The A-Z of Jewelry: M is for... Maharajahs

By Sarah Jordan
Continuing our series exploring the history of jewelry trends, Sarah Jordan looks at the ancient jewels of the Maharajahs.

F or centuries, India was the epicentre of the world’s finest diamonds and gemstones, operating some of the earliest mines. For its ancient rulers, owning gem-encrusted jewelry and weaponry was a symbol of power and prosperity, while also signalling status to visiting merchants from lands far, far away. From 1526, craftsmen in the Mughal Empire developed the kundan technique for setting gemstones in pure gold. It was this sense of bejeweled innovation that put Indian jewelry firmly on the global stage.

As the Mughal Empire faded into history and the era of East India Company rule began, a system of local rulers, known as Maharajas (or ‘Great King’ in Sanskrit), began to fill the power vacuum left behind. Hundreds of princely states created a patchwork across India, each one ruled by a Maharaja and his family. Exceptional displays of jewels and splendour were the hallmarks of a Maharaja, from lashings of diamonds to fine clothes, dressed horses and courtly attendants. In the lead-up to India’s independence in 1947, Maharajas were often British educated, wealthy aristocrats who were more likely to call on Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels and Chaumet for their jewels during a summer in Europe than visit their local artisans.

Maharaja and Maharani of Jaipur, India
Maharaja and Maharani of Jaipur, India

As a result, Maharajas of the early 20th century commissioned some of the most extravagant pieces in the history of jewelry. Most notable is the Cartier Patiala Necklace, commissioned by Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala (1891-1938) in 1928. The platinum necklace consists of an incredible 2,930 diamonds, including a 234.69 carat cushion-cut pale-yellow diamond, alongside Burmese rubies. It is officially the largest and most expensive single commission ever taken by Cartier.

Other famous jewels of the Maharaja include the Van Cleef & Arpels Baroda Set, crafted for the Maharani (wife of the Maharaja) of Baroda in 1950. It consists of 13 pear-shaped Colombian emeralds, weighing a total of 154.70 carats. In a similarly elaborate turn, the Maharaja Yeshwant Rao Holkar and Maharani Sanyogita Devi of Indore dazzled the Jazz Age with jewels featuring the ‘Indore Pears’ – two pear-shaped diamonds of 47 carats each – set in a necklace by Mauboussin for him and a diamond and pearl necklace, by Chaumet, for her.

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