Bejewelled TreasuresDecember 5, 2015
The best way to visit the Bejewelled Treasures: The Al Thani Collection is pre-coffee, on a winter morning. Just let the diamonds and gold flash past you in a wonderous sort of way and try not to think about it too much.
The Bejewelled Treasures of the Al Thani Collection are certainly spectacular. (Who was/is Al Thani? I somehow imagine him as a Yorkshire miner, Al, a bit of a joker who liked to put turban ornaments on top of his flat cap and do a little turn down the working man’s club, singing along to his banjo. I fully appreciate Al Thani is probably a family name, but unless I missed something information is thin on the ground). The collection represents single stones and settings from the Indian sub continent from around the 19th Century (some individual stones are older) to the present day.
In the Bejewelled Treasures exhibition there are some stunning, huge diamonds here, displayed to their full advantage in a darkened room with spot lights picking them out and eliciting maximum glitter. Mostly the colour scheme is a red and green of rubies and emeralds, set off with gold and a back note of diamonds and pearls. Some of these gems are cleverly set in rock crystal or jade – there are boxes and water flasks that look as if they are made from milky or clear glass, but are in fact carved from one whole piece of rock.
Bejewelled Treasures – spinel
For variation, you see some moonstone, and sapphire. Interestingly spinel, which is a gem not highly regarded in Britain, was highly treasured and there are some massive rocks of it on show. The gem cutters also didn’t always facet gens in the style we are used to, preferring to keep a stone almost natural, polished but irregular. Dates and names of owners were carved into the stone itself. There are also some examples of decorative carving of gems like emeralds, depicting highly detailed stylised motifs.
Bejewelled Treasures – enameling
Enameling, influenced by European technicians, further decorates the back or surrounds of some pieces in the Bejewelled Treasures exhibits, and as Europe began to be swept with a craze for Orientalism at the turn of the 19th Century, producing clothes and jewellery with an Indian influence, so India was influenced by European trends, replacing their traditional 24 carat gold, which was very soft, with the much harder platinum. Because of the properties of the metal, the gems could no longer be simply pushed into it, and new ways of working had to be found which influenced the shape of designs as well as the colour. Some chose to take their historic family gems and have them set in more contemporary forms directly by European jewellers like Cartier.
Some reasons to avert your eyes – a lot of these pieces were stolen from their owners as Indian courts were destroyed by British colonialism and their treasures re-distributed amongst the British elite. As well as this, conditions for diamond and gem miners in India have never been great.
Some reasons to go – it’s shiny and mildly informative.
Bejewelled Treasures is at the V & A Museum until March 28th 2016
Bejewelled Treasures – Arcot II diamond, 1760; Photo Prudence Cumings Associates
Bejewelled Treasures – Silk-sword-sash-with-jewelled-gold-fittings-about-1900-India©-Victoria-and-Albert-Museum-London