Legion of Honor

Historic Al Thani Jewels at the Legion of Honor

A magnificent array of precious materials – jade, agate, rock crystal, gold, enamels, and of course, gemstones – are on view in the Legion of Honor’s exhibition East Meets West: Jewels of the Maharajas from the Al Thani Collection.

Despite the gleaming allure of the remarkably rare gemstones, they are not the exhibition’s only draw. It’s in the splendid and diverse settings – rings, brooches, necklaces, earrings, pendants, dishware, back scratchers – that the exhibition truly sparkles. These objects paint a moment of history not often represented in Western museums – the gilded exchange between India and Europe – particularly in relation to the Mughal Empire, the Maharajas and the British Raj since the 16th century.

East Meets West Installation
Installation photography of "East Meets West." Image courtesy of Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Today, the bejeweled artifacts are housed and collected by His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al Thani. Here’s a closer look at some of the enthralling highlights.

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Installation photography of "East Meets West." Photography by Gary Sexton. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Four Highlights of the Al Thani Collection

The Mughal court is the dynasty that perhaps most famously gave the Taj Mahal to the world. Notwithstanding the court’s architectural feats, the prosperous empire also produced a stunning amount of artifacts inlaid with precious stones. Established in 1526, the dynasty reached an end in 1857, thus allowing for 331 years of impressive jewelry production.

Rosewater Sprinkler, North India, 1675–1725

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Rosewater sprinkler, North India, 1675–1725. Gold, rubies, emeralds, and pearls, 10 1/16 x 4 1/16 in. (25.5 x10.3 cm). © The Al Thani Collection. All rights reserved. Photography by Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

With its long, narrow neck and wide base, the delightful piece above has the appearance of a drinking vessel or wine container. However, it was not created to hold a potable liquid but is instead a rosewater sprinkler, encrusted with rubies, emeralds, pearls and composed of a gold base. Perhaps indicative of its usage, the rubies are cut to varied shapes and as a result, resemble rose petals; the red rubies form imperfect, undulating teardrops. The green of the emeralds contrast the deep, rose color of the rubies nicely; the color palette of an opulent garden unfolds in The Rosewater Sprinkler. An object such as this was commonplace in the Mughal court, as rosewater was scattered onto guests after a visitation or meal: a sign of the palace’s divine hospitality.

Pen case and inkwell, Deccan plateau or North India, 1575–1600

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Pen case and inkwell, Deccan plateau or North India , 1575–1600. Gold, diamonds, emeralds, rubies, sapphires, and lacquer, pen case 1 9/16 x 12 1/16 in. (4 x 30.6 cm); inkwell 4 1/2 x 2 1/8 in. (11.4 x 5.4 cm). © The Al Thani Collection. All rights reserved. Photography by Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Remnants of the Mughal Court, pen case and inkwell sets were frequently bestowed to court members who achieved highest court distinction. Often courtiers would wear these dignified inkwells hanging from their waistbands. The artifact above is inset with diamonds, sapphires, rubies, and emeralds. The dome of the inkwell is a common architecture motif for the Mughal court; the form of the inkwell is reminiscent of curved, sloping roof of the Taj Mahal. Once the dome-like cap is removed, the courtier’s fine ink deposit is revealed.

Turban ornament, India, ca. 1900

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Turban ornament, India, ca. 1900. Clip by Cartier, Paris, 2012. Gold, silver, emerald, diamonds, and pearl, 4 5/8 x 5 1/16 in. (11.7 x 12.8 cm). © The Al Thani Collection. All rights reserved. Photography by Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Frequently in the Western World, the adornment of oneself in certain jewels is a female-centric or gender specific experience. In India, wearing jewelry was not a practice reserved for women or adventurous men; male courtiers and royalty would exhibit their wealth by wearing lavish, intricate jewels. No piece of jewelry was forbidden, wealthy men would wear earrings, bracelets, necklaces, and as sartorial accessories, turban ornaments. This was not only ubiquitous throughout the Mughal court, princes of the 19th and 20th centuries would exhibit their precious stones on their person for the world to see.

Turban ornaments were signals of rank; most frequently, solely the emperor would don these jeweled elements. By mounting these ornaments on their headwear, emperors drew attention to their sizable, valuable gemstones. The design of urban ornaments were influential to foreign cultures; diamond-set ornaments with feathers were worn by elites in Europe, such as James I of England and Marie Antoinette.

Here, a delicately cut yet monumental emerald is bordered in diamonds; a magnificent plume erupts atop the emerald while a teardrop pearl loosely hands. Despite the ornament’s Indian origins, the piece additionally mirrors Western influence, as the setting technology is atypical for Indian jewelry-makers of the 19th century. The ornament's clip was designed and created by Cartier, Paris.

Aigrette Robert Linzeler, Paris, 1910

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Aigrette Robert Linzeler, Paris, 1910. Designed by Paul Iribe. Emerald, India, ca. 1850–1900. Platinum, emerald, sapphires, diamonds, and pearls, 3 9/16 x 2 1/4 x 9/16 in. (9 x 5.8 x 1.5 cm). © The Al Thani Collection. All rights reserved. Photography by Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

In the 20th century, the royal desire for inherently Indian designs shifted. With the turn of the century, and as a result of the region's Westernization due to European colonialism, Indian royals developed a penchant for European jewelry methods and technologies. The Indian maharajas would now frequent European jewelry houses for ceremonial jewelry production, seeking the cut and style of Art Deco jewelry.

This aigrette, designed by Paul Iribe and fashioned in Paris, is distinctive in its Art Deco style. According to the exhibition’s catalogue, this piece is “perhaps the first recorded example of a carved Indian emerald being mounted in modern Western jewelry.” This stunning emerald construction represents something greater than the piece’s design or monetary value – it symbolizes the artistic exchange between Western and Indian culture.

The pearls, sapphires, and diamonds framing the emerald are symmetrical, geometrical, and inset with colored stones: all characteristics of Art Deco jewelry. The contrast of the carved, emerald of Indian origin provides us with a remarkable example of how East may meet West.

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