Indian jewelry: meenakari

Meenakari pendant. Northern India, 18th century. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The art of enamelling is called meenakari in India. It was introduced by the Mughals during the seventeenth century. Later skilled meenakars from the Mughal palace were brought and established in Jaipur, which became the centre of meenakari work. Today there are two major jewelry enamelling centres in India with its own distinctive traditional style of work: Jaipur and Benares. The highest quality enamelled jewelry still can be found in Jaipur and some of the finest work being made today is comparable in every way with the best of the Mughal jewelry.

Meenakari armlet. Nathdwara, Rajasthan, 19th century, enamelled gold with inscription. Victoria and Albert Museum

The main type of enamelling practised in India is champleve. The method is slow (sometimes it takes months to finish one piece of jewelry), precise and demands top quality materials. To achieve the most glowing colours secret potions of metal oxides are mixed. The master meenakaar engraves the design on to the gold, chisels out tiny flat fields and fills them with the enamel paste applying it dot by dot with a stylus. As each colour is completed the piece is fired. Because the various enamels used are of different degrees of hardness they are fired in a specific sequence, from hardest to softest as hard enamel require a higher temperature. The firing is extremely tricky: too hot and the gold will melt; too cool and the enamel will not melt enough to fuse.

Meenakari armlet. Jaipur, Rajasthan, ca. 1850 Gold, enamelled and set with rubies and diamonds. Victoria and Albert Museum

The colours used often depend on the subject of the design. Birds are done in green, blue , turquoise, white or red; flowers are red, white or blue; and foliage is green. Geometric patterns may use any combination of colours. As in Jaipuri jewelry enamel is often combined with precious stones the colour palette includes shades that correspond to the most popular precious stones: red corresponding with ruby, green with emerald and blue with sapphire. Besides, Jaipur enamels are famous for the clear brilliant red they call pigeon's blood.

An enamelled and gem-set Navratna necklace (front and back), India, late 18th century. Southey's

Perhaps the most known characteristic of Jaipur traditional jewelry is the intricate small-scale designs enamelled on the backs where they remain unseen. The visible front usually displays gemstones. It may be asked - why put all this effort into invisible places? As it turns out, there is a pragmatic reason behind this tradition: in India the high-carat gold of this jewelry is valued far more than the enamel work which has little value despite its high level of artistic achievement. The 22-carat gold is very soft and prone to abrasion. Enamelling the back of a piece of jewelry, where it is in contact with the skin, reduces abrasion and loss of metal. In addition, the enamel itself helps to stiffen the gold and gives the object rigidity necessary to keep its form.

Enamelled amulet pendant depicting incarnations of Vishnu (back). Jaipur, 18th century, gold. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Benares enamel produced only there at least since the 18th century is often referred to as pink enamel. Its name comes from a style of decoration in which enamelled floral motifs such as roses or lotuses are painted in translucent pink on an opaque ground. In some Varanasi work the entire object such as a pendant is covered with this technique and in others it is combined with champleve.

Pink meenakari bangle. Varanasi, 19th century, Gold, diamonds, rubies. The National Museum, Delhi

Pink meenakari elephant bangle (detail). Benares Gold with enamel, diamonds, rubies, 18th-19th century. The Brooklyn Museum  

As well as in these two main centres some good enamel jewelry is produced in Delhi and Nathdwara (Rajasthan). Delhi work is similar in style to Jaipur enamelling although made more often on silver. Nathdwara enamelling is done also on silver. Beads and plaques used as pendants are the main products.

I have a few modest pieces of meenakari work, all on silver. I admire meenakari on gold but that jewelry is firstly, too expensive for me, second, I prefer silver objects because they are more simple, more casual in a way, and such jewelry I can wear practically every day.

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  1. Every piece is deliciously beautiful. I've always admired the heavy detailed work in enamel jewelry. These examples are stunning.

  2. How fascinating to read all this:-) breath-taking pieces...so beautiful and unique.thanks for sharing.

  3. That Vishnu pendant needs to be mine! x

  4. I adore anything colorful when it comes to jewelry. I am not refined enough to appreciate the value of all gold or silver, I like things with vibrant life such as these gorgeous pieces. Great finds! xoxo

    All Things Bright and Lovely

  5. What stunning pieces, I love enamel work. The armlet and bangle are particularly beautiful. xxx

  6. Fascinating! Thank you, Olga! The Navratna necklace is very much after my own heart. Interesting how such an intricate work can be something functional (to put on the back of jewelry) at the same time, it explains so much. Your collection is precious! I love small treasures like these.

  7. These all jewelry sets are really fabulous. It will definitely help me to know about famous Indian Jewelries

  8. Nice collection. Thanks for sharing this fantastic range in this blog.
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  9. nice post!!loved it
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  10. Nice collection