Samarth Kasliwal remembers that his late father, Munnu, considered it a crime to leave the underside of a piece of jewelry blank. Whatever touches the body must be beautiful, he believed, calling this “the wearer’s pleasure.” Not everyone agreed—but his father used to say to the doubters, “Why do you buy expensive underwear? It’s not important; no one’s really going to see it. It’s about your own happiness.”
The Kasliwal family has been making jewelry in India since the early 1700s and opened its Jaipur boutique, The Gem Palace, in 1852. The Maharaja Jai Singh, who founded Jaipur, invited the Kasliwals to be his court jewelers more than 300 years ago. Nine generations later, they still count among their patrons the royals of Jaipur. Many generations of well-to-do families are also loyal customers, and celebrities like Elton John and Angelina Jolie have made stops at the Kasliwal atelier, where a piece of jewelry may take from six months to as long as four years to complete. The family’s jewelry has been featured in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s gift shop, debuting in 2001 (in tandem with an exhibition of Mughal jewelry) with a collaboration headed by Munnu, who went on to create a total of five collections for the museum between 2001 and 2007.
One fine example of the Kasliwals’ exquisite craft is this cuff. One hundred thirty-eight carats of precious stones cover the cuff’s exterior, which features a design of lotus flowers with diamond petals and emerald sepals. These are set into the cuff in “kundan” style, in which flattened 23-carat gold is shaped into collars called ghaat. The ghaat are then soldered onto a gold base, forming pockets for each jewel. Hot wax is poured into the hollows before adding the stones, in order to fix them in place. To finish setting them, kundan—gold strips thinner than paper—are inserted between the ghaat and the stones with a metal pick. Excess gold is brushed away, revealing the gems in their gold surrounds.
The remaining exposed surface of the cuff is filled in with tightly packed rubies, each cut and placed so precisely that the collective pressure keeps them firmly in place.
The interior of the bangle is enameled. First, a traditional Indian floral motif is indented onto the 23-carat-gold body of the cuff (pure, 24-carat gold is not used because it would be too soft to hold the cuff’s shape). The enamel colors are prepared by crushing glass to powder with metal oxides, and each color is placed on the indentations using a thin stick. The piece then enters a furnace heated to temperatures of 600 to 900 °F so that the glass melts and sets. This happens twice, to embed the colors. A quick polish with sulphuric acid gives the interior a “luster and shine that rival those of a diamond,” as Kasliwal describes it.
A lot of jewelry today, in Kasliwal’s opinion, is about peacocking: showing off what you have. What makes his family’s work different is the attention paid to aspects of the design—such as the interior of this cuff—that might be seen only by a piece’s owner. And indeed, maharajas would judge a jeweler by how much effort he put into the less visible parts of a creation. Kasliwal compares wearing a piece of his family’s jewelry to a secret you keep with a friend.