Under her gaze we waited for the docent-led tour to begin. The Legion of Honor’s “East Meets West: Jewels of the Maharajas from the Al Thani Collection,” is a visiting exhibition that features 150 precious stones, gold, jade and jewel-encrusted ceremonial objects from the treasure chests of Mughals and Maharajas.
The Indore Pear diamonds that the Maharani wore have been set in many settings and adorned many before and after her.
Baguette diamond necklace
They have borne witness to many a love story. Alas the love story for the Maharani was a short one. She died at the age of 23 in a hospital in Switzerland. Her daughter Usha lives in Mumbai. She is the heir to the name but not to the diamonds. More about the diamonds later as the tour starts.
The docent who has been leading tours for 45 years, equipped the group with headsets. We entered the hall and stared at the ruby bib necklace. The docent, too, seemed gobsmacked by the collection. What took her by surprise was the fact that in India it was the Maharajas, the male rulers and not the female rulers, who wore the fanciest jewels in the family.
She led us into the entrance of the exhibition hall which was dominated by the portrait of the Maharani of Indore’s husband, Maharajadhiraj Raj Rajeshwar Sawai Shri Yeshwant Rao II Holkar XIV Bahadur (Sept. 6, 1908, Indore – Dec. 5, 1961, Bombay.) He is seen wearing the very same diamonds but in a different setting. Peeping out from under a strand of pearls is the diamond necklace with the very same Indore Pears.
In 1946 an American jeweler, Harry Winston, bought the two pear-shaped diamonds. He enhanced their cut and sold and even resold them to families in Philadelphia and New York. The acclaimed pears also came to the auction table. Christies’ auctioned them in Geneva, in November 1980, and again in November 1987. Robert Mouawad is the present owner.
Drooling over the cases and dropping gems of information related to the jewels on display to others in the group is my friend Sulu Karnik. She soon becomes the docent’s newly-appointed assistant!
“Where did the Maharajas get all these jewels from?” “How did they safeguard the jewels?” These were questions answered with aplomb by the newly minted docent assistant.
The Mughal ornaments which very unfamiliar to the American museumgoer were very familiar to Sulu. Encrusted with rubies, emeralds, and pearls with a gold base, what appears to be a wine container to the American is correctly identified as a jeweled sprinkler for rosewater to the Indian eye.
The inkwells were gifts from Emperor Jahangir to his nobles. They were usually found tucked into their waistbands. I guessed they were the equivalent of the note taking $1200 Apple iPhones.
Photography by Gary Sexton. Images courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
As we swished past the Maharaja of Patiala’s legendary Cartier necklace with the diamond encrusted choker, the wonder of being able to see these jewels in San Francisco was not lost on us.
Photography by Gary Sexton. Images courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
The opportunity to see this collection is brought to the public by the Legion’s new director Thomas P. Campbell. “East Meets West” was organized by Martin Chapman, the curator in charge of European decorative arts and sculpture at FAMSF with Amin Jaffer, the senior curator of the Al Thani Collection.
The exhibition is open until Feb 24. The Legion of Honor museum is at Lincoln Park, 100 34th Ave., San Francisco. 415.750.3600. Hours: Tuesdays – Sundays 9:30 a.m. – 5:15 p.m.
Ritu Marwah is an award-winning author, chef, debate coach, and mother of two boys. She lives in the Bay Area and has deep experience in Silicon Valley start-ups as well as large corporations as a senior executive.