Maharaja Jagatjit Singh’s Mellerio peacock & Cartier tiara once found place in Mughal treasury
Many of the jewels that he owned had passed through the hands of prominent French jewellers.
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A lasting legacy of the erstwhile maharaja of Kapurthala, Jagatjit Singh, is the eponymous palace that stands tall even today in modern-day Punjab. The palace, modelled after the Versailles in Paris, earned him the reputation of being a Francophile, as did his love for all things French. Not surprisingly, many of the jewels that he owned had passed through the hands of prominent French jewellers.
At a jewellery conference in Mumbai, Cynthia Meera Frederick, who works closely with the descendants of Singh on matters related to archiving, restoration and conservation, delivered a talk on the jewels that the Maharaja once owned, and have since moved on into prominent private collections.
Pieces of note
“We know about some of his [Singh’s] well-known pieces like the Boucheron aigrette and the Cartier tiara,” Frederick told ETPanache. “I’ve discovered that the aigrette was a piece that he didn’t just supply the stones for, but had it refashioned from a more traditional Indian jigah. And the same thing for the Cartier tiara. It was another tiara, but he wanted something spectacular for his golden jubilee [in 1927], so he turned to Jacques Cartier, who was a friend.”
According to her, Singh was contemporary in his tastes and played a part in setting the trend of getting the more traditional pieces in the royal collections refashioned by European jewellers. “It really was a confluence of cultures,” she said. There is a similar story about an old-fashioned piece owned by Singh’s father and grandfather being recast in a more modern design by Hamilton & Company, a prominent jeweller in British India. Considering that head ornaments were perceived as objects of kingship, it was natural for them to receive special attention from kings. Ornaments owned by women of the royal family did not lag far behind. Many of them were designed by Kanjimull & Sons, a Delhi firm.
A crescent-shaped emerald owned by Singh’s Spanish wife Anita Delgado (one of his six wives) made an appearance at an auction in June, as did the Mellerio peacock (an antique diamond and enamel peacock aigrette by Mellerio Dits Meller).
After the couple separated, Delgado returned to Spain, taking the crescent-shaped emerald with her. She passed it on to the couple’s son, Ajit. “He never sold it. It was inherited by one of his nieces and she eventually sold it. To him, it represented the great love between his parents. That piece [a part of the Al Thani collection] was just auctioned off,” Frederick said. It sold for $471,000. Interestingly, a note about the piece by Christie’s says, “This magnificent stone originally adorned the Maharaja’s most-prized elephant, until Anita admired it and it was given to her on her nineteenth birthday as an award for learning Urdu.”
To which Frederick responds, “ I have seen a picture of Maharaja’s favourite tusker, Kalla Nag. He was enormous. I don’t quite believe this story about the emerald adorning him. We haven’t seen any photographs to support this story either.” As for the Mellerio peacock, despite being considered one of the more important pieces from the collection (it fetched $735,000 at the auction), Frederick is yet to see a single image of Singh wearing it. But she says that is the beauty of this field. It can simply show up someday.
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According to the historian, it is the fate of jewels to keep moving from one hand to another, one land to another. Tracing the history of Kapurthala pieces for example, Frederick found that the emeralds of this former princely state were once a part of the Mughal treasury.
The story goes that after invading Delhi, Nadir Shah looted the Mughal treasury in 1700s. He was going back to Persia with his loot and had to cross the Punjab plains on his way. That’s when Baba Jassa Singh Ahluwalia, who was the head of the Kapurthala dynasty, attacked Shah and his men at the Ahluwalia Misl, and “relieved these invaders of the treasures that they took from the Mughals”.
“So, my theme is that jewellery is never static. It’s always moving. It’s moving in shape, form and ownership. That is almost the fate of these pieces,” Frederick concluded.