Skip to content

East Inspires West: India’s Enduring Influence on Western Jewelry Design

Europe’s historic cultural interchange with India has had a transformative effect on the style and artistic vocabulary of Western jewelry arts. The East-West traffic in jewelry ideas began millennia ago, earlier than is generally recognized. Alexander’s conquest, which established Greco-Buddhist civilizations in today’s Pakistan and Afghanistan, fostered early exchanges of goldsmith and jewelry arts, and India began to supply Rome with gems as well as sardonyx for cameo carving. Precious stones traversed the Silk Road to European courts. Artists in Indian courts experimented with European concepts of perspective, landscape painting and portraiture, manuscript design, and precious metal and pottery vessels. By the Mughal period (1526-1761), these sporadic intervals of reciprocity had become a complex web of trade in ideas, emigré artisans, and precious materials. A East-West gem and jewelry superhighway facilitating the interchange of precious materials, styles, and technologies was built.

Fig. 1: An eagle-shaped gem-set pendant, India, Deccan, 18th century, with later pearl chain

Indian gem culture was for centuries the most evolved in the world. Sanksrit texts from the 4th century A.D. recorded methodologies for the grading and study of gemstones. From early history, Hindu societies, including those of Deccan dynasties, developed advanced practices in cutting and setting gemstones for jewelry and objets d’art.  In the early 16th century, Mughal culture added an extra boost to India’s already dominant expertise. An invading Muslim dynasty with Persian, Timurid and Mongol roots, the Mughals ruled Northern India, proving themselves gifted military strategists, administrators, and art patrons. Mughal artisans possessed uniquely advanced technologies for carving precious stones, fashioning vessels from jade and rock crystal inlaid with gold and gems, and inscribing diamonds and red spinels. To satisfy the Mughals’ wide-ranging artistic curiosity, court artisans from Persia, Europe, and diverse regions of India worked in blended, experimental technologies, creating hardstone cameo portraits, figures of saints carved in sapphire, and Mannerist-style pearl pendants. By the 18th century, the Mughal Empire represented an estimated 25% of the world’s economy, and its rulers were arguably among the most avid consumers of art and luxury goods. 

Fig. 2: Detail of Shah Jahan on a Terrace. Painting by Chitarman, c. 1627-8. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Outpacing Europe not only in wealth but in discernment, the Mughals were the principal aficionados of Colombian emeralds, which arrived in Goa via Spain and Portugal. No deposit before or since has presented emerald crystals of such size, transparency and saturation. In 1609, a British merchant reported that Shah Jahangir had amassed 1/2 million carats of Colombian emeralds. Mughal artisans carefully studied these fragile gems, applying their advanced lapidary techniques to fashion them into tablets with exquisitely refined floral and foliate motifs, and to inscribe them with sacred texts.

Fig 3: Large Octagonal Carved Mughal Emerald, with lotus blossom rosette and branches extending in the cardinal directions, 17th Century, set by Cartier circa 1920, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

When the French Hugenot gem dealer and adventurer Jean-Baptiste Tavernier arrived at the Mughal Court around 1640, he encountered a royal dynasty devoted to artistic jewelry, gemology, and collecting outstanding gems from global deposits. Tavernier attested to the Mughals’ fascination with rubies and their great rarity- noting that, unlike diamonds, there was “no price” for a ruby over five carats, and that the Mughals expertly distinguished between ruby and its larger impostor, red spinel.  Over his six journeys to India, Tavernier helped Louis XIV build a superb collection of Indian diamonds, so the French king too could participate in the Indian princely tradition of gem collection and bejeweled opulence.

Fig 4: Later gouache rendering of King Louis XV's Golden Fleece of the Colored Adornment, with a Indian Golconda Mine Blue Diamond purchased from Tavernier by Louis XIV. Pascal Monney, Geneva, Switzerland. Image in the public domain from Francois Farges via Researchgate

With the 1882 re-publication of Tavernier’s travelogue, European fascination for Indian and Islamic jewelry entered a second phase, deepened by European scholarly research and museum exhibitions of Islamic Art in Paris (1903) and Munich (1910). These inspired young Louis Cartier to collect and study manuscripts, miniatures, textiles, jeweled objects, artifacts (“apprêts”), and jewelry from the East. By 1904, Louis had absorbed the non-figurative aesthetic of Islamic art, which he and his designers applied to their jewelry, creating a new stylistic language of abstraction long before the advent of Art Deco.

Fig 5: Abstract Design Choker, Cartier Paris, 1903. Source: Cartier and Islamic Art: In Search of Modernity

In 1911, Louis’ brother Jacques Cartier embarked on a two-and-a-half year journey in India, cultivating ties with aristocratic families, building a large inventory of gemstones, and acquiring artistic Indian jewelry for study and sale. In addition to amassing Mughal carved emerald tablets, drops and melon-carved beads, Jacques studied the arts of the Deccan and the Indian south, including the flamboyant assemblages of multi-hued gems used in ceremonial and processional jewelry. These culturally-important jewels, set with precise arrangements of parti-colored stones, represent the ancient cosmological belief system known as Navratna, shared by Hindu and Muslim Indians.

Fig. 6: An example of Nine Gem Navratna Jewelry: Pair of Bracelets, 19th century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Indian cultures value gemstones in large part for their spiritual qualities.  Maintaining this spirituality required the maximum preservation of the gemstone’s integrity, weight, and powerful natural form, leading to a long-standing Indian preference for cabochons and subtle faceting. (Figure 7) Noting in a letter home that Indian culture had left in him “one vivid impression of undreamed gorgeousness and wealth”, Jacques returned to Europe, his mind and sketchbooks furnished with compelling design ideas, including daring and unprecedented color harmonies that had never before been offered in Europe. Also, with Cartier’s lead, cabochons, buff-tops, emerald tablets, and melon-carved precious stone beads thereafter played an important role in high French jewelry design.

Fig.7 Emerald Bead Bazuband, late 18th century. The large beads have been gently polished in order to leave them near to their natural form and size, preserving their spiritual power. Photo Credit: Christies: Sale # 17464, Lot 124

Reinforcing this artistic interchange, Indian aristocrats, among them Nizams and Maharajahs, arrived in Paris after the upheaval of World War I to explore and experience modernism in European art and culture. In granting large commissions to Cartier, Boucheron, and Chaumet, these sophisticated noblemen replaced the lost patronage of the fallen European nobility. More importantly, the commissions occasioned a meeting of minds that advanced the modernity of European jewelry design.

Fig. 8: Bhupinder Singh (1891-1938), Maharaja of Patiala, a significant artistic patron of Cartier and Boucheron, Paris.

With its bold, abstract patterning and stylization of life forms, Indian Hindu and Islamic art invigorated French jewelry and enriched its stylistic language.  The Maharajah of Patiala allowed Cartier to display his new jewelry as part of their in-house exhibitions of the 1930s. The jewels included an expansive multi-part ruby bead and cabochon necklace that seized the public imagination.Fig. 9: Left: Set of Three Ruby Bead Necklaces, Cartier Paris. Photo Credit: Christies: Sale # 17464, Lot 272 Right: Maharani of Patiala, Patron of Cartier, wearing the set of three Cartier ruby bead necklaces, as well as Art Deco Strap Bracelets, 1931

Indian design ideas continued to appear in many guises, from the original jewels created in collaboration with the maharajahs and maharanis, to adaptations incorporating antique Indian artifacts, to work of loose inspiration, including so-called “Hindu” jewels fashioned from leaf-carved rubies, emeralds and sapphires. “Hindu” necklaces, clip brooches and strap bracelets, in a visually lavish style invented by Cartier, became de rigeur. Influential women such as Daisy Fellowes and Mrs. Cole Porter commissioned them in the 1920s and 1930s.This “Hindu” inspired work, rechristened “Tutti Frutti” in the 1970s, was a freestyle interpretation of gemmy and polychrome enamel Hindu ceremonial jewelry. The bracelets’ varied, highly stylized fruiting vine motifs, often accented by chevron and zig-zag devices and enamel shadowing, also appear to owe design inspiration to multiple Islamic ornamental languages. The small-scale carved ruby, emerald and sapphire leaves are generally not antique, but may have been purchased in lots from contemporary Indian carvers.

Fig.10: Macklowe “Hindu” or “Tutti Frutti” Bracelet and Cabochon Ruby Earclips of Indian-inspired form

Indian culture’s hold on the minds of Western jewelry designers continued throughout the 20th century, with flowerings in the 1930s and the 1950s-1970s. The popular Indian-inspired bib necklaces of the 1930s were revived in the 1950s and 1960s with the gold’s return to fashion, in beautifully-worked, elaborate gold settings enhanced with diamonds, both traditional sacred Indian materials. Fig. 11 Cartier Paris Indian-Inspired Necklace and Clip Earrings, Macklowe Gallery

Admiration for Indian art and craftsmanship in the 1970s was combined with passionate interest in Indian spiritualism. Van Cleef & Arpels, along with Bulgari, created long, opulent gold necklaces mounted with vibrantly-colored precious and semi-precious gems cut as cabochons, pear-shaped drops, melon carved beads, and briolettes, hearkening back to magnificent Indian royal and ceremonial jewels. Meanwhile, gemmy clip and pendant earrings derived inspiration directly from architectural elements such as multi-foil and ogival arches, stone piercework and shaped pendentives, as well as the omnipresent stylized leaf and floral motifs drawn from textiles and manuscript ornamentation.  These flattering, beautifully-designed pieces have a modern appeal and enduring relevance - offering what one critic has called a “timeless, universal dimension”, testament to the long-lasting fusion of sophisticated jewelry cultures. To wear these jewels is to participate in the living history of interchange in East-West jewelry arts.

18k Gold Diamond Indian-inspired Paan Leaf Motif Earrings, Van Cleef & Arpels, Paris


Next article The Macklowe Gallery Comprehensive Guide to Anniversary Gifts