Amin Jaffer, International Director of Asian Art at Christie's, talks with us about a staggering collection of Indian jewelry put together in just three years for a Qatari, and which is showcased in a new Assouline book.
It began with a visit to the 2009 exhibition Maharaja: the Splendour of India’s Royal Courts at the V&A Museum in London by Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al-Thani of Qatar’s ruling family. “He visited the show several times and soon after acquired a magnificent gem-set gold pen-case made in the late 16th or early 17th century,” says Amin Jaffer, International Director of Asian Art at Christie’s, who was soon employed by the Sheikh to scour the world for the very best examples of Indian jewelry. “This significant acquisition suggested immediately that this collection would be an important one.”
‘Important’ does not do it justice. ‘Beyond Extravagance: A Royal Collection of Gems and Jewels’, the title of a new Assouline book which showcases the collection in its entirety, is a more accurate description. Spanning 400 years right up to the present day, the pieces acquired by Al Thani represent the very best of the tradition of Indian jewelry. A choker made by Cartier for the Maharaja of Patiala, the Arcot II diamond and Taj Mahal emerald are just some of the historic highlights, while specially created pieces by JAR (sometimes referred to as the Faberge of our time) and Bhagat, represent the finest of contemporary jewels.
“Initially the collection grew organically,” says Jaffer of what was to morph into a period of important purchases that would propel the entire market for Indian jewelry. “Only later did a concerted strategy evolve for new acquisitions, supported by a team of specialists for vetting pieces.” Incredibly, the entire collection was put together in just three years. The book – a gem of an object in itself made up of 412 pages – marks the culmination of the project. There are plans to exhibit the collection in London, Paris and New York.
With no focus on a particular period, what guided the collector’s selection? “Coming from a curatorial background I tend to create cohesive and comprehensive groups of objects which relay particular messages,” explains Jaffer. “The collector, on the other hand, was far more focused on the quality and design of individual pieces, believing that one should never compromise just to fill a gap.”
Buy the Assouline book:
• What is your definition of luxury?
Something fine, rare and beautiful, not easily obtained and worth the price!
• If luxury were an object, what would it be?
It could be anything that provides a rare pleasure and is beautiful to see and feel, whether a pair of cashmere socks, a culinary delicacy or a jewel.
• If luxury were a person, who would it be?
My friend Shamina Talyarkhan personifies luxury.
• If luxury were a place, where would it be?
Somewhere in Italy!
• If luxury were a moment, when would it be?
That moment in bed - whatever the time - when you decide to remain where you are rather than get up!
• Rather than focus on one period of Indian jewels, this collection spans 400 years right up to the present day. What was the brief from Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al-Thani?
Initially the collection grew organically. The collector simply acquired pieces which he was offered and naturally responded to ranging from rare early Mughal jewelled objects and gem-set jades to grandiose jewellery made for maharajas and art deco pieces designed around Indian gems. Only later did a concerted strategy evolve for new acquisitions, supported by a team of specialists for vetting pieces.
• What was the impetus for the Sheikh to embark on this buying spree? What was the first piece he acquired?
The collector was inspired by the Indian jewellery he saw at the V&A exhibition Maharaja: the Splendour of India’s Royal Courts. He visited the show several times and soon after acquired a magnificent gem-set gold pen-case made in the late 16th or early 17th century. This significant acquisition suggested immediately that this collection would be an important one.
• How were the most recent pieces in the collection - which include jewellery by JAR and Bhagat – acquired? Were any pieces commissioned?
Some of the recent pieces, such as the jabot emerald brooch by JAR and the pearl earrings by Bhagat were special commissions designed around gems belonging to the collector. Others were straightforward purchases from the select group of jewellery made by these designers.
• It is remarkable that the collection took just 3 years to put together. How did you approach it?
The pace at which the group was formed reflected the passion and determination of the collector. Coming from a curatorial background I tend to create cohesive and comprehensive groups of objects which relay particular messages. The collector, on the other hand, was far more focused on the quality and design of individual pieces, believing that one should never compromise just to fill a gap.
• How did your position as International Director of Asian Art at Christie’s facilitate building the collection?
Christie’s has led the market for Indian jewellery over the years, my colleague David Warren spearheading super-successful auctions of this material in the mid-1990s. As such we hold a wealth of knowledge on past sales of this class of material. Ultimately one has to wait for the best pieces to come up for sale, although a determined collector sometimes hunts for specific works. This is where Christie’s Private Sales proved to be very effective as we are able to source specific works for clients outside of the sale season. Often this discreet alternative is preferred for the most important acquisitions.
• You have mentioned that the Sheikh has recently started collecting contemporary art. Is he buying with the same zeal that he bought Indian jewellery?
The collector is a connoisseur at heart. While he acquires works in many areas, I believe that Indian jewellery – especially Mughal pieces – hold a special value for him because of his deep interest in Indian history and architecture.
• How does the Sheikh exhibit the pieces privately – at home or in a private museum?
Some pieces are displayed privately in the collector’s offices but there are plans for the collection to be shown in major museums both in America and Europe.
Beyond Extravagance: A Royal Collection of Gems and Jewels presents a journey through the history of Indian jeweled objects.
This book will awaken a new understanding of the diverse tradition of Indian jewelry through pieces that span more than four hundred years. Assembled with a passion for gems and a love of Indian craftsmanship, each item sheds light on the evolution of style and technique in court jewelry from the peak of the Mughal imperial patronage, the rich commissions of Maharajas under the British Raj, the celebrated Indian commissions of Cartier, to the inventive creations of the 21st century.
Key pieces include a carved jade dagger hilt owned by Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj Mahal; a group of engraved imperial Mughal spinels; a collection of enameled objects from Hyderabad, the Arcot II diamond and Taj Mahal emerald; a choker made by Cartier for the Maharaja of Patiala, as well as stunning contemporary creations by JAR and Bhagat using historic Indian stones. - See more at: http://www.assouline.com/9781614281290.html#sthash.wIcHbeqU.dpuf