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Munnu Kasliwal: The jeweller whose Gem Palace has served Mughals, British royalty, and Jackie O

Friday, 5 October 2012 - 12:53pm IST | Agency: The Daily Telegraph
Munnu Kasliwal, who has died of brain cancer aged 54, was an eighth-generation designer at the Gem Palace, a jewellery wholesaler and retailer in Jaipur whose creations are eagerly sought by members of royal families, Bollywood and Hollywood starlets and the international super-rich.

Munnu Kasliwal, who has died of brain cancer aged 54, was an eighth-generation designer at the Gem Palace, a jewellery wholesaler and retailer in Jaipur whose creations are eagerly sought by members of royal families, Bollywood and Hollywood starlets and the international super-rich.

A Fodor guidebook once observed that the Kasliwals' clientele made "Cartier seem third-rate". The family were originally court jewellers to India's royal families and the Mughal emperors, furnishing the descendants of Tamerlane the Great and Genghis Khan with astonishingly elaborate creations and ornaments, dense with huge rubies, emeralds and rose cut diamonds, often offset by great cataracts of South Sea pearls.

An artisan could devote the better part of his working life - 20 or 30 years - to making a single object. Recruited to the city of Jaipur after it was founded in 1727 by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II, the Kasliwals were among those Gem Palace started trading in 1852 from an old mansion on Mirza Ismail Road.

Nowadays the family's clients include most of the world's royal families. The Prince of Wales is said to obtain his crested cufflinks from them, and for her marriage to him Camilla Parker Bowles wore earrings made by the family. Diana, Princess of Wales, also came away with earrings on her visit to India in 1992, and the Gem Palace visitors' books include such names as Lord and Lady Mountbatten, Eleanor Roosevelt and Jackie Kennedy.

Meanwhile, Nicole Kidman once posed for a cover of Vogue with a double-strand Gem Palace necklace snaking across her bare back. "Our clients are not like the regular,'' Kasliwal explained. "They want things that are different, not mass-produced."

Munnu Kasliwal ran the Gem Palace with his two elder brothers, Sudhir and Sanjay, but was widely seen as the creative force behind the enterprise as well as its most visible and charming international representative. Above the shop he oversaw teams of craftsmen, many of them expert in techniques handed down by his forefathers - including intricate enamel work, distinctive stonecutting and a method of inlaying gems in pure 24-carat gold known as "Kundan".

In his own designs, Kasliwal drew on a wide range of influences to give a contemporary spin to traditional Indian motifs. Among other things, he designed custom jewellery collections to accompany blockbuster exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, including "Ancient Egyptian", "Ancient Greek" and "Byzantium" collections.

His richly ornate creations also adorn the windows of Chaumet and Boucheron in Paris and Tiffany and Barney's in New York.

Kasliwal would go to considerable lengths to find the best-quality stones, touring international salerooms and gem fairs - though some of his best sources were the rapidly depleting treasuries of maharajas and displaced royals fallen on hard times. "Before Independence we used to sell to the royal families," Kasliwal explained. "Afterwards they started selling back to us."

As well as the stones themselves, Kasliwal also acquired a growing collection of historic pieces, some dating back to the 16th century, including a gold drinking flask in the form of a life-size parakeet with wings covered in rubies and diamonds. By looking up family records, Kasliwal found that the bird was one of a set of four completed for a noble family in 1890, which had taken 16 craftsmen eight years to complete.

Other items in the collection included Shah Jahan's jade drinking cup; an enamelled necklace and pair of bracelets worn by the young Mughal emperor Jahangir, who ruled from 1605 to 1627; and a diamond fringe necklace made for a Habsburg princess to attend the Congress of Vienna in 1815.

In 2006 Treasures from the Gem Palace, an exhibition of 250 pieces of jewellery from the Kasliwal family - historic and contemporary - was held at Somerset House. Among the exhibits was a floor-length bridal headdress for a Saudi princess, made entirely of diamonds and pearls.

Munnu Kasliwal was born in Jaipur on July 7 1958, and educated by the Jesuits at St Xavier's Senior Secondary School and the University of Rajasthan, where he took a degree in Business Management before joining the family firm. His childhood toys included sacks of semi-precious stones, yet Kasliwal had no formal training as a jeweller. At the Gem Palace he held court in his private chamber, sitting cross-legged behind a cloth-covered table on to which he would spill mini-cascades of emeralds, rubies, diamonds, citrines and pearls from small cotton sacks, captivating his customers with his knowledge and enthusiasm.

Visitors often came away amazed at his apparently casual attitude to security, but it seems that Kasliwal had few worries on that score: "Indians are very superstitious about gems," he told an interviewer. "If anyone buys a stolen stone or acquires it wrongly, it will curse them. We have a saying: 'Someone who steals gems will lose his eyesight.'"

Munnu Kasliwal is survived by his wife, Kalpana, and by two sons.

Munnu Kasliwal, born July 7 1956, died August 23 2012.


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