On The Rocks Magazine


History In The Making


Pair of 19th-century Kaluthiru ceremonial necklaces in yellow gold, amrapali private collection

To celebrate the recent opening of the
glittering Amrapali Museum of Jewellery in
Jaipur, we revisit our feature from Issue II of
On The Rocks with the luxury Indian house 

In the twentieth century, the life adventures of the Indian orphan Amrapāli – believed
to be the most beautiful woman that ever lived – reached pop culture status, with books, a Bollywood biopic and several TV series excavating the character of this nigh-on demi-goddess born circa 500BC, who was a royal courtesan before becoming one of the Buddha’s most beloved disciples. A talented dancer with mystic leanings, her enduring influence can be attributed as much to her fine physical features as to the grace and strength she is said to have exuded from within.

Fast-forward 3,000 years to 1978 and the founding of Amrapali Jewels – named after this unconventional woman whose ancient city of Vaishali is now an archaeological site. This modern tale is perhaps the more prosaic one, but has a similarly humble beginning and also enjoys a journey emboldened by beauty and grace. Two friends (and cousins), Rajiv Arora and Rajesh Ajmera, had just completed post-graduate degrees in history
and taken up a market stall trading in traditional handicrafts in Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan in Northern India. “We wanted to present the world with the best India had
to offer,” says Arora. “As a first-generation business we had limited resources but lots of ambition.”

Well placed on the ground to forge close relationships with excellent local craftspeople, the company flourished as the duo branched out into increasingly exquisite pieces –
all the while ardently collecting and restoring vintage finds. Today, Amrapali holds “the largest collection of antique Indian jewellery in the world,” says London-born Sameer Lilani, who heads up the company’s operations in the UK, Europe and the Middle East. “This includes the largest collection of nose-rings; traditionally, you could tell a lot
about tribe members in Northern India – how important their family was or how
many children they had – by which nose-rings they wore, so the collection is of huge cultural importance.”

Beyond the subcontinent, Amrapali has extended its reach around the globe, with standalone stores in London and New York and many more concessions internationally. But whatever the focus of the collection, Lilani says it’s to the past that they continue
to look for inspiration, not least for a bold new endeavour: the opening of a jewellery museum in Jaipur housing thousands of important pieces across upwards of 20,000
feet of exhibition space.

Perhaps the most extraordinary finds in the Amrapali collection are the ceremonial Kaluthiru necklaces from the Nattukottai Chettiar community in Tamil Nadu,
South India. Around 150 years old, they are made of solid-gold cylindrical beads
and three branching pendants, thought to emulate shells or the shape of a tiger’s paws. Traditionally the first of a pair is given to a bride by her parents as part of her dowry
on her wedding day, and placed around her neck by the groom during the ceremony.

“There’s a lot of stored wealth in jewellery in Indian culture,” Lilani explains. “So rather than having a bar of gold you have something which is beautiful – but is not something that you wear or use very often.” The second necklace is given to a man on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday – one Hindu tradition holds that the natural age of man is 120 years, so this marks the halfway point – and he wears it on this day, while his wife once again dons her necklace as the wedding ceremony is re-enacted. 

“We lent these pieces to the Moscow Kremlin Museums [in 2014] for their Indian jewellery exhibition,” Lilani recounts. “The curator was amazed that we had both necklaces as a set. She’d been to ten different museums, including the Smithsonian in Washington DC and the British Museum in London – each had one of the necklaces,
but it’s extremely rare to have both. Also because of rapidly changing lifestyles in
India, this custom is falling off, so it will become even more rare. Pieces like this
are not replaceable.”

“It is our ethos that you have to look
back in order to move forward”

Other significant pieces in the collection include fine examples of Thandatti earrings. These are traditionally worn on elongated earlobes, often several are clasped in succession so that they hang down to the shoulder, by women in Southern India (Thanda is from the Sanskrit for ‘stem’ and Ath is a Strychnine tree – after the antiseptic wood women would use to stretch their ears). Clusters of interlocking geometric designs in yellow gold are surprisingly modern in feel, while the symbolism could not be more ancient: it is believed to be a three-dimensional rendition of a mandala, a mystical representation of the universe.

Another piece shown here is a bracelet from the western state of Maharashtra, whose capital city is Mumbai. The gold compartment at the centre features a carved lotus flower, a symbol of the goddess Lakshmi – who promises wealth, good fortune and beauty – and in the past it would have been used to store religious keepsakes such as sacred writings procured from a priest. Later on it would have been a secret store for spices or items of value (monetary or otherwise) to the wearer. 

The flat gold bangle with its simple geometric design is another beautiful find. In line with the Hindu tradition which holds that honourable women should not have bare arms, this would have been worn as one of many – they are also said to bring good fortune, and as gold pieces, are fortune themselves. The detailing on this particular bangle’s chain is inspired by armour, after a strong tradition which also runs through some of Amrapali’s contemporary pieces honouring warriors of the past.

“Since our founders started as collectors interested in the rich history of Indian jewellery and objects, invariably this is the starting point for most of our pieces,” Lilani says. “Though, in fact, it can be traditional Egyptian or Byzantine pieces that catch our eye. Whatever the tradition, it is our ethos that you have to look back in order to move forward.” Truly, the spirit of their namesake lives on.

Set Design

Andrew Stellitano

Digital Capture

Luke Cartledge, Rhys Thorpe

Photography Assistant

Shaun Bransgrove


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