Munnu the Gem Palace. The symphony of time
“That is what we call “growing up”, you will read at the end of the story. It is usually said when your personality steps back, and you start following the voice of your heart. Then, you can observe your path and true predestination.
“When I joined the family business, I was younger than 19”, said Siddharth Kasliwal, the successor of the legendary Gem Palace jewellery house, “I started running our store in Mumbai when I actually was 18. I was just out of college, and my father told me, “Remember one thing (it was in Hindi) that “it takes generations to build a business, but takes only one to break everything down”. And then he added, “I’m not putting pressure on you.” Ha-ha! Actually, it was the biggest pressure of my life, however, that really helped me. It is so important to keep that in mind to move your legacy forward”, Siddharth tells me about his father Munnu Kasliwal, who comes from a family of jewelers that have been creating timeless treasures for Indian Maharajas for more than three centuries.
Sometimes things are not as they seem. Powerful people often overgrow the sandbox, where they used to play, and then they start to live.
About the size of the sandbox
Until recently there have been three main attractions, which everybody must have seen in India: Taj Mahal, Maharani Gayatri Devi, and the Gem Palace.
When Gayatri Devi, the last Queen of the abolished kingdom of Jaipur, passed away in 2009, only two attractions left: Taj Mahal is still the symbol of Agra, while the Gem Palace continues to carry out the “precious” mission in Jaipur.
– Are you the oldest jewellery house in Jaipur?
– I would say we are one of, but not the oldest. My brothers, my sister and I represent the ninth generation of the Gem Palace. The company was founded in 1852, and since then it has been a family run business only. My grandfather’s brothers made us popular in Europe in 1950’s, while my father was responsible for bringing the Indian jewelry and the value of the Indian craftsmanship to the USA. Before the Gem Palace India was thought to produce cheap jewellery, more like mass production.
My father Munnu Kasliwal came to the USA in 1992, and in 1999, when Philippe de Montebello, the director of Metropolitan Museum of Art, saw his workmanship, he was completely impressed and amazed, and invited my father to make a collection for the museum. The first collection, called “Treasury of the World: Jeweled Arts of India in the Age of the Mughals” was showcased at the exhibition in 2001. These fabulous pieces were India-inspired, still being contemporary and more adaptable to American market.It was the first time an Indian jeweler or any jeweler from Asia was selected to make a unique collaboration with Metropolitan. Eventually, five collections were brought to life in 2001–2005.
– How did he manage to become so popular in America?
– He has always had friends in America. My father loved New York City and the people he interacted. He was socially active in the USA, being a minion among American women. Jackie Kennedy, Marella Agnelli, lord Mauntbatten loved Gem Palace jewellery. In 2004, Nicole Kidman appeared on the cover of Vogue wearing diamond necklace by the Gem Palace. By 2005 or 2006, the company has become a huge phenomenon as we were the first jewellery house, which American society recognized as luxury.
After such a success Munnu Kasliwal and his son Siddharth,the hero of our interview, set up a private studio in New York City – Munnu the Gem Palace showroom.
A bit of background: “When the language of stones was louder than the language of people”
Art of Indian jewellery has always been notable for high level of craftsmanship and intricate designs. However, a unique chapter of Indian jewellery was written during the reign of Mughal dynasty. The age of the three great emperors – Akbar (1556–1605), Jahangir (1605–1627), and Shah Jahan (1627–1657) was especially favorable to development of Indian culture and arts. Due to the policy of religious tolerance, Akbar succeeded in reconciliation of Muslims and Indians, creating the biggest and the richest state among all existing states in India. He was the factual founder of the Great Mughal dynasty and the forefather of a so-called Indian Renaissance.
Since that time, two different civilizations have been harmoniously coexisting. And it marked the beginning of the mutual penetration of Islamic and Hindu cultures. The Mughals presented India with luxurious elements of Persian culture, while India held its ground in the centuries-old traditions of the jewellery craft. Well, India was lapped in luxury and wealth. The art of jewellery has reached the stunning acme of workmanship. The irrepressible creativity of the old masters still mesmerize and amaze with its details and a high level of execution.
The Turban jewellery, chokers with a cascade of gems, gold and enamel bracelets for wrists and forearms, pendants with pearls, ruby, emerald, and diamond necklaces are the precious symbols of the supreme power of Indian Maharajas, which emphasize the magnificence of the imperial court, fascinate and thrill.
Having a soft spot for sophisticated luxury, the Mughals did not only patronize jewelers – they were their largest customers. The art workshops, created within the court of Akbar, which existed until the end of the 17th century, contributed to this as well.
The Mughal treasury was full of luxurious gems. Ruby was the favorite among them. William Hawkins, who had lived at the court of Emperor Jahangir for many years, mentioned in his notes that the imperial treasury contained 50.4 kg of rubies, 126 kg of emeralds, 37.8 kg of diamonds, and 302.4 kg of pearls.
A fragment of the song from the cartoon about treasure is running through my head, “...emeralds and rubies are showering like rain. If you want to be rich, if you want to be happy, stay, boy, with us, and be our king!”
The jewelry history of the Kasliwal family begins with gem cutting in Agra. Over time the ancestors of Siddharth became court jewelers, who were similar to family doctors at that period. Every grandee had his own jeweler, and only him he could entrust with the jewellery making. Therefore, when in 1725 Sawai Jai Singh II, the maharaja of Dhundhar, started constructing a new city of Jaipur, which ought to become the center of high art, he invited the Kasliwal family to work at the palace. Since that moment Jaipur, that in Hindi means “city of victory” (jai – “victory”, pur – “city”), has become their home.
The brilliance of Jaipur and its magical past immerse us in a completely different world... As recently as yesterday there was an empire...
You examine the city, and it examines you.
It opens or locks its gates.
It may want to be loved, and it smiles at you
Attracting you with its decorations.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Citadelle
– So, who are your main clients now?
– I would say our primary clients are still the Indians. They are number one clients for wedding jewellery. America is our second huge market, that’s why I spent 3-4 months a year in New York. And Middle East, of course.
– “He was an artist, not a jeweler”, you said about your father. And what about you?
– Well, it’s a good question. My father had his own unique ability, while I have my own. I would say I am more of a jeweler with business acumen. My father created all these cool techniques, and I come from newer generation, being more tech advanced, you know. I grew up between India and New York, and having been exposed to two cultures, I acquired a different kind of mindset. For instance, my dad would draw a sketch, and then would choose the gems for designing. As for me, first I find a stone, and then create design around the stone. Remember the ring that I showed you, with the Colombian emerald? So, I got the stone, then we put little diamond petals around it, and made them bigger and bigger, until it got the look of a proper flower.
– It’s more like a trend now to create jewellery, where metal is invisible, and the stones are “soaring”. Why have you decided to go in this direction?
– The stones come out raw from the mother earth, so the jewellery should be about the stones. Metal is easily available, but the good gems are so rare.
– Creating jewellery is an emotional business. Are you emotional person?
– I am, very.
– Who makes the sketches and drawings?
– Sometimes it’s me, sometimes it’s someone else. Sometimes we don’t even make a sketch, but just start working. Like that ring with a flower – we didn’t make the sketch, it was created by trials and experiments.
– Do you explain to your masters in words what you want?
– Yes, we sit together…You know, in big companies like Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels there are different departments: the design department will transmit everything to the production, then it goes to manufacturing, then the sales department receives orders. And here comes the beauty of Munnu the Gem Palace – it’s very organic, and we are so friendly and close-linked. Well, you are sitting on the ground with the artisan, explaining the cut of the stone you would like to have, and he’s giving you the feedback… So, you just sit with the master, and design comes out on its own in the most natural way.
– Do you create only one-of-a-kind jewelry?
– Not only. We can make 4 or 5 pieces of the same design, but we have never made 100 or 50 pieces.
– After so many years of creating jewellery, what challenges are you still facing?
– One of the biggest challenges is to keep the interest of the craftsman, to motivate him to work very diligently on every piece with no rush. Because, unfortunately, everybody today seems to participate in a fussy race. It is important to keep on schedule without losing the Indian esthetics, and not to become too modern.
– During the Mughal empire jewellery served as demonstration of wealth and power. How are things now, what do you think?
– Jewellery was definitely a symbol of wealth and power at that time. People also believed in the power of stones. For instance, some of the wars were fought when they wore their amulets with gems.
I wear neither jewellery, nor watch. But look, this is a Golconda diamond that I inherited from my grandmother, so I wear it on my neck for protection. Nobody sees it, but it’s touching me.
– What do you like most about Golconda diamonds?
– Its luster and the fire that modern diamonds don’t possess.
– Can you personally tell with a naked eye if it’s a real Golconda diamond?
– No, and nobody can. People can guess, as a lot of modern diamonds have the cut similar to Golconda. Certificates do not mention it’s Golconda, they just give the IIa type to the stone. However, IIa doesn’t mean it’s Golconda. Most of new diamonds just belong to the IIa type. So, the only way to proof it’s Golconda is to provide the documentation of the stone that was set in a piece along with its photo.
Those earrings that I showed to you… I’m sure it’s Golconda, but I cannot give you a proof of it. I can only tell you for sure that this is Old Mine Cut, so the stones will be sold as old mine diamonds. These are old deposits, not newly discovered, and some of them are already exhausted. When I think it’s a new diamond, but cut like an old one, I say it’s an Old European Cut. Such diamond cut was in a widespread use during the Victorian age. I can cut a modern diamond into an Old European Cut, but it doesn’t mean it’s an old stone. It could have been found just five months ago.
– Minakari enameling, Rose Cut diamonds, and Kundan are characteristic of Mogul age jewellery, aren’t they?
– You see, the Mughals came to India in 15th-16th century, right? They appeared to be the real connoisseurs of art and culture, and they already had their own enameling technique. Mughals brought the Islamic culture to India, and it contributed to a very interesting mixture of both Mughal and Indian art. Minakari is an enameling technique, which makes the jewel look beautiful from all the sides. For example, the front side is incrusted with stones, while the back is adorned with an enamel ornament. It was the concept of my father, who always told me that it was for your body and soul to see, not anybody else. The enameling technique varied from Turkey to Persia, every country had their own. However, only Rajasthan was famous for the exquisite use of so many colors. Local artisans created their own palette with the main colors of snow-white, ruby red of different hues, and deep emerald green.
Let me show you the choker – the best example of Kundan technique. Nowadays many people will show you the Kundan, I can also demonstrate some commercial pieces, but none of them can be compared to this. Look, you can roll it like a stripe, because it is so soft and tender. So, here the Minakari is used, and on the other side you see the Kundan technique. Look how carefully each stone has been set.
– You have the fourth generation of artisans who work with you and are a part of the Gem Palace. How could you achieve that?
– I think that everybody is hungry for love. As a human being, I can say that we are hungrier for recognition than monetary reward. We treat our artisans like our family. They know that if they need something we are always here to help, we are their lifeline support.
– Can you tell me something about the jewellery that can surprise people if they knew about it?
– I think people could be surprised by the amount of labor and intense workmanship that stands behind each jewel. They don’t realize what kind of work our masters do, and how much passion and love they put into it. The stone that sparks so much in the end, was so dirty at first – it had cracks and some inclusions. So when they see the cut stone, that’s what surprises them, and they say, “Wow, this beautiful emerald has appeared from this black stuff!” It’s really stunning.
– How do you think jewelry comes to history?
– First of all, it is the rarity of the stones, like, for example, beautiful inscription that was made on Mogul Mughal Emerald. Nowadays there might be only a few artisans, who are skilled in this technique, but it has no antiquity value in it. It makes sense, because you cannot bring back 17th century and the masters of that time.
Mogul Mughal Emerald is one of the world's most famous Colombian emeralds, which is about 10 cm high, and weighs 217.8 carats. The words from Islamic prayers along with the sign of 1695 are engraved on one side of this legendary stone, while floral motifs embellish the other side. This emerald is believed to be created during the reign of Emperor Aurangzeb, who was the last great ruler of the Mughal Empire. The tradition of gem carving has come from Persia, and a large number of carved emeralds had been appearing in India since the second half of the 16th century. After treatment, each of them became a unique object that evoked a sense of historical and cultural identity. Despite the fact that imperial treasuries abounded with gems, carved emeralds were still considered as rare. First of all, any reduction in the stone weight (even as a result of its cut) was not welcome, and secondly, during the era of the Great Mughal people believed in the natural power of emerald that could be enhanced by a religious inscription – for example, a quote from the Koran. The time when the emerald could be cut was aligned with astrological laws and the position of the planets. This made the stones even more valuable and sacred.
If we take the famous jewels in Topkapi Palace Museum... The value of the stones, and the craftsmanship make them special. The Burman rubies are not available in big sizes now. You can still find large Colombian emeralds, but not of the quality you used to. Diamonds are abundantly available; I personally feel it’s a controlled commodity, so there is nothing rare about them. Colored gems are rare, so I have always been more fascinated by colored stones. I think that diamonds should accessorize the colored stones. My favorite stone is spinel. I really feel it’s the most underrated stone. Maharajas used to confused spinel with the rubies for a long time. I prefer pinkish spinels with that beautiful water floating inside them over red ones.
– You have a Kamasutra jewellery collection as well.
– It’s not a collection, only several pieces, one of which I have already shown you.
– How did you come up with this idea?
– Well, it was my father’s idea, but he wasn’t the first. In fact, Maharajas have always been amused by such funny things.
– It’s not funny, it’s sex.
– Yeah, but that’s what amused them, and Kamasutra has always been there as well. We have Kamasutra playing cards, which are 100 years old. They liked to reveal the pictures. (For example, the harem of Maharaja Sawai Madho Singh II comprised of 108 women. Where did he find so much energy... – author’s note.).
– Do you think that if they were so fascinated by Kamasutra, they were also skilled in sex?
– Yes, of course, I’m sure! They must have been, ha-ha. I think they learned how to use all different sorts of acrobatic positions. I’ll show you something. We are still getting orders very discreetly from families just for fun.
– You believe that jewellery reveals certain energy and can protect. What could you tell people, who don’t believe in that?
– Buy jewellery for investments. If you don’t believe in the energy of a stone, the workmanship, the love or the passion of an artisan, then make them your investment. It’s much better than your twenty-thousand-dollar bags.
– You were not going to convince them that jewelry has energy, were you?
– Some people believe in God, some don’t. You either believe or not. I cannot tell a person that, “I wear a diamond and since then it has protected me from a lot of accidents. I was involved in a car accident, I broke my leg while playing gulf, I hurt myself, and since I started wearing it, I’ve been okay for 2-3 years”. So, if there is energy inside the stone, which protects me, it doesn’t mean I should convince the others. I don’t tell my clients, “Please, buy this yellow sapphire, and you will become a millionaire in a year”. That’s not my thing. I would say it’s an emerald, and if you believe in the power of stones, I’ll wish you luck.
– What about yellow sapphires?
– Unfortunately, in most cases people in India tend to use yellow sapphires for protection. From everything. It’s a funny thing that nobody wears natural blue sapphires here.
– Okay, a few funny questions. Which of existing pieces of jewellery would you like to be created by you?
– I would love to create Marjorie Merriweather Post necklace with the most beautiful emerald beads, and the famous Baroda Sita Devi necklace.
– Which jewellery would you like to possess?
– Like every Indian, I would like to bring Kohinoor diamond back from England straight to the National museum of India, where it really belongs.
– What do you like most about art? Are you fond of paintings?
– Yes! When I worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, my favorite artist in surrealism was definitely Dali. If we are talking about European artists, I really liked Paul Gauguin. I have no collection of modern art or any else. I only possess a collection of miniatures. As I am very Indian rooted, I would say that my favorite artist is Raja Ravi Varma. He is the author of some of the most beautiful prints, and he appeared to be the only well-known artists of India at that time.
– What is your typical day look like?
– My typical day starts with golf in the morning, then gym. Afterwards I reply to the questions I get from the New York office, come to my office, and have my first cup of masala tea. Firstly, if I have no appointments, I go to the production department. One of the most important things in the family business is delegation of authority. If you just think that only you are able to do it, that’s where the problem begins. And, of course, I overlook the final execution.
If you ask me what brings me the biggest joy… obviously creating is fun, but the most exciting thing for me is to play with stones and to cut them.
– If you could meet anyone in the world who had ever lived, who would it be? What would you ask him or her about?
– I know he is considered as a cruel person, but I would love to meet Genghis Khan – the great Mongolian leader.The legend has it that everyone in India is an offspring of Genghis Khan. (laughing)
– Do you like power?
– Everybody loves power.
– Not everybody. When is your birthday?
– June the 16th.
– What piece of advice would you give yourself when you were 18?
– I am 34. When I was 18, I just finished college, and if I could give advice to any teenager, I would say, “Stop worrying and start living. You are at that age when you constantly feel under pressure, and ask yourself, “What am I going to do, how should I contribute to life?” I believe that hard work, discipline and consistency will bring you a place under the sun. However, I really believe in destiny.
When I was 18, I used to worry about such stupid and negligible things. When I look back now, I am thinking about why I wasted my youth worrying about it, why I was so sad about not possessing something that others had. That is what we call “growing up”.
– What do you value in men and friendship?
– What do you value in women?
– In women, I expect and value understanding. Everyone wants to see a beauty next to himself, but if you could find understanding with a woman, she would automatically become the most beautiful woman in the world.