Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Fit For A Maharaja: The Patiala Necklace

Bhupinder Singh, Maharaja of Patiala
The National Portrait Gallery ~ London
Image courtesy of: http://marissabronfman.com

Currently on exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario [AGO] in Toronto is the Maharaja: The Splendour of India's Royal Courts. On loan from the Victoria & Albert Museum in London (where it was originally exhibited in 2009), the focus of the exhibition is the artistic and cultural legacy left behind by India's royal dynasties. To tempt and dazzle the eye are over two-hundred objects and artifacts which range from the 17th to the mid-20th centuries, and include furniture, a silvered landau, an orange-and-silver Phantom II Rolls-Royce automobile (known as The Star of India), a golden throne, armour, paintings, objets d'art, textiles, costumes and, of course, spectacular jewellery and ceremonial objects. But of all the objects on display - symbolic of wealth, power and prestige - one stands alone as a last, waning tribute to India's kingly magnificence: the Patiala Necklace.

Bhupinder Singh, Maharaja of Patiala, in childhood

Like a golden thread woven through every epoch of human history, the cultural significance of jewellery has always been the denotation of power, wealth, eminence, control and rank; indeed, these values and outward signals of riches are inextricably linked with jewellery and, in time, jewellery has developed into an instantly recognizable (non-verbal) language of its own. India's Maharjas knew this language intimately well and spent fortunes on self-adornment, as evidenced in their penchant for acquiring incredible jewels. Using gemstones of the highest quality, value and size, for centuries, India's finest craftsmen were retained to skillfully create unprecedented jewellery  for the ruling classes. But by the 20th century, urbane Indian aristocrats eager to move through and be a part of café society, turned increasingly towards Europe - where they established themselves in sophisticated city-centres such as London and Paris - and to European jewellers and designers to craft more contemporary pieces, in tune with the times and tastes of the period. For such clientele, nothing personified European sophistication better than Cartier, the renowned French jewellers. And so, it was to Cartier that the commission for a stately necklace, worthy of an Indian prince, was entrusted by Bhupinder Singh, Maharaja of Patiala, in 1928. 

The Patiala Necklace

Born into the Phukian dynasty in 1891 and succeeding to the title of Maharaja of Patiala in 1900 at the age of nine, Bhupinder Singh (1891-1938) was probably the most famous ruler of the princely state of Patiala - a very important Sikh state in India with a land mass of 5,932 square miles - whose family had ruled since 1764. Known for his extravagance, excess and his inordinate love of cricket, the Maharaja of Patiala inherited an extraordinary wealth, including the seventh largest faceted and polished diamond in existence: the De Beers diamond - a cushion-cut pale yellow diamond weighing 234.69 carats. (Sources: liveindia.com, undated; Moonan, W., nytimes.com, November 29, 2002)

Discovered in a South African De Beers mine in March 1888, the pale yellow octahedron diamond was cut and displayed at the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1889 where it caused a sensation. Its present weight of 234.69 carats was the inevitable result of 200 carats being lost during the cutting process from its original, natural state. It was purchased by Rajendra Singh, the Maharaja of Patiala at the time of the Paris Exhibition. Although he never had it mounted, it is believed that Rajendra Singh may have worn it on his turban.

In the 1920's, Rajendra's son, Bhupinder Singh often visited London and Paris - Westley Richards made his guns in Birmingham, England; S. T. Dupont created his lighters in Paris; and Rolls Royce supplied the Maharaja with his cars. In 1925, Bhupinder visited Cartier's in Paris with an abundant cache of loose stones in tow and with the intention of creating a ceremonial necklace; among those loose stones were the yellow De Beers diamond, another large, tobacco-coloured diamond, and two Burmese rubies. To help finance the new commission, Bhupinder sold Cartier some of the pink diamonds and pearls that he brought with him and which, at the time, were reputed to be worth more than a Rembrandt.
(Sources: debeersgroup.com, undated; Moonan, W., nytimes.com, November 29, 2002)

The De Beers Diamond ~ discovered in March, 1888
(Original centrepiece of the Patiala Necklace)
Image courtesy of: http://www.debeersgroup.com/

Platinum, diamonds, synthetic rubies and cubic zirconium 
(Restoration by Cartier)

Image courtesy of: http://jugnistyle.com/

Art Deco in style, it took Cartier's master craftsman three years to create the Patiala Necklace, with its De Beers diamond as its centrepiece. Once completed, the firm of Cartier was so proud of its accomplishment that it requested for the necklace to be exhibited before being sent to India; the Maharaja agreed to the request. The five-strand, bejewelled platinum chain necklace is said to be the largest and most impressive necklace ever created by Cartier (in its original state, the necklace comprised of 2, 930 diamonds weighing almost one thousand carats).

In 1951, the princes lost their tax-free status in India and many families found themselves facing financial difficulties. To compensate - and as happened to many landed aristocrats of the twentieth century - family heirlooms and lands were sold in the interest of self-preservation and sustainability. Similarly, perhaps the Singhs found themselves facing these very same decisions. Whatever the case may be, over the ensuing decades, the Patiala Necklace was broken and sold piecemeal: the separated platinum chains turned up in London in 1998 where, in spite of missing their original stones, they were immediately recognized by Eric Nussbaum, a Swiss-born gemologist and curator of the Art of Cartier Collection in Geneva, an archive of 1,221 vintage Cartier pieces. (Source: Moonan, W., nytimes.com, November 29, 2002)

Image courtesy of: http://www.asiafinest.com/

After its chance discovery in 1998, Mr. Nussbaum purchased the fragmented Patiala pieces and offered to restore it using substitute gems. To that end, Cartier, deciding it was impossible to restore the original De Beers diamond and the rubies, attempted to substitute the missing gems with white and yellow sapphires as well as with white topazes and garnets but, to their dismay, it was found that the topazes lacked the light refraction and brilliance of diamonds. So, at Nussbaum's suggestion, the decision was made to use synthetic stones instead: cubic zirconium in place of the absent diamonds and synthetic rubies for the natural ones. It took Cartier two years to reassemble the necklace.

At the end of its restoration, the necklace was once more exhibited by Cartier, this time in the window of its New York boutique in 2002. It now appears as it once did in 1928 - albeit, without the panache of its natural stones. Had it possessed those original gemstones, in today's market, it is estimated that the Patiala Necklace would be worth in the region of $20-$30 million.

There still exists a Maharaja of Patiala: Amarinder Singh. According to family legend, a sacred fire was given to the founder of the Patiala family nearly three-hundred years ago. As long as the fire exists, it is believed, so will the Singh family; today, much as they had done for centuries, religious dignitaries still protect the fire and the family is thriving.
(Source: Moonan, W., nytimes.com, November 29, 2002)

Video is courtesy of: The Luxury Channel ~ youtube.com

Bhupinder Singh's son & heir: Yadavindra Singh ~ ca. 1941
Image courtesy of: http://www.asiafinest.com/

On until April 3rd, 2011, at the Art Gallery of Ontario is Maharaja: The Splendour of India's Royal Courts:

Suggested readings:

Lives of the Indian Princes (1984), by Charles Allen & Sharada Dwivedi: Century Publications

Cartier: 1900-1939 (1997), by Judy Rudoe, Cartier (firm), British Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York): Harry N. Abrams Publishers

Maharaja's Jewels (2001), by Katherine Prior & John Adamson: Mapin Publications

The Master Jewelers (2002), by Abraham Kenneth Snowman: Thames & Hudson

Cartier (2007), by Hans Nadelhoffer: Chronicle Books

Portraits In Princely India: 1700-1947 (2008), by Rosie Llewellyn-Jones: Marg Publications

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