With the exception of the Cheapside Hoard exhibition at the Museum of London, I think we can say without bias that the Victoria & Albert Museum curates the most spectacular jewellery exhibitions in London if not the world. The winner hands down was Wartski managing director Geoffrey Munn’s Tiara exhibition that borrowed masterpieces from all the royal households in Europe and Russia including many pieces belonging to senior ladies in the British Royal Family who all adore him.
Not coincidentally Bewelled Treasures: The Al Thani Collection (21 November – 18th March next year) is sponsored by antique jewellers Wartski though I would surmise the Al Thani family sovereign wealth fund could buy the V&A and all its contents let alone sponsor a relatively small exhibition of 100 exceptional pieces of Indian jewellery plus pieces inspired by the Indian aesthetic.
The core of the collection was amassed by HH Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah who was related to the Emirs of Qatar but didn’t get the top job. Well, one has to pass the time being naughty-naughty and spending like Croesus in London. At least the Al Thani family showed more smarts and taste than Prince Jaffri of Brunei.
The exhibit is introduced by a single case containing the diamond turban ornament of the Indian Maharaja of Nawanagar set in 1925-35. The principal diamonds weight 152.64 carats but heftiness is hardly the point. The design is ostensibly Deco but more high Edwardian and topped with a fan of white feathers.
We then meander from case-to-case of magnificent jewels and jewelled objects; the earliest being Emperor Jahangir’s Mughal jade cup created in 1607-8. HM The Queen loaned three pieces including a necklace of spinels and the Nazim of Hyderabad’s extraordinary jewelled parrot with an emerald drop in its beak. Fancy!
Interesting that these are the only pieces that could not be photographed maybe because we are not supposed to have any idea of the magnitude of the royal collection of treasures from foreign dictators and absolute monarchs squirrelled away in various palaces and archives. At least little was hocked salve Fawcett.
You can keep the jewelled daggers and ceremonial swords though I loved a jade back-scratcher with carved hands wearing ruby and sapphire rings. I am much more interested in adornment such as the Paul Iribe-designed 1910 carved Colombian emerald, diamond and sapphire Art Deco brooch inspired by the Ballets Russes and the swaggering devant-de-corsage brooch set by Carter in 1912.
Of the earlier pieces, I adored the 19th century Hyderabad diamond collar and a 1900 Hyderabad foiled emerald and diamond collar set with natural pearls. Indian jewellery is arguably the most influential on the golden age of European jewellery design in the early 20th century, particularly the glorious use of colour drifts and the audacious combination of stones enhanced by the scale of a piece that in other cultures (such as the Gulf states) would be vulgar, vulgar, vulgar.
On the rare occasions I have seen the Sultan of Brunei’s wives ablaze in coloured diamonds, they look like Christmas trees or pageant queens of the drag variety. Indian Maharanis instinctively had dignity and superb taste in jewels. They were the ladies who tested the creativity of Van Cleef & Arpels, Cartier, Boucheron and Chaumet; often throwing sachets of gemstones on a desk and demanding that they be set into a single piece of jewellery.
I am afraid that I find cut but not set magnificent diamonds such as the 70.21 carat Idol’s Eye diamond mined in Golconda leave me cold. Set a stone and the magic begins. Solo, they are simply impressive weights not dissimilar to marbles or gobstoppers. I sincerely hope that this private collection belonging to the Al Thani royal family is not kept in a museum or a bank vault in Qatar. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if they were worn at the Emir of Qatar-owned Dudley House mansion on Park Lane where The Queen is a regular guest to dinner?
Should we be entirely comfortable about Qatar’s cultural presence in London? Yes. Should be equally happy that Qatar has been allowed to buy Claridge’s, The Connaught, the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square, Harrods, One Hyde Park, the Chelsea Barracks, Camden Market, the London Stock Exchange, The Shard and Canary Wharf? I think not.
If planning permission isn’t given to the Qatari royals to convert acres of stucco terraces on Cornwall Terrace in Regent’s Park into a single palace, I dread Prince Charles offering them Buckingham Palace as an alternative while he and his future Queen Consort decide instead to remain at Clarence House when he becomes king. The Qatar Royal Family already share The Queen’s carriage at Royal Ascot and socialise together. How long before the roles are reversed?
Of more concern is the British Royal Family’s collusion with the House of Saud. Saudi Arabia is as radical as ISIS. Allegedly, they fund the terrorists who murdered over 100 people in Paris last week. Sharia Law is ruthlessly executed in Saudi Arabia even on British citizens visiting the Gulf State. I am not clued-up enough about the other rulers of Abu Dabi, Dubai, Oman etc to understand their links to the British royals or the government. However, I suspect the mutual benefits to both will not preclude bonhomie and private back-handers.