Kundan Mina Work in Jaipur by Barbara Steinberg
An Indian necklace commands presence by magnificent jewels set in pure gold, known as a Kundan setting. Before mirrors were invented, a woman could not see the front of her necklace when she wore it. The brilliance of her gems lay in the eyes of admirers.
However, behind the glory was a secret garden, a paradise of birds and flowers, which was produced by a meticulous enameling technique called Mina. Its beauty was known only to her, because as she put on the necklace, the back was all she could see.
Mina, or Minakari was invented by Persian jewelers during the Sassanian Empire (224 – 651 AD), just before the Muslim Conquest. Colors made with powdered glass were melted over fine silver, because glass stuck best to a pure metal (picture 1).
The technique reached northwestern India when the Mongol Empire spread throughout Central Asia in 1260. However, it was not until the 16th Century reign of Mughal Emperor Akbar the Great (1556-1605) that the idea of combining the kundan setting with mina enamel work emerged.
Akbar’s general Maharaja Mān Singh I brought Sikh enamel workers from the Punjab city of Lahore to the state capital of Amber, which was renamed when Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II (1699-1743) established the Kingdom of Jaipur in 1727. He expanded the welcome and invited artisans from all over India to work there.
In Kundan work, the gem is trapped in a closed setting that blocks the light. A reflective foil made of thinly beaten sheets of gold or silver is placed beneath the stone. After the stone is set, narrow ribbons of 99.97% pure gold, cut at angles, are compressed to fill the space around the gem. The gold is so malleable, it needs no heat to be worked.
The Mina design is independent from the Kundan setting. The colors chosen do not have to match the ornament’s façade, even though Mina craftsmen aim to achieve harmony. Applying the enamel on gold is such a delicate process that a complex, perfectly made piece has a far greater value than its materials. Each piece is considered a layer on a revered tradition.
In the larger cities, there is a division of labor. Craftsmen specialize: the artist, or “chitera” conceives the design. The goldsmith, or “sonar,” forms the gold foundation in the desired shape. A “gharai” then chases or engraves the design to hollow out the gold to receive the enamel. For enamel to fuse to gold, each color needs a different amount of heat in the kiln. Only one color is fired at a time. Jaipur’s ruby red is the most difficult color to make.
The Victoria and Albert Museum presents two videos with excellent narration, which show modern makers creating both sides of a piece of jewelry:
Click on the links below to view the videos.
kundan and mina (pictures 2 – 5).
For an example of traditional Mughal jewelry from Jaipur, we can examine a bracelet at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Date range: 18th – 19th Century. Its wide enameled clasp is decorated with birds and flowers. To make the band, emeralds and seed pearls were drilled and punctuated by gold enameled bars (pictures 6, 7).
However, a piece that caught my attention was a 19th Century necklace, which sold at Sotheby’s on October 7, 2015 (pictures 8-11). Nineteen squares of rock crystal were put in a kundan setting. On the back, elaborate Mina work showed peacocks and parrots in a flowered garden. Considering the disasters that can happen if a Mina craftsman makes a mistake, the design’s complexity and number of colors are virtuosic. In addition, the rock crystal shows shades of grey, like the bricks one would use to build a wall around a property. This makes the necklace a metaphor for what magic can be hidden behind a common-looking wall. The kundan-mina work combined with this metaphor make the necklace a world-class piece in my opinion.
Combining two unrelated techniques to make one piece of jewelry resulted in masterfully innovative pieces, which had social significance beyond class. The front allowed a woman frame her social performance by controlling how people saw her. The back hid a secret paradise, which rested on her skin. Kundan-Meena jewelry allowed the wearer to show and hide herself at the same time.
I would like to thank Arpit Pansari for his help on this article.