The Mughal rulers of India (1526–1858) maintained a court that was renowned for its wealth, high culture, and love of precious objects, all of which were epitomized in the jeweled arts of the period. Drawn from the uniquely extensive holdings of The al-Sabah Collection in Kuwait, this dazzling display presents more than three hundred works of the Mughal period, including jeweled items of personal adornment, princely weapons, carved jade and crystal bowls set with precious stones, spinels ("balas rubies") inscribed with the titles of their imperial owners, and other art-historically important pieces representing the period of several imperial reigns, as well as the refined courts of the Deccan, in the southern part of India.
In its totality, The al-Sabah Collection comprises more than twenty-five thousand works of Islamic art spanning the seventh to the nineteenth century, with Mughal jeweled arts representing one aspect of its holdings. Ambitiously assembled over three decades by Sheikh Nasser Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, the distinguished collection—including the Mughal jewels—survived the vicissitudes of the 1990 Gulf War, when much of it was removed from Kuwait and transported in metal trunks to the Iraq Museum in Baghdad by a group of Iraqi archaeologists acting on the orders of their government. Fortunately, most of these items were recovered through the agency of the U.N. The most notable exceptions are three highly important carved Indian emeralds, which are still missing; the building—along with a magnificent pair of fourteenth-century Moroccan doors that had been installed there—was burned.
The exhibition takes its title—"Treasury of the World"—from the English ambassador to the Mughal court, Sir Thomas Roe (1580–1644), whose keen observations are an invaluable source of information on the culture of the times. In a letter written on October 30, 1616, to Prince Charles (later King Charles I), he described the emperor Jahangir: "In jewells (which is one of his felicityes) hee is the treasury of the world."
Works are arranged chronologically within thematic sections to reveal the enormous variety of techniques mastered by talented Indian artists and craftsmen in the Mughal period. Many are dated or inscribed, and can be associated with various charismatic Mughal rulers. The mixed cultural traditions of the Indian subcontinent—along with influences from a larger Islamic heritage—are reflected in the rich range of motifs and styles of Mughal jeweled arts.
Among the highlights of the exhibition are a historically important spinel (ruby-like gem) inscribed with the titles of multiple imperial owners from several Islamic dynasties; splendid ornaments for personal adornment, such as a cameo pendant carved with a portrait of the emperor Shah Jahan; a fabulous gem-encrusted dagger; brilliantly enameled courtly objects; and jade and rock-crystal bowls set with precious stones.
In addition to numerous examples of exquisite jewelry, elaborately carved gemstones (massive rubies and emeralds carved with floral designs), beautifully engraved gems, and inscribed gems and spinels, the exhibition includes magnificent works of hardstone inlay, delicate sculptural forms in hardstones, ornate hammered relief in precious metals (primarily gold), and "Oriental damascene" (gold-embellished steel). Enamels from the Mughal period—characterized by a tremendous range of brilliant colors, distinctive motifs, and decorative effects—are also on view.
India's reputation as a center of jewelry production dates to ancient times. In the medieval period, India's own mines at Golconda—a name that has become synonymous in the United States with great wealth—yielded diamonds. Through trade, rubies from Burma, spinels from Badakhshan, emeralds from Columbia, and sapphires from Sri Lanka also made their way to India, where they were transformed into elaborate works. Unique to Indian artisans was the gem-setting technique known as kundan, in which pure (24-carat) gold foil is fused at room temperature around gemstones. This resulted in unparalleled freedom for jewelry artists to realize their designs. Highly skilled Indian craftsmen also attained distinction for their sensitive carving of hardstone—specifically jade—into delicate sculptural forms. The Mughal rulers of India—descendants of the fourteenth-century Mongol conqueror Tamerlane (or Timur)—had a great feeling for jade, which they imported from Central Asia.