The Kasliwal family has for decades crafted jewellery for royalty, presidents and film stars from its Gem Palace in one of India’s most beautiful cities. Tom Vater reports from Jaipur, Rajsthan.
Almost 300 years ago, Sawai Jai Singh II, a powerful Kachwaha Rajput ruler, scholar and patron of the arts, decided to build a magnificent city in Rajasthan. In order to attract the best artisans and traders to his new capital, Singh went to the Mughal court in Delhi and offered the business elite of northern India a new home. Within a few years, Jaipur, or the Pink City as it is known thanks to its distinctive mud-red palaces, became a thriving urban centre, especially famous for its textiles and jewels.
The Kasliwal family, renowned jewellers to the Mughal emperors for more than a century, resettled in Jaipur and became Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II’s personal suppliers of all things precious. Many generations later, the Kasliwals are still producing some of the world’s most magnificent jewellery.
The Gem Palace is located in a 200-year-old haveli, a prominent mansion on M.I. Road, a dusty thoroughfare in Rajasthan’s state capital. The window displays are unassuming and most of the other shops in the area also sell jewellery. On the road, cycle-rickshaw drivers and children chase tourists and the odd camel passes, pulling impossibly heavy loads. Inside the cool and quiet Gem Palace, a different world awaits. Before visitors have time to be dazzled by rubies and emeralds, they are greeted by the Kasliwal brothers like old friends.
Sanjay Kasliwal, along with his brothers Sudhir and Munnu, runs the family business, which has been operating on the premises since 1852. The 42-year-old is the public face of the Gem Palace. He’s a suave and handsome man, with an open, mischievous smile.
“Other famous jewellers become corporations, but we like to keep things simple” he says. “Our customers appreciate the personal service they get. That’s why they keep coming back. And we make really good coffee.”
The walls of the showrooms are ample proof of the Kasliwals’ enduring success. Among valuable antique baubles, photographs of the family’s most famous customers tell much of the story of the Gem Palace – from Lord Mountbatten, Viceroy of India, to Diana, Princess of Wales; from Bill Clinton to Richard Gere – everyone who is anyone, it seems, has dropped by their establishment and talked stones with the brothers.
Yet mere mortals too are welcomed with endearing openness. Contemporary diamondstudded necklaces and earrings set with peridots, sapphires and emeralds, 19th-century solid-gold plates embossed with fine enamel work and even stained cotton sacks of uncut rubies from Myanmar, brought to life by the banter of the jewellers, can be perused by visitors with minimum fuss.
Deep inside the Gem Palace, Kasliwal’s office is a treasure trove filled with thousands of stones, rings, necklaces and turban pins, weighing down shelves in kaleidoscopic disarray. His desk is strewn with drawings and photographs of jewellery designs. Here, Kasliwal works on new products.
“I have no formal training,” he says, laughing, “but I was here every day after school from a young age and watched how the craftsmen work.”
It’s partly the Kasliwal brothers’ personal touch that makes the Gem Palace India’s foremost address for the rich and famous. But there’s more to the brothers than clever salesmanship – the family looks back on a truly remarkable history.
“While we designed the jewellery for Jaipur’s royal family, we also sold our creations to the landed gentry. And during our centennial anniversary in 1952, my father organised a big party – from [independent India’s first prime minister] Pandit Nehru to some of the nation’s major industrialists – the guest list was a Who’s Who of Indian high society.
History has been on our side.”
The close and vital relationship between Rajasthan’s royal houses and the Gem Palace changed fundamentally with the advent of independence from Britain in 1947. Suddenly, once-wealthy royals found themselves cash-strapped when their income from taxes were absorbed by the state.
“They were desperate. Until the royal families began to turn their palaces into hotels, they had virtually no income. So they came to my father and he offered them a good price for their jewellery.”
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the Gem Palace bought back many of its own antique designs. These unique treasures make the Gem Palace as much a museum as a showroom and many items which grace the walls and glass cases are not for sale.
Kasliwal is not keen to rest on past laurels and intends to remain competitive and contemporary India, it seems, is on his side.
“We have fewer overheads, insurance is not an issue, our workforce is highly skilled but significantly cheaper than artisans in the West. Most importantly, we are in control of every step of our business from sourcing to retail. We can supply other businesses, like
Bulgari’s, with designs they want. We sell directly into the Oberoi hotels.”
Kasliwal regularly flies to Zambia and Columbia to purchase uncut stones directly from mine owners. Back in Jaipur, the gems are cut according to the latest trends. “We look at global fashion. For example, uneven stones are all the rage now, because machines have become so precise. So I integrate imperfectly cut stones into earrings or necklaces and our customers love this departure from the traditional.”
Beyond a small courtyard and the Kasliwals’ vintage car collection, more than 70 workers sit hunched over brightly lit desks amid piles of uncut stones. Kasliwal spot checks the work every day. “I have to come up with simple but beautiful designs for a wide range of customers and wallets,” Kasliwal says.
But as happens so often in India, tradition wins out and Kasliwal is careful to keep the continuity of the company branding within the context of the family heritage.
“We will always remain jewellers. We are not interested in producing perfumes or luxury accessories. While we will be opening new shops in New York and Istanbul soon, there will be no gimmicks, just first-class jewellery. That’s why New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art asked us to create a collection just for them.”
For Kasliwal, the creation of jewellery is both his personal passion and family business. With the quiet pride of the seasoned professional, he makes sure the family jewels continue to shine.
Images for this article by Luke Duggleby.
Published in Discovery Magazine.