Discovering 'Bejewelled Treasures' at the V&A

Written by on 5 April 2016

Along with a couple of my colleagues at Harriet Kelsall Bespoke Jewellery, I made a much-anticipated visit to ‘Bejewelled Treasures’ at the V&A. The exhibition explores the vast array of jewellery and jewels from the Al Thani Collection which dates back from the seventeenth century to the present day. I found the exhibition thoroughly inspiring and was in awe of such intricate and beautifully made pieces. I was particularly mesmerised by the vast amounts of precious gemstones and 22 carat gold on show. The traditional Indian jewellery and exquisite craftsmanship has inspired contemporary designers such as Cartier, JAR and Bhagat and the exhibition featured some additional pieces from these designers which were fascinating to see.

The raw beauty in the gemstone collection was particularly evident. Cutting techniques weren't quite as developed as they are now, so gemstones were used in ways which seem quite out of the ordinary today. The precious gemstones; diamond, emerald, sapphire and ruby had all been cabochon cut or used as beads which gave them an unusual but beautifully raw quality. It was especially interesting to see the cabochon cut diamonds and the ability to look at them so closely revealed their thin and shallow properties which jewellers used to conceal through the use of foil backs to give the illusion of greater depth.

The exhibition really showcased the beauty of the spinel, which is a somewhat overlooked stone today. The jewellery experts from the Mughal Court in the 1590's ranked spinel as the most precious gemstone, before diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds, and then pearls. A red spinel can be very rich in colour and is often mistaken for a ruby. It occurs in many colours but the emperors favoured the stones that were considerable in size and had a deep pink hue, which resulted in many, very impressively sized spinels throughout the collection.

As a new member of the design team at Harriet Kelsall, I have only recently become familiar with many of the most commonly used setting types in fine jewellery. It was eye opening to see the different settings in the Al Thani Collection, particularly the 'Kundan’ setting which translates to 'finest or 'purest' and refers to the highly refined gold that holds the gemstones in place without the need for obtrusive settings. This method ensures goldsmiths can set gemstones into fragile surfaces such as enamel work or engraved gems like nephrite jade or rock crystal.

I loved looking at all of the extravagant pieces in the collection as well as all the functional yet elaborate objects, from vases to bowls to daggers and huqqa mouth pieces! The photographs of the emperors wearing the jewels were just as engaging as the jewels themselves and the concluding video of the traditional techniques used by the Indian goldsmiths was equally as mesmerising.