Prior to European colonisation, India had two distinct cultures, Hindu in the south and Islamic in the north, and two distinct styles of jewellery.
Hindu men wore specific jewellery to show that they had passed through various stages of life. The Hindu woman’s jewellery was her dowry and passed down from generation to generation.
Hindu jewellery reflected the wearer’s class. The rich wore gold jewellery set with diamonds, rubies, emeralds and pearls; the less wealthy had gold set with less precious stones; the relatively poor had silver jewellery while the lowest classes wore jewellery mad of intricately worked base metals.
Goldsmiths were highly respected members of society. They used only pure, 24-carat gold which was often lavishly decorated with repousse work, where the design is beaten out from behind. Stones were placed in indentations in the metal and held by thin bands of metal. The European claw setting was not used until well into the 19th century. Stones were set as cabochons, size was regarded as more important than brilliance and flaws were not cut out.
While Hindu jewellery often incorporated depictions of gods, people and animals, Islamic jewellery was always decorated with geometric or stylised patterns. Moslem pieces were rarely made of solid gold but were hollow and filled with lac, a dark red resin. The reverse side of many pieces were covered with colourful enamel decorations.
The European colonisers regarded the traditional Indian jewellery styles as vulgar and had local craftsmen make pieces in European styles. These included repousse lockets and bracelets from Madras and filigree silver from Cattack. Traditional Indian jewellery enjoyed a revival between about 1870 and 1890 when it became fashionable in Europe, particularly following Queen Victoria’s adoption of the title “Empress of India” in 1876.
As the wealth of the native rulers declined, they substituted foil-backed crystals for precious stones and used 18- or 22-carat gold in their jewellery.
Since India regained its independence in 1949, much of its jewellery production has been for the tourist trade; most of this is silver and much of it filigree work.