A glimpse into the history
Jewels were always a part of the centuries-old Indian culture. From the earliest known material - stones, animal skins, feathers, plants, bones, shells, wood; we gradually graduated to semi-precious materials such as obsidian. Later, when technology advanced, we started meting these metals in huge cauldrons, mixing and matching them with other metals to introduce more variety into our modern jewelry styles. And today, with the modern science of metallurgy and gem processing by our side, jewelry-making has emerged as a sort of a specialized art, albeit for the same purpose - express the wearer’s wealth, rank, political and religious affiliation or affections for someone – non-verbally.
The earliest known pieces were simple bead necklaces of shells, strung together with a silk twine. They were mainly charms or talismans meant to ward off evil influences. A few (Tulsi mala, white pearls etc.) also had religious or spiritual significance in certain Southern temple traditions, although they were mainly used for decorative purposes. With time however, jewellery craftsman began creating more complex pieces, meant to adorn specific parts of a woman or a deity’s body.
History has it that in the year 2500 BC, Queen PuAbi was buried in Samaria (Now Iran) with stunning pieces of gold and silver jewelry. To date, this remains among the richest archeological find of its kind that is sometimes used to benchmark the date for the existence of modern-day jewelry.
Experts contend that the Egyptian were perhaps the oldest practitioners of this art form. It was during their time that this enterprise got elevated to a specialized professional schools, and Egyptian craftsmen became widely known for their skill, precision and intricate craftsmanship.
Early Greek and Roman jewelrywas also traded heavily with neighboring countries and became a means of sustenance and barter for those societies. Intricate Greek earrings that evolved out of their metal working techniques were highly in demand during this period.
Next, during the Victorian era, jewelry came to be inspired by Christianity and in the middle ages monasteries produced a bulk of these body embellishments used by popes and archbishops. The renaissance period, or what is referred to as the “Jewel Age” was jewelrybegan to be used by the common man, mainly for the purpose of body adornment and as a means of personal gratification.
The impressionist era or 17th century jewelrywas inspired by floral patterns and animals motifs studded with a variety of gemstones and metals. The trend continued until the early part of the 20th Century, when glass beads came into vogue. The industrial revolution introduced newer metal working and bead making techniques and fashionjewelrychanged faster than ever. Jewelry crafted during the Art Nouveau, Edwardian, Art Deco and Retro periods spelled huge changes in design trends that remain popular to this day.
Today affordability and availability are the hallmarks of jewelry worn by working women. Although India continues to buck this trend and is still the biggest consumer of the yellow metal in the world, with the variety of investment options now available, precious metals and gemstones are no longer the primary means of wealth accumulation, although in certain power circles, women still patronize traditional pieces as a means to convey their social status. Nonetheless, jewelry today is more a matter of convenience and aesthetics. A confident working woman knows her mind, and doesn’t get swayed by any particular school.
The Indian stamp
The history of Indian jewellery may be as old as the history of the country itself – about 5000 years old. Indian goldsmiths were usually men identified in different parts of the country as - sonar, swarnakara, panchallar or thattan. In the Vedic period, goldsmiths enjoyed a higher social standing than other artisans, and enjoyed royal patronage. They were all deft at mixing alloys, molding, drawing fine wires, setting stones, inlay work, relief, drawing gold and silver into thin wires, plating and gilding.
Later, different, regional styles emerged. Orissa and Andhra Pradesh came to be known for their fine filigree work in silver; Jaipur for its enameling or meenakari; Tamil Nadu for its temple jewellery; and Delhi for setting semi-precious and precious stones in gold, a tradition known as kundanwork. Silver beads can also be told apart from their region of origin - Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh, all follow different lace work and patterns in filigree work, leaves, flowers, butterflies, birds and geometrical shapes of varying size and thickness. A skilled jewellers would draw out fine wires of silver mixed with lead and make an outline of the pattern in thick wire that are then collected in this framework to create a jail (lace work).
Indeed the story of handcrafted Indian jewellery is long, absorbing and awe-inspiring. And it’s still evolving.