Ingenuity of Indian Royalty & Luxury

By on August 25, 2013

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. 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.

In 1931, the back of one of the Reverso watches had one of the rarest creations featured the portrait of a beautiful Indian lady, probably a Maharani, whose story remains one of the best-kept secrets in the history of the Reverso.

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.

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.

Salvatore Ferragamo wedge sandal for Maharani Indira Devi in 1938

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 Bentleys and Rolls-Royces. 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.

Maharaja of Patiala, wearing a diamond & platinum parade necklace by Cartier in 1928.

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.

(Left) In 1926, Louis Vuitton had created a tea case for the Maharaja of Baroda, that could not only hold a heater, teapot, and water pot but also be dismantled into a dozen pieces for easy storage. (Right) In 1931, LV created a set of suitcases in monogrammed canvas with the initials of the Maharaja of Jammu & Kashmir.

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.

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.

The cycle is back to the first point: uber-luxury brands are back to the lucrative Indian market.


Did you like the article? Leave a comment below.
Veronique Poles

Veronique Poles is a freelance fashion and luxury consultant based in Mumbai, with more than 15 years of extensive experience with luxury brands like Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Givenchy and Waterman/Gillete Pen Company just to mention a few. Bespoke creations, however, are her first love. Veronique writes for – The Online Luxury Magazine for India, where she unveils some of the best kept secrets in the sphere of ‘word of mouth landmarks’ for connoisseurs of products with substance. They are greatest creations made by artisans of excellence and guardians of tradition, who work with passion for detail and quality to make your dreams come true.

Leave a Reply


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *