With a vibrant history steeped in royalty, riches and art, India’s age-old love affair with opulent jewelry is no secret. The designers at ISHARYA have never shied away from exploring and modernizing jewelry from the past, so we give you a behind-the-scenes peak at one of our favorite Indian jewelry making techiniques: meenakari aka enamel.
History of Meenakari
To put it simply, meenakari is the practice of decorating metal surfaces with powdered minerals, such as cobalt and copper. This unique art form came to India circa 1500s by the Mughal king, Shah Jahan. A noble in his court, Raja Man Singh of Amber, was so enamored by the beauty of meenakari work that he invited the most skilled artisans from Lahore to set up workshops in Rajasthan and Mewar. Meenakari continues to date; Jaipur still produces the most sought-after handcrafted enamel pieces in the form of jewelry, housewares, sculptures and architecture.
Noble Raja Man Singh brought meenakari to Rajasthan. Image from The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Original Meenakari Process | Powdered Minerals set in Precious Metals
Meenakari demands an intricate and labor intensive process. Cost of the materials is high since the artisans use precious metals (gold, silver or bronze), mineral powder (cobalt, copper, etc.) and semi-precious stones (rubies, sapphires, kundan glass, rosecut diamonds, etc) to create the final product. Interestingly enough, meenakari was usually not visible to others when worn; it was done to provide decoration on the backside of the piece for the enjoyment of the wearer.
A designer created the sketch of the jewelry. Due to the ability to create art and use different colors, common motifs included natural elements such as birds, animals and flowers.
A metalsmith created the article base in either gold, silver or bronze.
Another specialized artisan engraved the intricate design in the metal.
The meenakar artisan would then apply with precision the powdered color to the depressed areas. Each color was then fired to melt the powder and the color spread evenly in the grooves.
Since Meenakari work was usually done on the reverse of the jewelry, the meenakar artisan would then hand off the piece to the artisan skilled in setting semi-precious stones or glass onto the jewelry piece.
If the jewelry design was a necklace or earring that called for stringing with other stones, the decorated piece would be handed off to another skilled artisan to finish the piece.
Meenakari as demonstrated on ancient pieces. Left to right: 18th century Indian Kashmir gilt bronze enamel plate; wine cup, 19th century, Honolulu Academy of Arts; 18th century Ewer on stand, Honolulu Academy of Arts.
Modern Enamel Process at ISHARYA
Enamel jewelry was traditionally made in gold and silver. When we wanted to showcase meenakari work by decorating the back of our mirror earrings to mimic traditional kundan jewelry (as shown below), as well as create statement cocktail rings that looked like what the maharajas wore during their reign, it took our designers over a year to find the right artisans who could execute high quality meenakari style designs in metals other than gold or silver. We also worked on ensuring that lustrous, long-lasting enamels were applied that did not chip or peal off.
This lead to the successful implementation of enamel work in our line, at a fraction of the cost of real meenakari, and we were able to bring this beautiful ancient art to the modern day jewelry fashionista.
Here’s an image of an artisan applying enamel to the backside of our popular cascade earrings, a technique prevalent in traditional kundan jewelry.
Here are images showing an artisan enameling a pair of Isharya jaali filigree hoop earrings:
The artisan has begun to fill the depressions of the earring with the glass powder enamel.
The artist slowly adds the enamel to each depression using a small wood tool.
After several ‘brush strokes’ the fourth depression is almost filled– a very time consuming process!
The final product – Isharya’s Chartreuse Jaali Filigree Hoop.
ISHARYA’s Enamel Jewelry Collections
The design team at ISHARYA loves meenakari and tries to release new designs each season with our signature contemporary flair for our fans. Our popular enamel prints are florentine, zahir and jaisel and these prints are usually brought back in new colors in our Modern Maharani collection.
Our latest neon enamel collection, Indian Summer is a fitting representation of the craft. Its kitschy and eclectic take on enameling with a generous splash of vibrant colors is bound to uplift your summer wardrobe. We love how bright this collection is!
The Art of Meenakari as demonstrated on Isharya’s Jaisel Cuff and Statement Earrings.
If a thing of beauty is a joy forever, then meenakari-based baubles are definitely a must-have in every jewelry connoisseur’s closet! Shop all of Isharya’s modern Indian meenakari enamel collections here.
Till next time…