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by SARBANI NYC March 25, 2020 6 min read

Indian jewelry has a rich history and evolution story. It has both influenced and been influenced by designers from many other cultures around the world. 

Although beautiful and ornate, Indian jewelry has never simply been for style purposes only. It often holds significant meaning and has specific uses. Today, both traditional and modern Indian jewelry is still prominent in the fashion and pop culture world.

To truly appreciate the design and craftsmanship behind it, let’s take a look at the evolution of Indian jewelry and how it began.

Indian royalty's diamond necklace at display
Necklace from the Nizam of Hyderabad Collection

Rare Indian turban ornament
Jewels from the Nizam of Hyderabad Collection

History of Indian Jewelry

The first evidence of jewelry comes from over 5,000 years ago and originated in the Indus Valley region, or the northwest region of India along the Indus River and present-day Pakistan border. These ancient pieces were made of natural materials like beads, stones, and string. 

People soon discovered and learned to work with precious metals (primarily gold and silver) and stones (e.g.: emeralds, rubies, and diamonds). These were and continue to be recognized as sacred and symbolic materials. 

Jewelry design also varied greatly based on the region. People’s lifestyles, needs, and the available materials all affected jewelry style and what it was made with.

Throughout Indian history, luxury jewelry was in high demand, particularly by the royal class. While this spurred creativity and led to incredible design, it also led to battles over the right to own certain pieces. This may seem extreme today, but in those times jewelry symbolized social status, good fortune, protection, and divine connection. Jewelry also plays important roles in a woman’s life and in the art of dance.

Jewelry as a Status Symbol

The concept of jewelry as a status symbol was largely influenced by the Mughal dynasty in the 16th century. The Mughals brought with them the skills and knowledge necessary to craft more intricate pieces made of precious metals and gems. Their influence can be seen in styles such as Kundan and Meenakari, which are still prevalent today. The Mughals also restricted the possession of these materials for those of higher social status.

Modern Kundan Earrings and Necklace by Astha Jagwani
Modern Kundan Jewelry by Astha Jagwani

This meant that jewelry was a major part of any maharaja’s (Indian king or prince) life, and was not reserved only for women.  Especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was the men who could be found wearing the largest and most ornate jewels to convey their power. These male rulers believed that certain stones had symbolic and religious meaning. The larger the stone he wore, the more powerful the man.

Two of the most famous examples include the Maharaja of Indore and the Maharaja of Patiala. Both rulers enlisted world-renowned European jewelers to design their royal jewels. Choosing Western designers pushed boundaries at this time and resulted in some of the most fabulous one-of-a-kind pieces ever created.

Maharaja of Patiala, Bhupinder Singh
Maharaja of Patiala, Bhupinder Singh

Patiala Necklace by Cartier
Patiala Necklace, created by Cartier in 1928

India was the first civilization to mine diamonds and was recognized as a lead gem exporter—which might help us better understand why the people of these times were a bit protective of their jewelry and precious resources.

What is…?

  • Kundan: A traditional form of Indian gemstone jewelry involving a gem set with a gold foil between the stones and its mount, usually for elaborate necklaces.
  • Meenakari: The art of painting or embellishing various types of metals with vibrant motifs of birds, flowers, and leaves.

Symbolic Materials

Gold and silver jewelry is believed to be sacred and lucky in India, which is why it’s often purchased for certain holy days and festivals. Gold specifically is a symbol of immortality and financial security and is often gifted to a woman before her marriage in order to bring her prosperity as she starts her new life.

In addition to gold and silver, certain gems that were also believed to be sacred. A nine-gem amulet known as the Navaratna was worn by Maharajahs and emperors to symbolize the nine Hindu entities. The piece included diamond, sapphire, emerald, ruby, cat’s eye, topaz, pearl, coral, and red zircon. Wearing it symbolized the supremacy of the ruler connected to the deities.

Indian Navaratna Necklace
Navaratna Necklace

Jewelry for Protection and Religion

Specific items were and still are worn as protection and safeguards against evil forces. The evil eye motif, for example, wards off the curse that can come with one evil glance. Wearing an evil eye is meant to reflect the evil intent back to the onlooker who initially cast it.

Evil Eye Jewelry by Valliyan
Modern Evil Eye Jewelry by Valliyan

Another example is the mangalsutra, which is a long necklace with a talisman that women wear to preserve the well-being of their husbands. “Mangal” means “holy” and “sutra” means “thread”.

Modern Indian Mangalsutra Design
Modern Mangalsutra

Specific stones were also believed to have protective powers. The Mughals incorporated emeralds, rubies, and diamonds in much of their jewelry because they viewed them as protective talismans.

Emerald and Diamonds Turban ornament
Emerald and Diamond Turban Ornament, Nizam of Hyderabad Collection

Rubies and diamonds necklace at display
Traditional Indian Ruby and Diamond Necklace, Nizam of Hyderabad Collection

Additionally, jewelry often served religious purposes. People created special pieces to offer to gods and goddesses and for sacred animals like cows, horses, and elephants.

Jewelry in a Woman’s Life

Jewelry carries significant meaning in a woman’s life in Indian culture. She will receive special pieces for important life events, from her birth to her marriage to the birth of her own child. A woman’s look is not considered complete without the appropriate jewelry. In fact, pieces like the maangtika (hair accessory), mangalsutra, nose ring, bangles, and toe ring are integral to her full, everyday style.

Contemporary Indian Jewelry by Outhouse Jewellery

Practically speaking, jewelry also indicates a woman’s social status and adds to the valuable goods she owns. It can serve as a source of security during times of financial hardship.

Jewelry plays an especially important role at the time of a woman’s marriage. She will receive jewelry as gifts at the time of her wedding, known as “Stri Dhan”, which refers to a woman’s wealth. As mentioned earlier, these are often gifts of gold jewelry. 

On her actual wedding day, a bride will wear carefully-selected jewelry that matches her dress and other accessories. It is important for Indian brides that the style and color of the jewelry match their attire for a stunningly detailed and put-together look.

Modern Indian Wedding Jewelry by Outhouse Jewellery
Modern Indian Wedding Jewelry 

Importance of Jewelry in Dance

Jewelry is also used in dance, another vital piece of Indian culture and expression. Although there are many different forms of dance in India, jewelry has in one way or another been essential to them all. Women don accessories from head to toe in order to embellish their complex and skillful movements. 

How Indian Jewelry Has Evolved

There was a great deal of cross-cultural exchange of ideas and design between Indian, Russian, and other European craftsmen. European influences on Indian jewelry were especially evident after colonial rule, around the 19th and 20th centuries. 

Eventually, Indian jewelry designers and major jewelry houses like Cartier, Lacloche Fréres, Chaumet, Van Cleef & Arples, Mellerio, and Mauboussin were pulling inspiration from one another. Cartier designed pieces for Indian Maharajahs who had been inspired by Parisian design. On the other side, Cartier’s colorful Tutti Frutti collection was inspired by the bright floral motifs seen in South Indian jewelry. 

Multi-gem and Diamond Tutti Frutti Bracelet by Cartier
Multi-gem and Diamond Tutti Frutti Bracelet by Cartier | Photo by Christie's

Many of these influences persist today, from traditional styles to fusion and modern designs. Indian jewelry design has influenced many jewelry designers abroad, who have been inspired by the colorful, unique, and high-quality accessories to come from the South Asian nation.

Traditional Indian jewelry was (and often still is) quite heavy due to it consisting of real gold and precious stones. Because many customers and styles today call for more practical jewelry, however, designers now create much lighter-weight pieces. 

Multicolor choker with pearls

Polki Tree Earrings by Astha Jagwani

The designs of contemporary jewelers like Valliyan, Outhouse Jewellery, and Astha Jagwani blend traditional techniques with new-age vibes for beautiful jewelry that appeals to a range of wearers. In fact, many pieces can be worn daily to the office, an evening out with friends, or date night.

O.H. Series by Outhouse Jewellery

Jade tusk earrings

We continue to see Indian jewelry on runways, especially now as large, statement-making earrings and necklaces are in fashion once again. Contemporary Indian jewelry has also been worn by many Western celebrities who have been drawn to the creative, ornate detail. Beyonce, Shakira, Britney Spears, and Katy Perry, are just a few who have sported Indian styles for their music videos, concerts, and award show performances.

Beyonce wearing Indian jewelry for Isha Ambani's wedding
Beyonce styled in Indian-inspired jewelry & outfit 

Britney Spears performing in Indian-inspired jewelry and outfit
Britney Spears performing in Indian-inspired jewelry & outfit

And while modern Indian baubles are being made with modern customers in mind, many of today’s top designers continue to use handcrafting techniques that ensure no two pieces are alike. Rooted in tradition and meaning and taking great pride in their work, the best Indian jewelry of today is not quite like that which you’ll find anywhere else in the world. 

Stephanie Chabot, Style Editor
Sarbani NYC

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