Leverage Indian Jewellery’s Traditional Past To Augment Its Future

Noelle Viguurs – Van Gelder of Van Gelder Indian Jewellery, Netherlands, along with her sister Fleur Damman, have always felt deeply connected to India right since their childhood days when their mother founded the company that has today become one of the leading international dealers of traditional heritage Indian jewellery.  

Noelle believes that it is time for the rest of the world to acknowledge India’s contribution to the global jewellery oeuvre, just as it is about time that the unnamed artisans get their due recognition. 

As a guest writer of Solitaire International, Noelle stresses on preserving India’s unparalleled crafts by building a sustainable ecosystem that will boost the luxury handmade jewellery segment. 

Over to Noelle Viguurs … 

Like no other country in the world, India has an unbroken lineage of jewellery tradition spanning 5,000 years. Traditional ornaments, carrying a distinct cultural identity characterise the Indian civilisation, and jewellery is considered auspicious and beneficial. Jewellery takes an unsurpassed integral position in Indian society. 

The immense Indian subcontinent was always divided into a multiplicity of dynastic kingdoms and tribal areas, generally grouped into north and south. This division again was fragmented into different regional dominions. Yet, no single dominion ever gained full political or cultural control over the entire subcontinent, which eventually might have led to a broader cultural uniformity. 

India has a long and well-documented jewellery history that reached its pinnacle under the Mughal emperors.  

The Mughal dynasty achieved the largest span of control, and as Islam’s followers grew, a new culture evolved in India. The Mughals blended the Islamic and Hindu jewellery-making traditions and design motifs, and the new iconography could be recognised in architecture, painting, miniature art, sculpture and jewellery. 

As social structures and hierarchies evolved, jewellery became a means of differentiating the social status and cultural identity of the individual. 

Jewellery was always more than an enhancement of beauty, it also was a security in times of need, and it was indicative of the wearer’s social status and religion or sect, and was an integral part of certain rituals. A jewel often served as a medium between the earthly and the spiritual, between the known and the unknown. It surpasses the concept of mere decoration, and this is reflected in the use of precious materials. Jewellery was always made with purpose and worn with intention.  

In general, when people outside of India think of traditional Indian jewellery immediately the image of bridal jewellery comes to mind. Next, is the big Bollywood style of jewellery display.  

Gold necklace with green enamel

Bridal and or ‘Bollywood’ jewellery, although an important factor in the national Indian market, is also quite stereotypical, offering a one-sided perception and in our opinion not the ultimate representation of the highly refined Indian artistry. 

Because of the immensity of the subcontinent and the diversified visual language, material use and execution, there is a lack of a strong, single common denominator that India could leverage on. 

However, data clearly states that in the ranking of 2019 strongest Indian export products one finds mineral fuels in the first place, gems and precious metals in the second place taking up ($36.7 billion) 11.4% of overall exports from India.    

Unmounted and unset/cut and polished diamonds are second on the list of most valuable export products in 2019. India’s weaker local currency makes Indian exports paid for in stronger US dollars relatively less expensive for international buyers. 

Next to its strength in commodities as gems and precious metals, it would be interesting to see how the typically traditional Indian artistry could be transformed to a scalable composition. Yet this starts with defining and categorising what part of this artistry belongs in the national Indian canon. This in itself, considering the enormity and cultural diversity  of the subcontinent, seems a huge challenge.  

Artisan and recognition 

One first needs to take into consideration that traditional Indian jewellery is never produced by a single person. There are many artists involved, each with a specific skill set. When a design is made, it goes from the goldsmith (sunar) to the kundan worker, past the enameller (meenakari) to the stone setter (jadiya). Looking into gems, there is the person who cuts the rough material, the fine cutting is done by a different person, the drilling again by someone else, polishing is done by another dedicated professional, carving is done by the expert hands of the  munavvatkar, and so on.  For pearls, there are again other craftsmen, each with their specific skill set, involved. 

An entire chain of skilled hands is involved in the making process of one single item, or even just one element (for example, a gem) out of one jewellery item.  

Historically, these skilled jewellery artisans would only work on commissioned pieces or at the court of a ruler. All their work belonged to the ruler since he was the commissioner. These royal studios would supply materials and all that was made was intended for royal use, as symbols of wealth and power, for trade, as a token of alliance or allegiance. 

Apart from that, jewels were made for spiritual and ritualistic purposes, and so were ordered for the temple as a sacred offering.  

Every piece of jewellery was commissioned and crafted with a sacred purpose. When taking these historical aspects into consideration, the artisans and their instrumental role in the procedures of manufacturing such high valued (spiritual or worldly) items were considered almost a tool in this precious task.  

Noelle and Fleur van Gelder

From ancient times these artisans remained unnamed. Their work being testimonial of their skill. It is therefore, that unlike artists from other parts of the world (Lalique, Van Cleef, Cartier, Chaumet and the like), jewels made in India were never signed by an artist. At best, the name of its prominent commissioner was engraved.  

Then there also is the social aspect to consider — all the artisanal groups are also caste groups, being “traditional” artisans practising their hereditary or ancestral family occupations. 

This usually localised group has traditional association with an occupation and particular position in the local hierarchy of castes. Through this caste there was a structural division of labour in traditional occupations. Each caste has its own customs, traditions and rituals applicable for caste members.  

Artisans are a fundamental part of these occupational caste groups. India has one of the most diverse and ancient traditions of artisanal products.  

In pre-industrial Indian society, where occupations were caste-based, the large, noble families acted as economic units. Most economic activity took place within the household, and production and distribution were organised by customs and traditions.

Van Gelder Jewelry

Fast Forward To Current Times  

A large section of the Indian artisan population is illiterate and devoid of formal education. Skills are passed on from father to son. Now it is not the family, but the factory or studio that provides the economic unit. However, in the worst-case scenario, these positions also can become more vulnerable, at the risk of oncoming poverty.  As a result, artisans choose to shift to other professions rather than stick into their hereditary occupation. 

The UN report suggests that over the past three-four decades in India, the number of artisans has declined by at least 30% with many joining the ranks of casual labourers and the informal economy (this is a general number and does not specifically apply to artisans within jewellery). 

Historically, the Sunars have been ranked together with the five traditional Hindu artisan castes (coppersmiths, blacksmiths, stone cutters, goldsmiths and carpenters) in a guild, which has long since disappeared. Although from ancient times, the Sunars occupy a fairly ‘low’ position within the artisan caste system, they were and still are well-respected members of the community. Because of their skillful handling of gold (sacred metal) and precious stones (associated with deities), great skill and knowledge and their interaction with higher castes and religious representatives it was and still is considered an honorable profession.  

Indian jewellery craftsmanship always had an immense appeal to the West. In his book Traditional Jewelry of India (1997), Oppi Untracht dedicates a whole chapter to what he calls Western Oriental – Design Imperialism. A strong statement involving the adaptation of Eastern design inspiration and techniques without the proper attribution or understanding of context or proper intellectual foundation. He finds this a form of exploitation, and a manifestation of concealed colonialism. Untracht states: “Western jewelry makers today often perversely continue to evade acknowledgment of Indian jewellery design concepts they use. The time has come to rectify this oversight and give the Indian contribution its due.”  

Today this issue is on the agenda not only when it comes to design concepts, but also when it comes to the artisans. 

Our overall conclusion is that a part answer why Indian artisans remain unnamed probably lies in both the practical aspect that numerous skilled hands work on (even one element of) one piece of jewellery, and second that a historical/social explanation comes in order; skilled artisans practice hereditary, ancestral family occupations within a professional economic unit, passed on from father to son. Within this cycle there is, until today, no known practice of singling out one individual. However, with the knowledge and experience of today, there lies a responsibility in empowering everyone in the production chain, especially the artisans. 

Jali Ear Pendants

The Contemporary Van Gelder Collections 

For Van Gelder, inspiration for the designs in the Contemporary Collections is sourced from themes and stories of Indian culture, ritual, history and materials, as well as from the most inconspicuous objects of nature, architectural elements or everyday life. It is all about having a fresh and curious perspective on the past and present of this mesmerising world that triggers the imagination and the creative process for Van Gelder’s Contemporary Collections designs.  

The collections are created in India by local craftsmen, using traditional techniques and ethically responsibly sourced materials.  

Taking into account the dollar and euro are stronger than the Indian rupee, and not ruling out heavy Indian taxes, we experience that the specific skills we find in India are unparalleled. To prevent these skills from getting lost because there is no earnings left in them for the local artisans, would be a terrible shame and a huge loss for India’s cultural heritage and identity. 

Keep in mind that the workmanship of the Indian craftsman is so exquisite that throughout the 18th and 19th centuries India was known to other countries on the trade route more by her crafts than by her art, religion and philosophy. It would be a terrible loss if these skills would go to waste! 

Our project Window of Opportunity is all about this issue — we  are committed to sustaining Indian heritage, craftsmanship and knowledge, and also for those outside of our dedicated team of skilled professionals that we work with in our studios. We are committed to growing this project because we feel a profound connection with our Indian community and believe in collaboration. Collaboration creates community.  

By creating this armlet ‘Jali Sutra’ as a symbolic Window of Opportunity, we want to contribute to preventing imminent hunger, loss of livelihood and loss of heritage arts and crafts.  

We can succeed in this by supporting and enabling local craftspeople in the preservation of their unique skill and heritage, recognising their aesthetics and contribution to society as a vital part of India’s economy and identity. 

Necklace HR

Traditionally, every artisan needs a patron, craftsmanship requires patronage. These two go hand in hand. We understand the responsibility we, as commissioners or patrons if you will, carry in supporting the longevity of the ‘handmade’ seal as a fundamental contribution to a sustainable future for the luxury market. 

We do not only celebrate the crafts and culture but are sincerely invested in preserving it. This comes at a price, to put it bluntly, and this is something local commissioners should take into consideration too. We would encourage everyone in India to work with local artisans and suppliers to protect and grow India’s economy and maintain and preserve India’s cultural heritage and identity. 

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