Posts tagged maharaja jewellery

One of the very first jewels Anita received from her husband, a peacock comb by Mellerio.  The style is pure Art Nouveau.

The Kapurthala Tiara in emeralds and diamonds, by Cartier.  It was commissioned by the Maharaja in the early 1930s and is a triumph of the neo Indian jewels Cartier was creating for the Indian rulers at the time.

A long forgotten story was thrust into the spotlight again last year with the Victoria and Albert’s exhibition of Indian and Moghul jewellery in the Al Thani Collection.  This was the romantic, true tale of Anita Delgado, the humble Spanish dancer raised to the rank of maharani and showered with jewels, some of which later found their way into the Al Thani Collection, most of which have been lost forever.

Anita Delgado was a beautiful flamenco dancer, born in Malaga, Spain, in 1890.  Not much is known about her early childhood, other than her talent as a dancer and rudimentary upbringing.  In 1906, at the tender age of 16 she was seen dancing in a cafe in Madrid by Sir Jagatjit Singh, Maharaja of Kapurthala, one of the great princely states of India.  He was in Spain to attend the wedding of Alfonso XIII and Victoria Eugenia of Battenberg and he fell in love with Anita on sight.  After much protracted courting during which Anita rebuffed all advances, she agreed to marry him.  Spanish society was so appalled by this social mismatch that any signs of social climbing were met with derisory cries of ‘wanting to marry a maharaja’ for decades after.

Rock crystal and emerald necklace presented by the Maharaja of Kapurthala to his wife Anita in 1925. The cracks in the marriage were irreparable at the time this jewel was gifted, as they divorced the same year.

The magnificent and beautiful emerald that Anita Delgado was given by her husband, the Maharaja of Kapurthala, as a reward for learning Urdu. 

Anita was carried off to Paris where she was given, in modern terms, a makeover.  Not only was she taught how to eat, walk and talk but she was also showered in clothes and jewellery- and what jewels they were.  It was the start of a lifelong passion, one that she shared with her husband.  The jewels all reflect the changing tastes of the 20th century, starting with the naturalism of Art Nouveau, through the magnificent Belle Epoque and later, Art Deco.  The 1920s saw a period of great collaboration between the Indian princely families and the great European jewellery houses.  The maharajas had chests filled with ancestral stones, many of which were reset in bespoke creations in Europe in a style that successfully married the grand, Indian style with the clean, monochrome lines of Art Deco. 

Anita Delgado, Prem Kaur, Maharani of Kapurhtala wearing her famous moon shaped emerald.

Anita married the Maharaja of Kapurthala in a civil ceremony in Paris and became the Maharani when she married him again in India under Sikh rites, taking the name of Prem Kaur.  She was the maharaja’s fifth wife and it says a lot about her strength of character that she insisted on, and was given unheard of freedoms for a woman in India, being allowed to live in her own quarters outside the harem.  One of the many gems she set her cap at was a magnificent, unusual emerald cut in the shape of a crescent moon which decorated a sacred elephant.  Her husband granted it to her on condition that she learnt Urdu.  She was proficient enough to have her request fulfilled six months later.

Sadly the marriage did not bring either of them happiness and the princely couple parted ways, divorcing in 1925.  She was given a generous monthly stipend, allowed to keep all the jewels she had acquired during their marriage and allowed to keep her title, all on condition that she never remarried and never returned to India.  Anita spent the rest of her life between Malaga, Biarritz, Deauville and Paris, dying in relative obscurity in 1962.  A very considerable portion of her jewels and possessions were sunk in transport by shipping tank and the current maharaja’s family are still trying to recover them.


 A magnificent turban ornament by Cartier made in the 1920s.  The central emerald was an Indian heirloom emerald reset into a neo Indian design that successfully married the best elements of modern Art Deco and traditional Moghul design.

The Grand Duchess Maria Fedorovna in the 1780s. She wears an aigrette at the top of her hairstyle, which was inappropriate for a tiara.

The aigrette: not quite a tiara yet and more formal than a jewelled head comb, is an underrated piece of jewellery that does not quite get the attention of it deserves.  However much some may yearn the days where wearing tiaras was de rigueur for some formal occasion, the reality is that even in rarefied circles a woman will only wear one a few times in her life.  An aigrette, however, can be versatile, fun and add a touch of crowning glory to the wearer. 

The first ones almost certainly originated around the 12th century in India as the turban ornaments of Indian rulers, but they did not fully take off in Europe until around the 17th century.  During this time, like their oriental counterparts, they were extravagantly decorated with rare birds’ feathers, and that is how this jewel derived its name- aigrette is the French name for egret, a lesser white heron.  The aigrette’s popularity first peaked towards the end of the 18th century, when they were a more apt hair jewel for the towering hairstyles of the day than a tiara.  As hairstyles became lower after the French Revolution, they fell out of favour and the tiara reigned supreme.  They came back into fashion towards the 1870s, and society ladies considered them indispensable by the 1880s.  They could be more fantastical than tiaras and with all the rage for feathers at this time infinitely more wearable.  They were the perfect accessory for the great costume and masked balls of the age.  The great couturier Worth considered them essential and his former protégé and rival, Paul Poiret, made them his own.  Feathers for aigrettes were supplied by respected specialists and included exotic specimens such as bird of paradise from New Guinea, the Cape ostrich and the Egyptian ibis.  

Another inventive aigrette by Chaumet, circa 1885.  Gem set in the shape of a hummingbird, it can also be worn as a brooch.

Another inventive aigrette by Chaumet, circa 1885.  Gem set in the shape of a hummingbird, it can also be worn as a brooch.

Design by Chaumet for a ruby and diamond winged aigrette.

The heiress Evalyn Walsh McLean in 1912 wearing a feathered aigrette set with a diamond of a stupendous side.  Round her neck is the infamous Hope diamond.

The most inventive, noteworthy aigrettes were made by Chaumet, followed a close second by Cartier.  All manner of precious stones and feathers were showcased.  Chaumet embraced the spirit of Art Nouveau by designing one as a pair of soaring wings that could be worn as a pair of brooches.  Not surprisingly, the scope for movement was taken advantage of, and delicate sprays of flowers, insects and wheat ears were teamed with briolettes for trembling naturalism.  As large, gaudy feathers began to fall out of fashion, the feathers themselves began to be represented in precious stones. 

The First World War inevitably heralded the demise of very grand jewellery.  The clean lines of the flapper, bobbed hair and Art Deco just didn’t lend itself to it.  However, it was perfect for the aigrette.  As was mentioned earlier, not being as formal as a tiara, aigrettes were the finishing touch to a soignée look.  They had a second flowering in the 1920s and 30s, when they were heavily influenced by Cartier’s neo-Indian look.  Very rich, very bored Indian maharajas were ordering masses of jewels from all the great Parisian jewellers: Cartier, Boucheron, Van Cleef and Chaumet, amongst many, were busy refashioning great heirloom Indian jewels.  This was successfully married to the best elements of Art Deco and this new style became dominant.  These jewels designed as headdresses for maharajas’ turbans could not but directly influence women’s hair ornaments. 

The Second World War put an effective end to the more frivolous elements of fashion- tiaras were retained to be worn with increasing scarcity to very grand occasions, and the informality of the ensuing decades saw no need for gem studded head ornaments.  However, this is changing with fine and high jewellery heading towards more theatrical territory.  Collectors should be paying more attention to them- the really good ones are still relatively affordable at auction, the best ones being from the Belle Epoque era and which usually have the added bonus of being able to be transformed into a brooch.  Modern jewellers, sadly, have yet to match the technical inventiveness of early 20th century masters.