Every time we talk about Western jewelry trends and fashion, we tend to mention India. That’s because, whether through trade or colonization, much of the precious gemstones the Western world has used for its jewelry pieces had come from the east. That begs the question – what about Indian jewelry?
Indeed, Indian jewelry craft is famous for being astonishingly beautiful, intricate, and elaborate, as well as for going back thousands of years. Probably the most famous period of India’s history regarding the jewelry, however, is the time of the Mughal (or Moghul) dynasty.
So, let’s quickly go over what the Mughal Empire was and, more importantly, what it did for India’s jewelry scene, how it raised the bar for the rest of the world, and what that means for jewelry today.
History of Mughal Jewelry
As with any other country whose origin goes back many millennia, India’s history is full of many dynasties battling for control, many of them coming from different ethnicities, cultures, and religions.
The Mughal dynasty is a prominent example of that – also known as the Moghul, Mogul, or Mughūl (“Mongol” from Persian) – the Mughal dynasty was a Muslim dynasty of a Turkic-Mongol origin that formed in northern India in 1526 AD and lasted until 1857 when it was finally defeated by the British after decades of fierce fighting.
Throughout its reign, the Mughal Empire controlled northern and most of central India, and were frequently in conflict with southern Indian kingdoms such as the Ahmednagar, Golconda, and Bijapur Sultanates, as well as the Polygar Kingdom, the British Empire, and others.
More important for us, however, are the internal workings of the Mughal Empire and how its multiculturalism affected its crafts and jewelry.
For one, the Mughal dynasty valued jewelry as a symbol of the wearer’s status in society. More than that, however, throughout its reign, the dynasty strongly prioritized all kinds of artistic expression, including jewelry crafting. This led to a lot more experimentation and innovation in the jewelry niche.
What’s more, there were various denominations of Muslims and Hindus living together in the Mughal Empire. The Hindus were sometimes persecuted and forcibly converted under certain Mughal emperors and treated and integrated much more peacefully and fairly under others. And so, the artistic scene was influenced by the many different cultures within it.
The Mughal dynasty also had constant cultural contact with the other Indian kingdoms, both during and outside times of war. It was especially common for the dynasty to have connections with the Rajput rulers, for example, which led to even more cultural diversification with Mughal’s neighboring states.
So, how did that fascinating history inform the main characteristics of Mughal jewelry?
Characteristics of Mughal Jewelry
The cultural diversity of the Mughal Empire meant an incredible variety of jewelry types, designs, styles, motifs, materials used, colors, technical innovations, and more.
Probably the first big characteristic to mention, however, should be the abundance of precious and semi-precious gemstones in Mughal jewelry. This should come as no surprise given how incredibly rich with precious gemstones the Indian subcontinent is.
Emeralds, rubies, diamonds, sapphires, pearls, tourmaline, turquoise, jade, topaz, and other types of precious gemstones were used in abundance. The metals they were most commonly embedded in was solid gold or gold-plated silver. The Mughal dynasty was also incredibly rich and had these metals in abundance.
Mughal goldsmiths also made great strides in perfecting gold jewelry and were able to achieve impressively intricate and beautiful details in their gold jewelry.
That, together with the many major improvements in stonework and enameling meant that Mughal jewelry was made in detailed designs never before seen in India or abroad.
The combination of that many multi-colored precious gemstones, intricate goldsmithing, and perfected enameling, together with the multi-cultural reality of the Mughal Empire, meant that “diversity” becomes the main word to use to characterize Mughal jewelry.
In essence, Mughal jewelry was so colorful and complex that jewelers expertly portrayed entire religious scenes on it, as well as other mythological figures, huge floral themes, and more. Color, scale, and abundance were the things every Mughal jeweler was aiming for, and most achieved those in a spectacular fashion.
Types of Mughal Jewelry
The craftwork of Indian Mughal jewelry was quite different from what the rest of the world had seen at the time. It included various unique techniques and designs that were specific to India and the jewelers and craftsmen at the time were quite eager to incorporate them into every type of jewelry.
For example, Polki and Kundan necklaces are some of the most iconic types of north-Indian Mughal jewelry.
Polki refers to the white uncolored uncut diamonds that were popular in India, whereas Kundan was a type of refined 24K gold jewelry base, sometimes with a wax core, that jewelers had specialized for over 2,500 years.
During the Mughal period that meant massive and luxurious gold and diamond pieces that were worthy of the nobility in India.
The terms Polki and Kundan didn’t refer to just necklaces, of course – these were just methods of crafting diamond and gold, and those were used for all other types of jewelry such as bangles, bracelets, earrings, rings, nose rings, turban and head jewelry, and more.
With the Mughal dynasty being Muslim, turban and head jewelry were especially common during that period. The Mughal emperors covered their silk turbans with the most extravagant and feathery types of drooping decorative jewelry consisting of many series of golden chains, hooks, and precious gemstones.
Earrings didn’t take a backseat during the Mughal dynasty either, on the contrary – together with ear studs and earring strings, they were worn by Mughal emperors, courtiers, nobility, and even the middle class. The higher-up a person was, the more stunning an earring was, of course, with some being halfway to chandeliers.
Nose rings were also absurdly massive and detailed at times, though in most cases they were in the vein of small, delicate silver or gold pins studded with colorful gemstones or pearls. Even in the more “moderate” cases, however, nose chains were still quite popular.
And then there are bangles and bracelets – the jewelry many westerners associate with the Mughal period in India, and rightly so. While bracelet jewelry was popular in India even before the Mughal Empire, during the Mughal dynasty bracelets became much more extravagant, rich, and colorful. Most bangles were made of solid gold covered with enamel in intricate floral designs and accompanied by various colorful gemstones.
Other hand jewelry and ornaments were also quite common, with some Mughal rings being so large and elaborate that they were made to cover two or three fingers instead of just one. Each ring piece was covered with other multiple small stones, however, or one huge diamond or gemstone – usually round or square, sometimes even just partly cut.
Other armlets, waists, belts, and hip chains during the Mughal period were also made of solid gold, covered with gemstones, and were as wide, thick, and extravagant as the person’s wealth and status would allow. Even jewel-studded heavy anklets were in fashion at the time.
Where Can I Find Mughal Jewelry Today?
Authentic Mughal jewelry today can only be found in museums or in certain private collections. If you are looking for modern Mughal-style jewelry, however, that’s quite easy to find, considering that the Mughal style of jewelry is still in vogue.
Retailers both online and offline who specialize in Indian jewelry offer Mughal-inspired designs. We recommend checking out Kalki Fashion for its wide range of Indian jewelry.
Another excellent source is Etsy, where you can find modern, Mughal-inspired designs, as well as authentic vintage and antique pieces. Ensure that you do your due diligence when buying on Etsy, as each store has its own policies.
Mughal jewelry is the perfect symbol of one of the richest and most remarkable periods of Indian history. Together with the glorious architecture, sculptures, and other arts of that period, Mughal jewelry is a powerful reminder of just how successful and impressive India was before the time of British colonization.
Even though Mughal jewelry was briefly forgotten by history during the 19th and 20th centuries, it has recently come back in fashion with various Indian movies bringing people’s attention back to that Golden Age of Indian wealth, culture, arts, and crafts.