Magnificently adorning themselves to feast and to fight, the princes and emperors of Mughal India and the nearby Deccan Sultanates were unparalleled patrons of the jeweled arts. Opening August 18 at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, Canada, the exhibition Emperors and Jewels: Treasures of the Indian Courts from the al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait glitters with the full array of their passions.

Whimsical rings and turban ornaments, gilded standards, and jewel-encrusted swords are displayed alongside exquisite ornaments for falcons and horses accompanying royalty in sport or ceremony. Throughout, portraits and paintings depicting princely pursuits, noble warfare, and restful contemplation set the stage for the jewels themselves. Highlights include the Timur Ruby - nearly 250 carats and carved with the names of emperors and conquerors - and the Shah Jahan Diamond, sourced from the famed Deccan mines (origin of the Koh-i Noor, now in the British Crown). 

A world premiere, this feast for the eyes brings together miniatures from the Aga Khan Museum’s own collection and key objects from other international collections with nearly 90 objects from the al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait. On long-term loan to the state of Kuwait, the al-Sabah Collection was formed in the mid-1970s by Sheikh Nasser Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah and Sheikha Hussah Sabah al-Salem al-Sabah. Today, its extensive array of textiles, costumes, armor, and jewelry has become one of the world’s most distinguished collections of Islamic art. 

“This exhibition is truly a celebration of splendor,” says Henry Kim, the director and CEO of the Aga Khan Museum. “It shows the incredible heights to which the decorative arts can go when there is a taste for luxury and a real appetite for innovation.” He points to the “joyful synergy” that took place during the 16th and 17th centuries between Muslim and non-Muslim cultures. Such cultural interaction, Kim claims, enabled Indian artisans of this period “to produce some of the finest artistic achievements in jewelry and ornamentation.”

As the Aga Khan Museum curator and co-curator of Emperors and Jewels with Salam Kaoukji, I can say that as the world came to the Indian subcontinent through trade and cultural exchange, artisans borrowed freely from many sources. The fusion of traditional Indian hardstone carving and gem settings with decorative techniques from China, the Middle East, and Europe, for instance, led to spectacular results. So did the influx of gems from distant lands: the 16th-century Spanish conquest of Colombia introduced large quantities of emeralds to the courtly workshops of Mughal India and the Deccan kingdoms. 

Many of the jeweled pieces produced as adornments for the princely body acquired symbolic meaning when donned for traditional court rituals and protocols. In the exhibition, the numerous katars (a type of Indian dagger) and swords whose hilts and pommels are variously set with rubies, emeralds, and diamonds present excellent examples. Such weaponry was often gifted by emperors and princes to courtiers and noblemen. 

A royal portrait of Emperor Akbar in old age from the Aga Khan Museum Collection finds the dignified ruler leaning on an ornate sword with a jeweled grip, a katar decorated with white enamel, rubies, and emeralds in his sash. Luxurious accoutrements, the weapons are eloquent symbols of Akbar’s undiminished strength and valor. 

Vogue magazine declared men’s jewelry and accessories a top trend for 2018. As Emperors and Jewels clearly demonstrates, this trend in fact has deep roots across time and geography.

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