Sir, want precious stones?” a man asks me, quietly. I am on the Johari Bazaar, one of Jaipur’s most notable thoroughfares, a straight colonnade screened above by the facades of adjoining houses. Everything is painted orange, terracotta and burnt pink. The man wears white shalwar kameez, and an air of indifference. He unfolds white paper, revealing colourful stones. “Emeralds, sapphires, rubies …” he says. He is among one of several groups of men gathered in this area; they’re local dealers, discussing prices. The avenue, whose name means gem shop road, is lined with dozens of shops displaying magnificent necklaces, bracelets and rings.
My encounter reveals something of why the “Pink City”, in northern India, has just been named a Unesco world heritage site. Jaipur was selected partly on the basis of its urban plan, featuring colonnaded streets and public squares called chaupurs. The city also contains architectural wonders: the City Palace, Amber Fort, and Water Palace among them. Walking past the pink sandstone Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds), Jaipur’s five-storey honeycomb-like wall of 50-odd protruding windows with latticework frames, miniature cupolas and painted motifs, is a breathtaking experience.
Along with these ceremonial court buildings, Jaipur was constructed for commerce. As Unesco states, the city was “designed to be a commercial capital”. Today, dealers and vendors animate the streets. And in back alleys and second-storey workshops, curious visitors will find artisans working on ornamental crafts. Unesco recognises how Jaipur “has maintained its local commercial, artisanal and cooperative traditions to this day”.
Jaipur is famous for its wood-block printing, tailoring, carpets, wood and metalwork. There are many contemporary boutiques, such as Teatro Dhora, selling elegant clothes, men’s handkerchiefs, notepads, leather handbags and more at (relatively) affordable prices. But it is in jewellery, in particular, where the city has historically excelled.
After founding Jaipur in 1727, Jai Singh II is said to have organised a procession through the city where local crowds threw precious stones over him and his entourage. He was infatuated with jewels. Under his patronage, Jaipur started to become a centre for jewellery, attracting artisans and traders from afar. Today, the city is home to hundreds of thousands of jewellers and dealers.
“People here are obsessed with jewellery,” says Akshat Ghiya, owner and creative head of Tallin Jewels, a boutiquebrand whose workshop is on the Johari Bazaar. “It’s almost a compulsion here for people to buy jewellery every few months. Ever since the Raja [Jai Singh II], jewellery has flourished here. Jaipur has become the largest stone-cutting centre in the world.”
By talking to dealers, visitors can find opportunities to meet jewellers, like Narenda, who I chat with in his second-floor workshop off the Chand Pol Bazaar. He examines a jewel on his workspace, while sitting cross-legged on the floor. “When I go to temples, I get a lot of ideas,” he says. On the wall is a framed picture of three Hindu gods, draped with a garland of orange marigolds. Below, at street level, as ever, there’s the din of motorbikes and rickshaws. Through the window, the Nahargarh Fort is faintly visible on the hills beyond the city.
Narenda works in the traditional Kundan Meena style. Kundan jewellery is unusual in using wax within the gold or silver frame, as well as incorporating glass and painted illustrations, of white, green, red or blue floral motifs. The results have an ethnic feel but when used in an ensemble of necklace, tiara, earrings and rings, Kundan can look bling. Which can be the point: the style is popular among wealthy brides from Mumbai and Delhi.
Kundan Meena jewellery is intricate and inlaid with enamel in a variety of colours
While rich Indians visit Jaipur for its gems, the city offers jewellery for anyone. Backpackers and tourists can find inexpensive, quality pieces in dozens of shops around the city. It requires patience and a discerning eye.
Visitors can develop their knowledge of Indian jewellery at the Amrapali museum on Ashok Marg Road. It is an extraordinary collection of jewellery, displayed over two small floors. A mesmerising foot-long, 19th-century gold braid, from Tamil Nadu, engraved with Hindu gods and goddesses, is just one of hundreds of spectacular pieces.
Amrapali also manufactures jewellery at scale. Its 1,500 “factory -floor” jewellers produce pieces that are mostly sold to other companies at a range of price points. The goldsmiths tend to come from Bengal, while stone-cutters have historically come from local Muslim communities, whereas gem-traders are Marwaris, a Rajasthani caste. Most of Jaipur’s jewellers are men, though efforts are being made to employ more women. Tarang Arora, the son of one of the founders of Amrapali, stresses that the company is committed to ensuring its workers’ welfare.
To some extent, the Amrapali factory and several others in Jaipur are trying to compete with Chinese industry. When it comes to economies of scale, though, Jaipur would probably lose out. Plus, it may make more sense for the city’s jewellery producers to associate themselves with Jaipur’s “brand” as a hub for handicrafts.
This is where Tallin, Akshat Ghiya’s workshop-boutique, is well positioned. The company employs around 20 artisans. The jewellers work in an upper-floor space along the Johari Bazaar. Tallin makes traditional Rajasthani and art deco-inspired pieces. Anyone can visit to see the craftsmen in action and pour over their glittering pieces in Akshat’s office-showroom.
Such an intimate environment must be conducive to good craftsmanship. One of Tallin’s jewellers, Srikant, talks about how his trade has allowed him to connect to his artistry, his gift, even. He adds that for him and his fellow Bengalis, crafting jewellery offers something else: “It brings us honour.” No doubt this is something the people at Unesco would like to see preserved.
This article was published in the Guardian
All photography by Christopher Wilton-Steer