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The Art of Kundan
I recently visited the V&A to see Bejewelled Treasures, the Al Thani collection. The exhibition presents jewellery made on the Indian subcontinent or inspired by India dating from the early 17th century to the present day. There are many show stopping stones on display which can be traced back to the treasuries of ancient Indian kingdoms one necklace which stands out in my memory is a string of giant uncut spinels with amazing colour and translucence. Often the famous pieces also provide an interesting snapshot of Indian history, the exhibition is excellent at pointing out changing fashions and how traditional Indian styles were mixed with foreign cultural ideas from the Persian speaking elite in the Mughal court to western influences centuries later. Pieces which were owned by important figures reveal political upheaval such as the emblematic tiger head from the gold throne of Tipu Sultan, who fiercely resisted the British, after he was defeated the East India Company ransacked his palace destroying or taking many precious artefacts.
The tiger head finial from Tipu Sultans throne.
However this isn't really a review of the show, as a jeweller I not only enjoyed the visual inspiration I love to see the incredible metal smithing techniques, part of the fun is trying to work out how something was made or a certain look achieved. One ancient technique caught my eye in particular, known as Kundan setting. Kundan which means highly refined gold is still practised in Jaipur, Rajasthan. It was developed in the 16th century by Mughal court goldsmiths and combines the setting of stones with pure gold foil and beautiful enamel work. Enamel had not been used in the sub continent before and was probably introduced from Europe.
I hadn't seen this form of setting before it is a clever way to set irregular shaped stones into often intricate patterns. Once the main body of the piece of jewellery has been made, stones are placed into a settings much like a beval setting however with a beval setting the walls of the mount must perfectly match the shape of the stone, where as Kundan set stones have gaps in between the irregular gem and mount. Pure gold foil is skilfully worked in to these gaps and pressed down to secure the gem.
The result can be stunning I was interested to read that Kundan jewellery is still an integral part of the traditional bridal outfit. And that traditional styles of jewellery are experiencing a revival.
It will certainly be something I keep in mind when designing in the future and I really do want to have a go at it myself.
The exhibition featured an excellent video shot in workshops in Mumbai and Jaipur showing a step by step process of the making of Kundan earrings, you can view the V&A s video below to get a better idea of the skill involved.
Bejewelled the Al Thani Collection runs to 10th April 2016 visit the V&A for more info.