When it comes to living life to the fullest, hardly anyone can surpass the ingenuity of Indian royalty. The Cartiers, Louis Vuittons and Christofles of this world have bowed down in front of their whims and fancies. It’s time to witness that yet again…
This specific edition of LuxuryFacts on Royalty is a great opportunity to reminiscence Indian royal families who lived lives of unparalleled opulence and luxury. However, for almost 50 years after Independence, India cut all ties with luxury, owing to a cautious nature. It’s only in the past few years that the romance between India and luxury has been rekindled.
Luxury brands are re-conquering territories where they had first established their business and had their best clients, that is, in India. We return to that magnificent era when Maharajas, Nawabs, Nizams and Sultans had power, wealth and accessibility to products ordered to fit their lifestyle. Their wealth was so great, that, as cost was not an issue, they could indulge themselves with orders defying the norm.
The brand fascination
Indian royalty became huge patrons of some of the major European fashion and luxury houses in the British era. Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Christofle, Van Cleef and Arpels, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Mauboussin, Rolls Royce are just a few of them who served royal families and the aristocracy. Treasures were crafted by outstanding European luxury goods manufacturers, fashion houses and decorators of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Leading a mystical life, anecdotes on memorable and iconic products, and luxurious commissions by Maharajas have enchanted many. Luxury maisons, which went through more than 150 years of existence, have had long connections with India. And India, with its landscape of luxury, has inspired many of them.
In particular, Maharajas actively participated in the development of prestigious jewellers and auto manufacturers. Luxury cars were given as gifts in trousseaus and many were custom-designed! The Maharaja of Mysore had no less than 24 Bentley and Rolls-Royce. 800 Rolls-Royces were delivered to India between 1903 and 1945, and some were gilded in fine gold!
Indian royalty created palaces designed by the best architects. Among them was Charles Mant who built the luxurious Laxmi Vilas Palace in Vadodara. As Indian royal members were avid travellers, they encountered western luxury products and became addicted to the trappings of the Western world. Travelling to Paris and London became mandatory for shopping everything from their wardrobe to their trousseau. Luxury products were particularly attractive as they were not accessible in their country. They were extremely brand conscious and Western luxury houses soon became their personal prerogative.
They adopted a western way of living: they ate in the best China from Royal Worcester and Minton, drank from Lalique and Baccarat, ordered customized stationery from Smythson of Bond Street, bought perfumes and cosmetic products from Detaille which was founded in 1905 and counted the Queen of Bulgaria, Queen of Belgium, several Maharajas, Countesses and Princesses as its customers.
All that glitters is gold
Maharajas were known for their love of beauty and style which shown through their bespoke orders to jewellery houses like Cartier and Van Cleef and Arpels. They entrusted the jewellers of Rue de la Paix and Bond Street with their family treasures so that they could be re-set to the fashions of the day. Nothing was too beautiful for them, nothing too spectacular. Indian royals were flamboyant spenders.
Cartier’s tryst with India began when Jacques Cartier visited India in 1911 looking for fine pearls. In November 1913, Cartier’s vision of India was showcased with an exhibition on Fifth Avenue, New York. 20 pieces ‘inspired by Indian art’ were also depicted in a previously unpublished catalogue. Cartier revealed the incredible diversity of its designs, drawn loosely on Islamic and Indian art. This led Mr Cartier to work on various creative projects. He worked on an emerald engraved with verses from the Koran, which he mounted for Aga Khan in 1930. He produced an emerald engraved with the Hindu Gods Shiva and Parvati on a tiger skin backdrop.
Mr Cartier’s creations reflected the perfect blend of East and West: India with the profusion of gemstones, and the West with its rigid structures and settings. The West soon became infatuated with the riches of India.
In 1926, Cartier received a trunk full of precious stones and jewellery belonging to Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala, who wanted his stones remounted in Parisian style. The creation that emerged is famous the world over: the Patiala necklace. The necklace comprising five magnificent platinum chains, a cascade of seven large diamonds, the celebrated yellow De Beers diamond of 234.69 carat, a tobacco-coloured diamond and two rubies, remains one of the grandest pieces ever made by Cartier, perhaps even by any other jeweller.
The Maharaja of Kapurthala, also an admirer of European creativity, had 250 timepieces, majority of which were Cartier’s and for which he hired a servant specifically in charge of winding up the mechanisms!
The art of travel
Empress Eugénie, who married Napoleon III in 1853, counted the crinoline fabric as her favourite item of clothing, and she liked it to be as wide as possible. Eugénie’s gowns, the most voluminous ever, required proper upkeep. This Empress, thus, was the first crowned head to have direct influence on the destiny of Louis Vuitton. Having heard that Mr Vuitton’s specialty was ‘fashion packing’, she turned to him and entrusted him with the ‘packing of her most beautiful gowns’, Louis Vuitton Company soon became the destination for the courts of Europe and monarchs worldwide.
Louis Vuitton was synonymous with the ultimate in luxurious luggage, combining pragmatism and elegance. Louis Vuitton trunks, in fact, remain an icon of the golden age of travel, when journeying to a foreign land involved adventure, romance and style.
The Russian nobility were among Vuitton’s loyal patrons, but in the 1920s were gradually replaced by Indian princes, maybe because of their luxurious dresses which were in tune with the fabric and embroidery trends of that time. These intricate dresses had to travel without affording even a single line of damage on them. Sayajirao Gaewak III from Baroda had become one of Vuitton’s important and faithful clients in the 1920s, and his second wife remained a client until 1956. Among his purchases was a Torino suitcase with toiletry accessories in vermeil and ivory, a shoe trunk and a tea case, as elegant as practical, in particular for tiger hunts.
The Vuitton Company took pride in filling the special orders of Jagatjit Singh, the Maharaja of Kapurthala in Punjab, who was an avid traveller. He owned over 60 large Louis Vuitton trunks that would hold his clothes, paraphernalia, swords, turbans, suits, shoes and elaborate traditional dresses.
Among Louis Vuitton clients were the Maharajas of Alivar, Rajputana, Jodhpur, Holkar and Indore as well. The Maharajas of Jammu and Kashmir have also been important Vuitton clients since 1919. In particular, in 1925, Hari Singh, a polo fanatic, ordered several special trunks from Louis Vuitton for his sports clothes and equipment, including one specially designed for his mallets. He, in fact, placed 38 orders between June and December 1928 alone! These included a special box for polo outfits, twelve boxes for drying cigarettes and three suitcases one of which was a shoe-maintenance kit; and another superimposed a toiletries kit on a tea set.
The toiletries kit consisted of more than 50 items in silver and had two uses: it held everything required for personal hygiene (brushes, bottles, soap boxes, razors and so on) and was also a jewellery box. The whole ensemble seemed a curious mixture for the time, but in fact, was in tradition of the elegant toiletries kits of 19th century English travellers.
The sheen of silver
An apt example exploring India’s fabled wealth and great eccentricities is an order placed in April 1882 by Saddiq Muhammad Khan Abassi IV, the Nawab of Bahawalpur. It was truly a masterpiece conjured from the strange and whimsical dream of this extraordinary individual.
He commissioned Orfévrerie Christofle, founded in 1830, a bed of ‘dark wood decorated with applied sterling with gilded parts, monograms and arms, ornamented with four life-size bronzes figures painted in flesh color with natural hair, movable eyes and arms, holding fans and horse tails’! The execution of the bed required, in addition to a team of silversmiths, the assistance of many different types of artists and craftsmen.
The silversmith covered the structure of Brazilian rosewood with 290 kilos of chased and engraved sterling silver in the form of garlands in leaf and foliage in relief. Ingenious mechanics allowed the statues to wave fans! And the bed was also fitted with a music box that played a 30-minute interlude from Gounod’s Faust when activated by a button! Such technology was unprecedented and unheard of during that era!
When Christofle received the order for the bed, the firm was already the largest silversmith in France. Supplier to King Louis-Philippe, and then the Emperor Napoléon III, Christofle continuously used the most modern techniques to create exceptional pieces.
The Nawab’s bed, however, was neither the first nor the only piece of furniture that Christofle created or sold. Executed most often on the request of prestigious clients or for world fairs, their pieces always attracted attention and were admired for their technical and aesthetic qualities.
After Independence, and with the decline of the fortune and power of Indian princes, luxury houses saw new markets opening up in Middle East and in Russia. Today luxury companies are reassessing their strategy. They are shifting their hopes yet again to emerging markets such as India and China. From India…back to India.
When these luxury brands were born, the Indian royalty increasingly became their ladder to financial and creative success – not only by buying their designs, but also by enriching their knowledge by introducing them to a high-cultured land such as India. These fabulous creators gleaned many aesthetic references from the country.
Today, when half the world is reeling under economic difficulties, luxury brands have approached Indian shores again. The difference, this time, is that the ‘New Maharajas’ in India are the wealthy kings and queens of industrial houses, the scions of booming businesses, the Bollywood princes and princesses and the nouveau riche.