The gem makers of Jaipur
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Down a nondescript driveway in Jaipur’s Old City, past the tooting rickshaws and jumble of roadside stalls, Krishna Choudhary is producing artefact after artefact, as if from his sleeves, from inside his family’s ancestral mansion. Among the treasures: a pair of gold anklets from the early 19th century, festooned with paisley-shaped flat diamonds; a 17th-century goblet encrusted with rubies and emeralds; and an 18th-century chapka, or hair ornament, with red-enamelled fish between strings of diamonds, emeralds and pearls. Such artefacts would be at home in the V&A or the Smithsonian; instead, they make up Krishna’s family’s private collection of relics from India’s past, when the craftsmanship of precious jewels was at an unparalleled high.
Such antiquities lie behind the modern creations of Krishna, a 10th-generation jeweller who founded his own brand, Santi, in 2019. Based between Jaipur and London, Krishna designs one-off pieces of sky-high value, reframing the traditional motifs of his native India into contemporary settings, and often using historically significant stones. A pair of platinum and brown-diamond earrings are informed by the cartouches that decorate palace walls; a ring includes four 17th-century carved Colombian emeralds, which become petals around a central, portrait-cut diamond; another cocktail ring features a chevron pattern, commonly found in Indian textiles and adornments, with an old mine diamond in the centre. “I love chevron, and you see it everywhere, but it’s very traditional and quirky, so this ring is my interpretation of how you can actually put the pattern into more wearable jewellery,” says Krishna. “With the help of negative space and fine craftsmanship, it gives it a modern edge to bring that design back. My idea is to celebrate those designs from India, and highlight these old stones, but in a minimalistic fashion.”
Krishna’s jewellery will sit alongside his family’s artefacts at Phillips this month, in a landmark exhibition that will serve as a selling platform for Santi and an educational tool for India’s rich history of gemstones. “We are proud to collaborate with such a remarkable visionary in a rare exhibition of Krishna’s works of art,” says Benoît Repellin, Phillips’s worldwide head of jewellery. The presentation will highlight around 40 Santi designs and 10 historical items, including an 18th-century chess set, a late 19th-century rose water sprinkler and a gold- and green-enamelled back scratcher; all are bejewelled beyond belief. “The jewels of Santi reflect the history of his own family and the centuries-old inspiration in Indian culture,” adds Repellin of the decision to compare old and new in the exhibition. “Krishna’s family collection of antique jewels, exceptional pieces and gemstones have all trained his eye and influenced his designs.”
The Choudharys were one of the settling families of Jaipur, the “pink city” named after its terracotta-tinged walls and buildings, which was established in 1727 as the new capital of Rajasthan by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II. He asked Choudhary Kushal Singh, Krishna’s forefather, to set up business there, granting him an estate of 11 villages around Jaipur, with responsibilities including collecting revenue and taxes, maintaining law and order and, later, minting coins in the state’s name. Over time, the Choudharys became gem and jewel traders, a legacy continued by the family today.
Included in the historic Choudhary estate was the land on which they built Saras Sadan, the ancestral haveli constructed between the 18th and 19th centuries. Today, it’s one of the best preserved of its kind. The outside walls are covered in frescoes, still unretouched, depicting different characters painted with vegetable dyes and ground stones. Inside is a dizzying spectacle of arches, chandeliers and floor-to-ceiling frescoes, portraying Hindu divinities, maharajas and concubines. “Whenever dignitaries would come and visit the family, they would welcome them here, in the Hall of Private Audience,” says the family’s archivist Ravindra Rathore. “At that time, all the males would be hosted at the bottom, and the females would stay up the top, looking through windows, so the men could not see their faces.”
Today, the haveli is open to all (by appointment) and is home to the Choudhary family business, Royal Gems and Arts, helmed by Krishna’s father, Santi Choudhary, after whom he named his jewellery brand. Royal Gems and Arts acts as the archive to the family’s collection of paintings, artefacts and jewels – which attracts curators and academics who use it as a resource – as well as a design house creating jewellery for clients around the world.
Santi Choudhary is continuously sourcing for and replenishing his family’s archive, often in Italy, where he spends a lot of time and where many of his clients are based. “I first visited Italy in 1978, and I love it very much,” says Santi. “I feel that Italians have the same nature as Indians – big families, happiness and a focus on food and culture.” The jewellery and gemstones he comes by through his networks in Europe and India are either kept as historical pieces or repurposed into new designs through Royal Gems and Arts or Santi. Krishna admits that he and his father often disagree over who gets to use what: “There’s always a back and forth with stones,” he says. “There was one pair of Golconda diamonds that I was trying to convince him to let me use, and so one day, when [my father] was travelling, I just took them to a workshop and made something out of them,” says Krishna. “He was a bit cross, but he really liked the design. And I sold them right away.”
Although father and son might occasionally quibble over precious rocks, they have a shared mission: to take Indian jewellery to the world – and challenge international perceptions of what that looks like. “Every person has this view of Indian jewellery,” says Krishna. “And everything I do is trying to change that. I love my country and I love my background. I’m a jeweller, but I’m not just an Indian jeweller, it’s more international.”
Santi’s client base is testament to Krishna’s global sensibility, covering Asia, the Middle East, the US and the UK. “They’re an extraordinary family with great heritage, and they’re very proud to represent India on the world stage,” says Tikka Shatrujit Singh, formerly adviser to the chairman, Louis Vuitton, and a longtime friend and client of the Choudharys. “I consider them one of the top jewellers of the world. Each of Krishna’s pieces has a story, whether it’s the history of the stone, or what inspired him, and each piece is unique, and I think that’s what attracts the clients. He’s a master in his craft.”
A craft that, Krishna says, often isn’t given as much credibility or gravitas as other art forms. “Jewellery doesn’t have the same prestige as architecture; stone cutting doesn’t get the same appreciation as a painting. Within my journey of discovering these beautiful old stones, and recreating with modernity, I think I’m changing that.” Now Krishna’s designs are, like the jewels from his family’s archive, worthy of an exhibition.