choker-style necklace or a bajuband, such as the present lot.

The best-known example of this is probably Munnu's version of the poison ring. "Invented hundreds of years ago to store a loved one's lock of hair, actual poison to ward off unwelcome attention, or simply perfume, Munnu chose to fill his poison rings with loose stones. One dome is brimming with faceted aquamarine stones, another with diamonds. The gems jingle around and could fall out at any moment by unhinging the latch. That casual approach to something so scarce and valuable is part of Munnu's message that, while these pieces were special, they didn't have to be so serious." ("The Indo Russian Collection," munnuthegempalace.com, online)

The present lot is a sarpech (turban ornament) encrusted with significant clusters of rose-cut and brilliant-cut diamonds set in gold with intricate pachchikam silver work. The emeralds highlight the traditional design and lend a fantastic modernity to the piece with a south sea pearl fringe that softens the curves and creates a natural movement for the wearer. It is a signature design by Munnu that gives this unique piece its incredible flexibility, despite the significant size and stature of the stones. Incredibly, the sarpech, which was traditionally only worn by men for ceremonial occasions, can, in this case, be used in different ways by both men and women. The ornament can function in its original form to adorn a turban, the bottom panel can be removed and worn as a necklace or a bajuband, while the aigrette (connecting the top and bottom of the piece) can function separately as a pendant.

This surprise element is quintessentially Munnu and epitomises his desire to avoid dictating how any of his pieces should be worn. Rather, this sarpech highlights his innovativeness at 'breaking the mould', as it were. It is true that he was the creator, but it was ultimately the owner who could breathe life into the piece of jewellery. This was perhaps Munnu's way of enhancing the practical nature of his incredibly luxurious creations and ensuring that they weren't relegated to the dark depths of a vault by their owner. He expected his jewels to cast a light - to be worn, held, appreciated, but most of all, to bring a measure of delight.

Other similar works in: this auction  |  entire site

  Lot 56 of 109  

27-28 OCTOBER 2021

Rs 60,00,000 - 80,00,000
$81,085 - 108,110

Winning Bid
Rs 90,90,750
(Inclusive of Buyer's Premium)


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