Jewelry in India has been an unbroken tradition for over 5,000 years. Such is the skill of Indian jewelers that with time, the real flowers and leaves used by our ancestors inspired them to recreate the gifts of nature in gold and silver.
In early India, people handcrafted jewelry out of natural materials found in abundance all over the country.
Seeds, feathers, leaves, berries, fruits, flowers, animal bones, claws and teeth - everything from nature was affectionately gathered and artistically transformed into fine body jewelry. Even today such jewelry is used by the different tribal societies. Excavations at Mohenjodaro and other sites of the Indus Valley civilization have unearthed a wealth of handmade ornaments.It appears that both men and women of that time wore jewelry made of gold, silver, copper, ivory and precious and semi-precious stones. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata abound in descriptions of ornaments and the code of Manu defines the duties of the goldsmith.
By the third century B.C., India was the leading exporter of gemstones, particularly diamonds. Gold was usually imported into the country, a practice prevalent even during the Mughal period.
In India jewelry is made practically for every part of the body. Such a variety of jewelry bears the testimony to the excellent skills of the jewelers in India. The range of jewelry in India varies from religious one to purely aesthetic one. Jewelry was handcrafted not just for humans but also for the gods, ceremonial elephants and horses. The craft of jewelry was given a royal patronage right from the ancient times because in India jewelry is much more than just a tool of aesthetic appeal; rather it is the symbol of divine abundance and material blessings.
The rajas and maharajas vied with each other to possess the most exquisite and the most magnificent pieces of jewelry. Temple complexes supported many different styles of jewelry-scented sandalwood bead necklaces, the prayer bead or the rudraksh (berry of the elaocarpus canitrus) necklace, multicolored silk and gold thread necklaces, and others.
In Hindu, Jain and Sikh communities where women do not inherit landed property, jewelry was a major component of the streedhana (gifts given to a woman at the time of her marriage). Jewelry, because of its easy convertibility into cash, was thus regarded as security and investment.Jewelry as investment and identity marker is evident in the plethora of ornaments worn by people from nomadic and migrant tribal communities. It is not uncommon to find Banjara women wearing a wide variety of silver jewelry.
A profusion of earrings in various sizes, bangles of bone, shell and ivory extending from the wrist to the armpit along with silver bracelets, chokers, pendants and necklaces, nose rings, and heavy anklets are worn by most of the migrant groups, especially in Western India. The setting of precious gems and stones in rings, pendants, necklaces and bracelets gained prominence due to the belief that these stones are associated with certain powers.
In Bengal, it is common to find iron, silver and gold wires twisted together to form a bracelet, a combination that according to popular belief gives the wearer health and strength.
Traditionally, Indian goldsmiths are usually men and are referred to by a variety of names depending on the region-sonar, swarnakara, panchallar, or thattan. In the Vedic period, goldsmiths had a much higher standing than most other artisans, perhaps because they worked with a precious metal. The goldsmiths had royal patrons. Historical records show that Indian jewellers mastered quite early the various skills required to make fine jewelry-mixing alloys, moulding, drawing fine wires, setting stones, inlay work, relief, drawing gold and silver into thin wires, plating and gilding.
In smaller places, the goldsmith may perform all the processes involved in producing a finished piece. In cities, the different operations are undertaken by separate people-the goldsmith prepares the skeletal framework, the chatera engraves, the kundansaaz or jaria sets the stones while the meenasaaz enamels it.
Different regions of India boast of jewelry making styles unique to them - in Orissa and Andhra Pradesh fine filigree work in silver, in Jaipur the art of enamelling or meenakari, temple jewelry from Nagercoil and kundan or the setting of semi-precious or precious stones in gold from Delhi. A wide variety of silver beads are found all over India, especially in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh. In filigree work, patterns of leaves, flowers, butterflies, birds and geometrical shapes are made with silver wires of varying thickness. The skilled jewellers draw out fine wires of silver mixed with a little bit of lead and make an outline of the pattern in thick wire. Fine wires are then collected inside the framework to create a delicate lace-like appearance.
Meenakari and kundan are the styles of jewelry making influenced by the Mughals and are usually used in combination to make jewelry that can be worn on both sides such as chokers and necklaces. The temple jewelry of Nagercoil consists of traditional gold ornaments studded with red and green semi-precious stones. These were used as offerings to the Gods and hence the name. Today, some of these designs are being made in silver and then washed with gold.
In Assam, soft 24 carat gold is fashioned into earrings and necklaces modeled on the local flora and fauna-earrings like the hona, which replicate the orchid and the lokaparo, which consists of two birds placed back to back.
In Nagaland, gold is used to craft imitations of the human head and long funnel shaped beads which are used in combination with shells, animal claws and teeth and precious and semi-precious stones.
The designs in solid gold jewelry of Tamil Nadu and Kerala are inspired by nature. The paisley motif or the ambi, rice grains, the cobra's hood, melon and cucumber seeds are some of the common motifs.Silversmiths of Himachal Pradesh craft large ornaments, which have a very delicate and intricate appearance. Headdresses called chak, long earrings and large nose-rings with papal leaf or bird motifs are the specialties of the region. In Ladakh, silver charm boxes and headdresses called perak with rows of turquoise, cornelian, coral and agate stitched onto it are quite common.
The story of handcrafted Indian jewelry is long and absorbing. Inspired by nature, fuelled by beauty and belief, it is an eternal process of artistic imagination and fine craftsmanship. From prehistoric ages to the present day, the crafts of precious Indian jewelry is one of its kind in beauty and quality.