Jewelry and dress of the Maharajahs of India

Maharajah Umaid Singh of Jodhpur, 1920

Today I want to tell you about the dress and jewelry of the Indian Maharajahs. Those guys liked to dress up and were not shy of wearing necklaces, armlets, bracelets and ornamental belts. The purpose of such grandeur was to show their majesty and to indicate the richness of their treasury. Often their costumes and accessories were more elaborate than those of their wives.
Most of them had an astounding collection of jewelry. Many of them had access to private diamond and gold mines and, thanks to that, over the years built up incredible and unique collections of jewels .

Maharajah of Udaipur, 1877

The dazzling jewels were matched by the rich brocades and velvet costumes. That is how the costume of Maharaja of Tagore is described in 1907's "India Through the Stereoscope" book: "[His Highness] was dressed in his splendid Durbar costume - that is, his state dress - with jewels and jeweled sword and other precious badges of rank, and a turban of costly fabric with a tuft of finest plumes tipped with rare gems. The front of his turban gleams with a cluster of brilliants. His side-arms and the scabbard of his state sword are encrusted with old diamonds of the first water. His necklace of several strands includes many shells and stones rare and precious. The robe is satin, edged with gold and his sash is a miracle of needle-work."

Maharajah Bhupinder Singh of Patiala

Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala was famous for his love of beautiful women and his exquisite taste in gemstones and jewelry. It was he who placed the biggest order Cartier has ever received. The second biggest was also from him. These were two enourmous diamond necklaces. The first consisted of three strands of large uncut diamonds embellished with diamond pendants. The second consisted of five strands of diamonds with the light yellow 234.69 carat De Beers diamond as its central pendant.

Maharajah Bhupinder Singh of Patiala

The famous "Patiala necklace" mounted with 2930 diamonds

Necklace, platinum set with rubies, diamonds and pearls. Made by Cartier for Maharajah of Patiala, 1928

Only three years later, in 1928, the Maharajah sent six iron chests of precious stones to Louis Boucheron. As well as numerous sapphires, rubies and pearls, the collection included seven thousand diamonds and more then fourteen hundred emeralds. These were worked into one hundred and forty-nine pieces of jewelry.

Maharajah and maharani of Patna

Maharaja of Baroda, Sayaji Rao Gaekwad, was also known for his fabulous jewels, among which was the famous pearl necklace set with priceless diamonds, such as the Star of Dresden and the Star of the South. It had seven strings of natural pearls each the size of a marble. As pearls of this size were found only once a year it must have taken hundreds of years to assemble such a necklace.
The largest and richest collection of jewels however belonged to the Nizams of Hyderabad. In 1995 the Indian government bought the jewels for 218 crore (about US$70 million). There are 173 jewels, including over 25 thousand diamonds, weighing over 2.4 kg. There are also 2000 emeralds, some of them Colombian, which weigh over 2.0 kg.

Turban ornament from the Nizams collection

The collection includes gemstones, turban ornaments, necklaces and pendants, belts and buckles, earrings, armbands, bangles and bracelets, anklets, cufflinks and buttons, watch chains, and rings, toe rings, and nose rings. Among them is the seven-stringed Basrah pearl necklace, known as Satlada, which has 465 pearls embedded in it.

Maharani of Patiala, 1920

Now about the costume of the wives of those magnificent maharajas. In the morning maharanis wore simple cotton saris (to encourage the Indian handloom industry) and in the evening those were changed for more expensive georgette or chiffon ones, sometimes embellished with embroidery or decorated with a golden border. From the late 19th century they began wearing western garments as well: dresses made of silk and muslin and new jewelry pieces as tiaras and brooches.

Maharani of Cooch Behar, 1900

Every maharani had her own jewelry given to her at the time of her marriage by her relatives and gifted to her by husband from his personal purse. But in addition there was also the state jewelry and the personal jewelry belonging to her husband's family. This was kept in a strong-room and looked after by a state treasurer which was a hereditary profession handed down from father to son. Jewelry worn on state and public occasions nearly always belonged to the state and was guarded and rationed in use by its guardians.

Bhupinder Singh of Patiala with wives and dauthers. One of them wearing the above mentioned ruby necklace

In Baroda the state treasurer possessed a book that was ten feet long giving the description of every piece down to the smallest detail. Every time an item of state jewelry was worn a prescribed routine had to be followed. The treasurer would take it out and hand it to the maid who had to sign for it by putting her thumb-mark in the book. There was no "I'd like this" or "I'll wear that". All the things were worn according to turn: one group of earrings, necklace and bangles one evening, the next evening another set. The next morning the maid took it back to the treasurer. Rather boring I would say...

Related posts
Dress and jewelry of the Ranas of Nepal
Kandyan aristocrat dress of the 19th century

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  1. Such beautiful and evocative old photographs, thank you!

  2. Wonderful pics, and such an interesting post.
    Yhank you so much for sharing.

  3. woooow that jewelry is really impressive and i enjoyed looking at those photographs!

  4. Had no idea that male jewelry can be so elaborate :) Amazing. Thank you for sharing.

  5. very interesting post! Always loved traditional dresses and jewelry of India!

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  6. A very interesting post, Olga! I wonder where all that wonderful jewelry is now. Probalby it is still in the possession of the families and of the state. But I can not imagine that anybody will bear the risk to wear it publicly nowadays. What a pity, all that diamonds, perls, gold and silver is only shining in the treasure room.
    Sabine xxx

    1. When India became independent and all those maharajahs lost their power many of them had to sell their jewelry just to survive - to the government or to the private collectors. But you know, Sabine, in India people still wear the real stuff. Not in such enormous amount but still. When I happen to be invited to an Indian wedding I can see that: diamond necklaces, ruby ornaments for turbans, pearls...But such jewelry is worn on such big events as weddings mostly.

  7. Certainly nothing like my favorite Pandora silver bracelet, but I can certainly appreciate the beauty of these pieces! Thanks for sharing the awesome photos.

  8. I love the bit about Maharaja Bhupinder Singh placing the biggest order with Cartier -- oh, and the second biggest order :)
    The Cartier platinum, ruby, diamond, pearl necklace is jaw-dropping.
    Thanks for fascinating info and pics.

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