Citation metadata

Author: Oppi Untracht
Editor: Stanley Wolpert
Date: 2006
From: Encyclopedia of India(Vol. 2. )
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Topic overview; Country overview
Length: 3,877 words
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1390L

Document controls

Main content

Full Text: 
Page 340


JEWELRY Several countries can boast of a period when their culture produced outstanding jewelry, but none can surpass the vitality of India's output, which has spanned over three thousand years. Physical evidence brought to light at Indian archaeological sites in the Indus Valley, such as Mohenjo-Daro (2500–1700 B.C.), support this claim. Necklaces, bracelets, bangles, rings, beads, and other forms of ornaments made in gold, silver, copper, stone, ceramic, proto-glass, and other materials were unearthed there, revealing that the material culture at that early period included an extensive use of personal ornaments. Other finds elsewhere in the Indian subcontinent support the premise that Indians adopted the concept of body ornamentation at an even earlier date. To these physical remains we must add the many later literary references to jewelry, highly sophisticated written treatises on gemstones, and the existence of epigraphic inscriptions concerning the donation of jewelry to a temple, such as those that occur in profusion on the eighth-century Rajaraja temple at Thanjavur in South India.

Ethnic Jewelry

The unique creative genius that constitutes Indian civilization permeates all aspects of its expressive arts, including jewelry. Following a recognized pattern of development, over time, the contributions of many individual artisans coalesce, and the results take on a unique character that becomes identifiable with the group or place where they were initiated. When, in the creation of artifacts, governing concepts of technology, form, and design are retained, repeated, and developed, the results become a physical aspect of the material culture in which they originated. When seen by others outside that culture, such concepts are perceived to possess original and unique qualities, and these become associated with the creators. Such a group is designated as a specific ethnic entity, which can consist of relatively few (a tribal group), many (a regional class), or an entire nation. The traditional jewelry of India is an outstanding example of ethnic jewelry characterized by unique, unmistakable regional styles.

Religion and Jewelry

Religion has always been a dominant factor in the use of Indian jewelry, and its attributed protective purpose was probably its original function. This is especially apparent in the widespread practice of wearing amulets Page 341  |  Top of Article
Gold Necklace. Nineteenth-century gold necklace (kazhuththu uru), from Pudukkottai, Tamil Nadu, South India. Worn by a Chettiar bride at her wedding and again on celebrating the 60th birthday of her husband. Unique in its traditional use by the

Gold Necklace. Nineteenth-century gold necklace (kazhuththu uru), from Pudukkottai, Tamil Nadu, South India. Worn by a Chettiar bride at her wedding and again on celebrating the 60th birthday of her husband. Unique in its traditional use by the mercantile Chettiar community. TOMMY CARAWAY, NEW YORK
and using rosaries, both of which are normally carried visibly on the body. Their use is universal and stems from a common belief in the supernatural, whose dire effects the amulet is meant to repel or control. The most usual amuletic function is to counteract potentially disastrous encounters with the evil eye. Made in many materials, amulets must be consecrated and activated by a priest. They can then be worn on the body and put to use. Thereafter they are normally never removed.

Another example, the rosary, is a handheld prayer counting device in the form of strung beads. When not in use, it may be worn on the neck or coiled around the left wrist. Widely used by the followers of all religions in India, the rosary is a means of acquiring merit by the recitation of prayers invoking a specific deity. Count of the recitations is noted by means of passing the beads through the fingers. Prayer recitation is a daily practice necessary to earn the ultimate reward of a future existence in the postmortal world (Nirvāna for Hindus, Paradise for Muslims, and the Western Paradise for Buddhists). Hindu rosaries have 100 beads; those of Muslims have 99, and Buddhists, 108. All these are made in a variety of materials that among Hindus and Buddhists is often one related by tradition to a particular deity and chosen for use for that or other reasons. Rosary materials include natural organic substances, such as sections of dried basilica stems (a plant sacred to Vishnu), various hard seeds, stones (including gemstones), glass, silver, and even gold.

Page 342  |  Top of Article

Social Identity and Practices

Certain forms of jewelry are worn by particular groups to indicate to others their religion and caste, the latter concept still operative in India though legally banned. These forms become familiar to others, as is their significance. Aside from form, the particular material used for jewelry also becomes an important factor because ideas and specific symbolism are associated with them. Thus a wearer of gold jewelry automatically acquires a higher social status than one using silver, a less precious metal. This is most evident in making a distinction between the gold-wearing urban and silver-wearing rural people. Using a traditional jewelry form, normally made in silver, but ordered by the user to be made in gold, is another way of achieving and indicating high social status.

Until recent times, it was common to see rural women publicly wearing considerable amounts of jewelry. In effect, these possessions represented the surplus earnings of the family, transformed into ornaments acquired when economic circumstances permitted and, for reasons of safety, worn on the body. Rural economy, however, is subject to vicissitudes of reliability, often depending on natural causes such as monsoon success or failure. Investment in jewelry is a form of family security; when necessary, jewelry can be sold to assure survival from a natural or man-made disaster.

According to texts such as the Kāma Sūtra, which among other subjects discusses concepts of feminine beauty, the ideal woman must wear the types of ornament prescribed for her social condition. As a means of achieving this, the dowry system evolved and became a necessity at the time of marriage, an event considered to be the most important of one's lifetime. By universal practice, the two families must arrive at a mutually acceptable agreement, which in most Indian societies involves providing a bride with a specified weight of precious metal jewelry. The amount varies according to the economic condition of the families involved. This jewelry is generally termed the bride's stridana (stri, meaning "woman"; dana, meaning gifts). In theory it remains her sole property to dispose of as she wishes. In practice it may be used as a means of family survival when by necessity, the wife may allow it to be sold.

Indian jewelry can be classified into typological groups based upon broad geographic areas (Himalayan, North Indian, South Indian) and within these places classes that use it. These divisions simultaneously reveal the overall hieratic organization and complexity of Indian society. Each group has its own characteristic cultural concepts, resides in communally or geographically concentrated locations, and employs its own culturally evolved types of traditional ornaments. The most primitive groups, whose culture until recently harkens back to Neolithic times, are tribal peoples, who generally live in relatively isolated locations. By far the largest group, comprising at least 70 percent of the over 1 billion total population of India, is the rural agriculturalist contingent. At the economic apex of Indian society are the growing middle and upper classes, the latter in former days the royal sector. In reality, a degree of interaction of jewelry design concepts occurs among these categories which at times results in the appearance of some hybrid artifacts.

Materials Used and Their Origins

In the history of the development of personal ornament by humankind, the earliest materials used are believed to have been substances available in the immediate environment. These include many types of fibers, grasses, wood, flowers, seeds, mica, shells, gourds, feathers, stones, and sometimes metals. In modern times in India, the use of such materials characterizes the ornaments of tribal groups such as the Nagas of northeastern India Though tribal groups usually reside in remote areas, they were never totally isolated, and other non-indigenous materials, such as metals, came to them by trade. In some cases, unique metal tribal ornaments were made to their specifications by nontribal artisans who worked in or near tribal territory and catered to tribal demands. Glass beads of various types are also widely used; these also arrived through trade from their centers of manufacture, which were often great distances away from the place of their eventual use.

An example of the above is a special material and an important ornamental element used by most tribal people, but especially by Naga groups: hard-stone beads. For more than two thousand years, utilizing an unchanged manual technology, the manufacture of drilled hard-stone beads of a variety of stones and forms continues in many workshops of bead-making artisans at Khambat, Gujarat, in western India, and have since antiquity been widely distributed.


Metals of several kinds are a major element of jewelry in general. India is rich in iron (in very limited use, however, for ornaments in India), but the inadequate indigenous production of copper and its alloys, brass and bronze (widely used by tribal people for ornament), had to be supplemented by the import trade. The precious metals, silver and gold, whose local production was never sufficient to meet the enormous demand, since antiquity have constituted important foreign import products. As long ago as Roman times, and probably longer, the much sought after Indian spices and textiles were, by the demand of Indian merchants, paid for in foreign silver Page 343  |  Top of Article
Nineteenth-Century Gold Hand Ornament (hathphul) with Diamonds. The hand ornaments ring (arsi) is mounted with a small round mirror. Typically, such a piece is elaborately polychrome-enameled with an intricate floral and bird design on the reve

Nineteenth-Century Gold Hand Ornament (hathphul) with Diamonds. The hand ornament's ring (arsi) is mounted with a small round mirror. Typically, such a piece is elaborately polychrome-enameled with an intricate floral and bird design on the reverse side (never seen), which is characteristic of work crafted in this North Indian Rajput-Mughal style. COURTESY AIR INDIA, MUMBAI
and gold bullion or coinage, hidden hoards of which have been uncovered in archaeological excavations. Voluminous import of the precious metals continues even today, giving India the reputation of being the world's largest consumer of the precious metals, most of which are converted into jewelry.


Hard stones used in Indian jewelry are divided into two categories: the semiprecious variety, in Sanskrit termed uparatnani (minor gemstones); and the precious ones, termed maharatnani (major gemstones). India is fortunate in its natural possession of many of both kinds. Deposits of semiprecious hard stones such as agates (which include carnelian, bloodstone, chalcedony, moss agate, and onyx), garnet (almandite and uvarovite), rose quartz, apatite, rhodonite, and tourmaline exist in quantity. Most of these are used for beads, and less frequently are set to ornament jewelry.

Beryl (emerald) and corundum (sapphire) also exist, but of the precious gemstones, the most important is diamond (which, followed by ruby, emerald, sapphire, and pearl, comprise the five classical gemstones used in upper-class Indian jewelry, especially since Mughal times). Until 1726, when diamond deposits were discovered in Brazil, India was the world's principal producer of diamonds. Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, a seventeenth-century French gemstone merchant who made six journeys to India mainly to purchase diamonds, recorded that enormous quantities came from several highly productive mines located in the Kingdom of Golconda in the Deccan. These mines were intensely worked until their exhaustion in the eighteenth century. Eventually South Africa and Russia emerged as the main diamond producers while Indian production today is negligible. The regular faceting of diamonds, on the other hand, has become an important industry centered in Mumbai and Surat. This technology now provides India with a means of earning foreign exchange. India today is a world leader in diamond faceting, exceeded only by the Netherlands and Israel.

Other gemstones that were not available domestically were regularly imported. Of primary importance among these is ruby, followed by emerald (found only recently in India) and the prolific pearl. In an annual monsoon-dependent trade, rubies came to India from the Mogok mines of Burma (Myanmar), which are still active. This trade originated in South India, from where wind-borne boats regularly seasonally crossed the Bay of Bengal. Mostly small rubies, rounded by attrition, became available in prodigious amounts, and as a result, with minimal polishing could be profusely used in a single ornament. This circumstance to a great extent determined the character of an extensively produced class of South Indian gold jewelry. Today, because of trade difficulties and high cost, synthetic ruby manufacture has been firmly established in India to supply the ongoing demand.

Emeralds have always been utilized in Indian ornament. Their original main source was Egypt, but in the sixteenth century, Spanish and Portuguese conquistadores in the New World discovered and exploited the highly productive Chivor and other emerald mines of Colombia, still the world's main source. Exported in extraordinary amounts to Europe, they were then brought to the colonial Portuguese-Indian enclave of Goa, which, with its existing Indian diamond trade, became a precious gemstone entrepôt. Indian Mughal dynasty rulers and their courtiers especially favored the intense green of emerald (a propitious color associated with Islam), endowed this gemstone with mystical, prophylactic powers, and utilized it widely in their highly idiomatic style of jewelry.

Pearls, a ready-made, popular natural mollusk product needing only to be drilled, have been extensively used in Indian jewelry from ancient times through the present. The proximity of their prolific sources in the Gulf of

Page 344  |  Top of Article

Manar, between India and Sri Lanka (Ceylon), and Basra in the Persian Gulf facilitated their availability.

Semiprecious gemstones were also in wide use. Contributing to their employment is the concept of the nine planetary gemstones (nava ratna), in which the nine different stones were frequently used as a group, mounted in one object. References to this concept occur as early as the thirteenth century. In this belief system, each of the nine planetary or celestial entities in the then known universe is assigned a gemstone. According to the widespread belief in astrology, every planet is thought to exert a positive or negative influence on the life of every individual born at the time of its ascendancy, a fact calculated by an astrologer for every child at birth and carefully preserved on paper thereafter. This calculation of compatibility becomes a strong factor in choosing jewelry that contains a gemstone.

For those unable to afford ornaments set with gemstones, glass substitutes are treated in the same manner as precious stones, that is, cut into cabochon, rounded, or dome shapes, but not faceted forms. To heighten their brilliance, such transparent "stones" were backed by a polished, shining metal foil, sometimes colored to increase its resemblance to a genuine gemstone. Glass mirrors are also set as gemstones, an outstanding example being their use in a ring (arsi) generally worn on the left thumb.

Gemstone settings

India developed a unique system for the setting of gemstones, which when present can serve to identify the origin of some Indian jewelry. Known as the kundan style (meaning "pure gold"), the system is used to set gemstones in metal or stone substrates such as jade. In this technique, a depression or opening is made to conform to the shape of the gemstone (or glass "stone") being set. This depression is filled with lac (the Indian term for a natural resin exuded by an insect—tachardia lacca—on the branches of its host tree during its life cycle). A backing sheet of polished metal foil is placed over the lac. While the stone is held in the depression, a strip of pure gold (kundun) is forced around its perimeter with a stylus. Because pure gold is soft enough to be manipulated simply by pressure, the result, a raised surrounding ridge of gold, firmly fixes the gemstone in place

Jewelry Making

Jewelry making starts with the training of an apprentice. Until recent times, this was probably a boy belonging to a jeweler's family, or a relative whose caste was that of the jeweler (sonar). Beginning at an early childhood age, the apprentice is trained by his family in the simpler tasks, which increase in complexity with his acquisition of skills. Ultimately, after several years, the trainee becomes a full-fledged gold- or silversmith. Each workshop, whether a family unit or, as in recent times, a cooperative of many workers, is headed by a leader (ustad) or master craftsman, under whose direction work proceeds. Large workshops are often owned by an entrepreneur (Mahajan or Saraf) who decides what is to be made according to demand, provides his hired workers with materials, and either sells the results directly or wholesale to other jewelry dealers. There are believed to be over 2 million artisans currently making jewelry in India.

Fabrication techniques

The nature of metal jewelry fabrication is such that the basic techniques employed have not changed since the time when this technology began. Indian jewelers work with what their Western counterparts consider to be the most elemental tools. Yet, despite this seeming limitation, through the ages they have produced, and continue to make, masterpieces of the jeweler's art.

Jewelry fabrication processes have developed from the necessity to employ the elemental forms of metal available to every jeweler: wire, sheet metal, and bulk metal, the latter used for the casting process. The dominating use of the first two forms, wire or sheet metal, at specific locations has resulted in jewelry designs that exploit the possibilities inherent in these forms of metal. Thus, for example, torques constructed totally of wrapped and coiled wire are made in Rajasthan and Gujarat; and low relief repoussage transforms flat sheel metal into decorated dimensional forms in Uttar Pradesh and places too numerous to mention here.

Some uniquely Indian specialized decorative metalwork processes have evolved, and their use in many cases has become associated with a particular place of manufacture. Among these are the granulation technique used in Gujarat; the babul kam ("acacia thorn work," small projecting gold "thorns" that cover a surface) of the Punjab; thewa work (pierced gold foil units fused on glass) of Partabgarh, Rajasthan; the enamel work of Jaipur, Rajasthan; and the aforementioned, widely practiced kundan style of gemstone setting in universal use.

Mughal Style Jewelry

The styles of jewelry produced in India are extremely varied, and as mentioned, many can be associated with the geographic area of their origin. Thus the jewelry of the Himalayan area, North India, and South India are stylistically distinctive. Only recently have these general differences been recognized and given the attention they deserve. One North Indian style of design also practiced as far south as the Deccan is the so-called Mughal style. This today should rightfully be designated the Page 345  |  Top of Article
Silver Headband from South India. From South India, silver headband (thalaikkachchu) to adorn a sacred bull (Nandi). Madras (Chennai), Tamil Nadu, nineteenth century. Its sections are ornamented with repoussage and chasing, and set with glass s

Silver Headband from South India. From South India, silver headband (thalaikkachchu) to adorn a sacred bull (Nandi). Madras (Chennai), Tamil Nadu, nineteenth century. Its sections are ornamented with repoussage and chasing, and set with glass "stones.". TIMO RIPATTI, HELSINKI
Mughal-Rajput style since it originated during the Mughal period but is now practiced in places such as Jaipur, Jodhpur, and Bikaner (all in Rajasthan). This style has become so well known worldwide that for most Western people it represents Indian style in general to the exclusion of other, lesser known but equally interesting styles. Accounting for this popularity may be its prolific use of gemstones as well as the highly skillful application of polychrome enamel (usually on the reverse, unseen side of the ornament), resulting in objects of seductive opulence. Perhaps also operative in this world perception of what constitutes Indian design is the romanticized association of this style with the fabled wealth of the Mughal court, reflected in the rich appearance of new work in this design idiom. Its perpetuation in India and elsewhere attests to the endless design possibilities it allows.

Late Developments and Modern Trends

For millennia, Indian jewelers have cultivated their own systems of work production. With the invasion of Europeans, bent on commercial and colonial exploitation, that started in the sixteenth century and ended with Indian independence in 1947 inevitably, new concepts exotic to indigenous practice were introduced. In the jewelry field, of significant importance was the Western use of regularly faceted, calibrated sized gemstones, and claw settings for them developed to increase gemstone brilliance. Previously, the time-honored Indian approach to the use of gemstones, especially diamonds, was to retain their initial weight as much as possible by limited polishing. As a result, gemstones of many dissimilar, irregular forms were used in the same object. Stone form irregularity is probably what motivated the invention of the kundan gemstone setting process, as it permitted and facilitated the setting of stones of any perimeter form, thus eliminating the painstaking work of producing many exactly measured collet-type bezels, which are required when calibrated gemstones are used.

The claw or open-backed setting was another innovation, though rare examples from the past do exist. Prior Page 346  |  Top of Article to this, Indian gemstones were set into the kundan foil-backed, closed settings. In these settings, light was reflected through the stone from the backing foil to the visible front only. Open-backed settings, as in the case of claws that hold the stone in air, permit light penetration from all directions, which considerably increases gemstone brilliance. Both methods are in practice in India since the mid-nineteenth century. The Western use of regularly faceted gemstones and claw settings in an otherwise traditionally styled ornament probably are indications of a relatively recent manufacture.

The Influence of Indian Jewelry Design on the West

Conversely, the impact of Indian jewelry design on the jewelry of the Western world became strongly evident after the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London in 1851, when traditional Indian jewelry was first presented in quantity to the general public. Its earliest subsequent influence is seen in the jewelry design of the so-called Arts and Crafts Movement in Great Britain in the late nineteenth century. Indian forms and motifs of ornament were widely adopted by Western craftsmen who, in sympathy with Indian handwork methods, admired the organic, handmade appearance characteristic of Indian jewelry, as contrasted with the more mechanical-looking perfection of most contemporary Western jewelry.

Especially dramatic was the adoption of Indian styles, especially inspired by that of the Mughal period, by the grand jewelers of France and Great Britain, such as Cartier, Van Cleef and Arpels, Chaumet, and others. This occurred coincidentally with the universal acceptance of platinum in jewelry at the turn of the nineteenth century into the early years of the twentieth. The reign of Queen Victoria and that of her son, King Edward VII, both of whom bore the additional title, respectively, of Empress and Emperor of India, brought about a surge of interest in Indian culture. This period also attracted to Great Britain and Europe many Indian maharajas and their retinues to participate in political events such as the celebration of Queen Victoria's Jubilee of 1877 (when she was designated empress of India) and the coronation of Edward VII in 1907 (when he became emperor of India). Their magnificent appearance, particularly the opulence of their elaborate jewelry display, was widely reported in the newspapers and magazines. Upon their exposure to high fashion Western jewelry and its refined technology, Indian royalty soon became important clients to the famous European jewelry houses. The result was an active intercultural jewelry design exchange.

Western jewelry that either exhibits an obvious stylistic similarity to Indian jewelry, or that uses typical elements of traditional Indian design, is still produced by the workshops of the major jewelry fabrication houses of the world. This artistic homage, a form of flattery to Indian culture, is but one instance of evidence of the inexhaustible design inspiration that Indian jewelry has provided to the world.

Oppi Untracht


Allami, Abu'l-Fazl. The Ain-i-Akbari. 3 vols. Reprint, New

Delhi: Oriental Books, 1977. Aziz, Abdul. The Imperial Treasury of the Mughals. Lahore:

Published by the author, 1942. Borel, France. The Splendor of Ethnic Jewelry: The Colette and

Jean-Pierre Ghysels Collection. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994.

Brijbhushan, Jamila. Indian Jewellery, Ornaments and Decorative Designs. Mumbai: D. B. Taraporevala, 1964. Butor, Michel. Adornment: The Jean-Paul and Monique

Barbier-Mueller Collection. London: Thames and Hudson, 1994.

Chandra, Rai Govind. Studies in the Development of Ornaments and Jewellery in Proto-Historic India. Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Studies, vol. 41. Varanasi: Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office, 1964. Filliozat, J., and P. Z. Pattabiramin. Parures divines du sud de l'Inde. Pondicherry: Institut français d'indologie, 1966. Hasson, Rachel. Early Islamic Jewellery. 2 vols. Jerusalem:

L. A. Mayer Memorial Institute for Islamic Art, 1987. Hendley, Thomas Holbein. "Indian Jewellery." In Reprints of

Journal of Indian Art. 2 vols. New Delhi: Cultural Publishing House, 1989. Hendley, Thomas Holbein, and Swinton S. Jacob. Jeypore

Enamels. London: William Griggs and Sons, 1886. Jacobson, Doranne. "Women and Jewellery in Rural India."

In Main Currents in Indian Sociology, vol. 2: Family and Social Change in India, edited by Giri Raj Gupta. New Delhi: Vikas, 1976.

Kautilya. The Arthasastra of Kautiliya. Translated by

R. Shamasastry. 8th ed. Mysore: Mysore Printing and Publishing House, 1967.

Nadelhoffer, Hans. Cartier: Jewelers Extraordinary. New

York: Harry N. Abrams, 1984. Nandagopal, Chudamani. "The Traditional Jewellery of

Karnataka." In Decorative Arts of India, edited by M. L. Nagam. Hyderabad: Salar Jung Museum, 1987. Postel, Michel. Ear Ornaments of Ancient India. Mumbai:

Franco-Indian Pharmaceuticals, 1989. Pressmar, Emma. Indian Rings. Ahmedabad: New Order,


Stronge, Susan, Nima Smith, and J. C. Harle. A Golden Treasury: Jewellery from the Indian Subcontinent. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1988. Tavernier, Jean-Baptiste. Travels in India by Jean-Baptiste

Tavernier, Baron of Aubonne. Translated from the French edition of 1676 by Valentine Ball. 2 vols. London: Macmillan, 1889.

Untracht. Oppi. Jewelry Concepts and Technology. Garden

City, N.Y.: Doubleday; London: Robert Hale, 1982.

Page 347  |  Top of Article

——. Traditional Jewelry of India. New York: Harry N.

Abrams; London: Thames and Hudson, 1997.

Source Citation

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
Untracht, Oppi. "Jewelry." Encyclopedia of India, edited by Stanley Wolpert, vol. 2, Charles Scribner's Sons, 2006, pp. 340-347. Gale In Context: World History, Accessed 23 Sept. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3446500313