The bling from India is off the charts at SF Legion of Honor exhibit
By Robert Taylor
If you’ve never seen a 52-carat diamond close up, the Legion of Honor offers one for your perusal in the exhibit “East Meets West: Jewels of the Maharajas from the Al Thani Collection.”
A view of “East Meets West: Jewels of the Maharajas from The Al Thani Collection,” a new exhibit at Legion of Honor in San Francisco. (photo: Joanna Garcia Cheran/Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)
Still not impressed? Nearby is another diamond, pear-shaped, 70 carats, known as “The Idol’s Eye” for the legend that it was taken from the eye of a Hindu deity in India. Almost as an aside, the caption for this largest cut-blue diamond in the world adds, “It formerly belonged to Imelda Marcos, first lady of the Philippines.”
This brilliant, pear-shaped Arcot II diamond is on display at the Legion of Honor. (photo: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)
Such is the rich geopolitical, social and religious history behind the dazzling displays, dramatically mounted at the San Francisco museum and on view through Feb. 24.
The 150-plus objects include turban ornaments, jeweled dagger handles and delicate jade cups. Jewelry styles range from brilliant-cut diamonds to bands of brightly colored stones called “tutti-frutti.”
Plus, men in pearls. The exhibit and its enlarged portrait photographs point out that until the 19th century the male rulers wore the jewelry as public symbols of their power. One maharaja is seen with 13 strands of pearls around his neck and five more across his chest.
Posted at the entrance is a quotation from British author Rudyard Kipling: “Providence created the maharajas to offer mankind a spectacle.” Kipling’s observation is from the 1880s, three decades into British rule of the region. Queen Victoria was “Empress of India.”
As the exhibit points out, these local rulers’ wealth and influence — and ostentatious displays of jewelry — were impacted when India achieved independence from Britain in 1947. For some museum visitors, this vast display of wealth will help explain the roots of self-government movements.
These objects are just part of an art-and-artifact collection amassed in the last decade by Hamad bin Abdullah Al Thani, a member of Qatar’s royal family. He pointed out in an interview in Vanity Fair magazine that the majority of these objects had long been sold off by the original Indian owners, especially after independence.
This Shah Jahan dagger with a jade hilt, from the 17th century, is on display at the Legion of Honor. (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)
The provenance of these works can be fascinating. A dagger with a jade hilt was once owned by Emperor Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal. Individual gems and jewelry made their way from maharajas to the British Royal Family, the breakfast-cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, and Samuel F.B. Morse, inventor of the Morse Code.
The centerpiece at the exhibit’s entrance a dazzling necklace of radiating diamonds and sapphires created by Cartier in London in 1937 for the Maharajah of Nawanagar. Flanking it are a 1902 photograph of Queen Alexandra, the wife of Britain’s King Edward II, and a 1911 photograph of Maharajah of Patiala, each with their chests virtually upholstered with strands of pearls.
The maharaja also wears a diamond necklace originally made for Empress Eugenie of France, the wife of Napoleon III. It included the Potemkin diamond, formerly owned by Catherine the Great of Russia, as a pendant. The changing fortunes of ruling families sent these jewels on their travels.
The historical background gets beyond the bling. The Legion of Honor curators point out:
Some of the most fascinating objects are the earliest. Among them are a pendant from 1575-1625 inspired by European Renaissance jewels, with a Baroque pearl as the centerpiece, and a jeweled ceremonial pen case and inkwell from 1575-1600. Another is a jeweled tiger’s-head finial, 1787-1793, from the gold throne of Tipu Sultan of Mysore, said to be a fierce enemy of the British.
This jeweled tiger’s-head finial, from 1787-1793, is on display at the Legion of Honor (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)
The re-creation completed in recent years uses synthetic jewels for some that were lost, but it’s still a glittering shower of platinum, diamonds, zirconias, topazes, synthetic ruby, smoky quarts and citrine.“Jewels of the Maharajas” saves the most extravagant for last: a restored version of the “special order” necklace made in 1928 by Cartier in Paris for the Maharajah of Patiala. It originally consisted of 3,000 diamonds on chains around the 234-carat — yes, that’s two hundred and thirty four carats — yellow De Beers Diamond.
There is also a photo from the 1930s of Maharaja Yadavindra Singh of Patiala wearing the original necklace created for his father. He seems to be smiling slightly, but given the hundreds of carats draped around his neck, it’s heroic that he can stand up straight for the photographer.
‘EAST MEETS WEST: JEWELS OF THE MAHARAJAS’
Through: Feb. 24, 9:30 a.m.-5:15 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday
Where: Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park, 34th Avenue and Clement Street, San Francisco
Admission: $13-$28′ 415-750-3600, legionofhonor.famsf.org
Courtesy of www.mercurynews.com