PARIS — The Kardashians would have nothing on the rocks on display in the Paris leg of an exhibition hooked on the Al Thani Collection, owned by Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al Thani.
Opening on Wednesday in the Salon d’Honneur of the Grand Palais here, the show focuses on the jewelry traditions of the Indian subcontinent, from the Mughal period to the modern day. It gathers almost 300 items of jewelry and precious objects from the sheikh’s collection, together with major works on loan from a range of prestigious institutions and private collections.
Entitled “From the Great Mughals to the Maharajas: Jewels From the Al Thani Collection,” the exhibition, which will wrap on June 5 before rolling on to Venice, plays out as a supersized version of a show held at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2015. It also boasts a striking new design by VGC Studio based on black circular sections separated by diaphanous bronze screens and curtains, including a central space with a thick curtain of suspended threads strung with metal leaves shaped to evoke the forms of the cupolas of the Taj Mahal.
The collection’s importance and value has no equal, according to the exhibition’s co-curator Amin Jaffer. “There are other collections that focus on historic, mughal, Indian jewelry, but this collection spans 400 years, and that’s unique,” he said.
New pieces on display include a 1905 aigrette in the form of a peacock by Mellerio dits Meller in platinum, gold, diamonds and enamel, and a dazzling Art Deco ruby necklace made by Cartier for the Maharaja of Nawanagar in 1937, using a collection of unheated Burma rubies from the Nawanagar treasury. Not forgetting the Tiger’s Eye turban ornament made by Cartier in the same year for the same ruler, with at its center a cognac-colored diamond weighing in at 61.50 carats.
Other highlights include an Indian-inspired Cartier Tutti Frutti necklace commissioned by Café Society icon Daisy Fellowes in 1936, and a ruby collar with diamonds pearls and rubies, one of a triple tier of necklaces made by Cartier in 1931 for the Maharaja of Patiala’s wife. Jaffer shared an amusing anecdote about the piece.
“When the Maharaja of Patiala came to Paris with his army of servants, all beautifully dressed with turbans and so forth, they created quite a sensation. The day after he arrived, he took, along with his staff, trunks and trunks of precious stones to Boucheron to have them make jewelry for him. Boucheron worked on this for four or five years — it was a major commission for them — and just as they were about to invite the Maharaja in to show them the creations that they had made, they read in the newspaper that Cartier had set the jewels of the Maharaja of Patiala, and they were totally in shock,” recounted Jaffer. “But the holdings of the Maharaja were so rich that he divided the jewels between the two houses. It gives you an idea of the largesse and the scale of the commissions of the Indian princes in the Twenties and Thirties.”
A new contemporary jewelry section includes a turban ornament made by JAR in 2016 using pink diamonds and natural pearls. Turban ornaments were worn by men in India as a symbol of authority and power, but this particular creation evokes a woman’s aigrette hair ornament, Jaffer explained.
The exhibition also boasts a substantial collection of jade vessels, as well as portraits and video footage, with loans from institutions including the Hermitage museum, the V&A, and the Bibliothèque nationale de France. At the back of the exhibition, a group of royal portraits with blinged-out maharajas gives visitors an idea of how an Indian prince of the early 18th century would have dressed, with an armband, turban, earrings, various necklaces, a jeweled belt buckle and sword, bracelets and rings. Similar items are on display in the surrounding cabinets.
“It’s really to give perspective on who these people were and how they lived and dressed because we have to give a context that, when you look at a lot of these pieces of jewelry, you could think they’re women’s jewels, but then when you look at the fabulous portraits of the maharajas, you realize that the men were wearing the jewels as well,” Jaffer said.
Among the mughals and maharajas with the most voracious appetites for gems, the emperor Shâh Jahân from the early period of the Mughal empire was one of the biggest collectors of jewelry, Jaffer said.
“And among the maharajas, there were so many, and each had their own preferences in terms of jewels, but the maharaja Ranjit Singh of Nawanagar was big in terms of jewel collecting, as was Bhupinder Singh of Patiala,” he added. “They were all of one generation, and they were all exploring the European jewelers in the Twenties.”