Inside Gem Palace


Inside Gem Palace

Luxury brands that insist on the “right environment” for their stores would not consider Jaipur’s Mirza Ismail Road as one. The city’s busiest shopping district, it bustles with carts, autorickshaws, eating outlets both big and small, and assorted shops—hardly a nesting ground for fine brands. But in the middle of this stands The Gem Palace, India’s oldest jewellery store. Even on the chaotic and busy street, the shop, housed in an 1852 haveli with Mughal-style minarets and long, narrow columns, glows a pale yellow. Here, fine artefacts and gemstone jewellery are designed, crafted and retailed without the highly mechanized manufacturing units or daunting showrooms that symbolize the survival of luxury worldwide.

An enduring vision beyond survival is the daily prayer of 31-year-old Samir Kasliwal. Even before the gemstones cast their spell, the voice of this half-Italian, half-Rajasthani man, chatting with customers in Italian, wafts through the store. Samir is the ninth-generation scion of the Kasliwal family, which came to the city in the mid-18th century at the behest of the royal family of Jaipur to work as palace jewellers. The Gem Palace was founded in this very haveli.

Samir was born in Bologna, Italy, to Silvana and Sanjay Kasliwal, his jewellery designer father, under whom The Gem Palace became a global name. Seasoned customers also associate this ascendance with Sanjay’s elder brother, Munnu Kasliwal, who died in 2012. Their third brother, Sudhir, currently handles the accounts. Old clients speak of a family dispute that saw Munnu, who handled retail, separate from the family owned business to launch Munnu The Gem Palace. Now Munnu’s son Siddharth Kasliwal owns that part of the business, and while one can spot photographs of the late Munnu in The Gem Palace workshop, the family doesn’t mention him or Siddharth at the Jaipur store.

Samir began visiting this flagship store as a toddler and “learnt to name colours through the nine gemstones”. He is currently the merchandiser, retail head and micro-manager. The Gem Palace has 23 stores in India and three overseas, in New York, Istanbul and Tokyo. The New York store is run by Samir’s 28-year-old sister, Shalini. Just last month, The Gem Palace was launched at Mumbai’s Le Mill store of fashion and design. Two months ago, American stylist Amanda Ross launched her first capsule collection of amethyst jewellery in collaboration with Sanjay in New York.

The navratnas (Sanskrit for nine gems) fascinate the Kasliwal men. The emerald, explains Sanjay, was a favourite of the Mughal royals, who described it as the colour of Paradise. The nine shades of life—called navrasas in Indian dramatic theory—could, in fact, closely describe the trials and triumphs of the family. There have been plenty of trials. Munnu succumbed to brain cancer and Sanjay is currently recuperating in Italy after a stem cell transplant, a radical and aggressive treatment for cancer of the brain. He spoke to me on the phone from Milan.

For now, the tall, bearded Samir, dressed in a striped shirt, mud-grey trousers, dull-blue brogues and a Patek Philippe watch, is the master of ceremonies. A buzzing cellphone, global and local customers and curious tourists eager to try on a kundan-polki-ruby-emerald necklace worth lakhs of rupees for a photograph occupy his attention.

“Americans give us maximum business, and our clientele is split between Indians and foreigners,” says Samir. “Don’t write how much,” he adds. “Never ask, never say, that’s the code in luxury.”

The Gem Palace is a must-visit destination on the Jaipur shopping map. In minutes, a busload of Korean visitors crowds into the store, and the staff, a couple of them Italians (friends of Samir on temporary assignments) get busy opening the glass cabinets to display the gems. Everyone, without exception, looks awed.

As you enter The Gem Palace, where the walls are painted with Rajasthani block print patterns, there is a glass showcase with a cameo collection of museum-quality pieces. Decorative elephants—engraved or studded with precious stones, or carved in stone or silver with delicate enamelling—have been placed all over the store. There are bowls, plates, Ganeshas and Buddha figures in crystal, agate, rose quartz, onyx, silver or jade. The Kasliwals also collect Rajasthani miniature paintings and sell select pieces.

“Earrings are our best-selling jewellery pieces, and the Buddha and elephants most symbolic of India,” explains Samir. There is a stunning array of finger rings in silver, gold and precious stones, including large parakeets in diamonds and rubies. You flip kundan-meena necklaces to find intricate enamelling on the reverse. There are strings of Burmese rubies, Kashmiri sapphires and Zambian emeralds, and earrings with cascading gems bearing the design signature of Sanjay.

The brand classifies its wares into four collections: the Contemporary, made in 18-carat gold and gemstones; the Indo-Russian, which has a quasi-European sensibility; the Raj, with Rajasthani-Mughal jewellery; and the Universal collection, with “something for everyone”. Then there are brooches, belts, bajubandhs (armlets), tikkas, pendants, hair ornaments, silver boxes, cuffs, and tuxedo and sherwani buttons. In a corner is a stack of walking sticks. Some have bejewelled handles, others work as sheaths—with a sword inside.

Samir fetches an old, tattered cloth bag to pull out a scintillating necklace. With more than two dozen uncut diamonds, each the size of a thumbnail, it was made for the sarpech (head ornament) of a king and belongs to the archival collection. Select pieces were bought back by the Kasliwals from Rajasthan’s royal families after the abolition of privy purses in 1971.

Above the store is the workshop where craftsmen cut, chisel and polish gemstones—the closest one can get to seeing the highly skilled and labour-intensive facet of the gems and jewellery industry. “I have brought two Italian craftsmen to work with the descendants of the craftsmen who worked with my ancestors,” says Samir.

Alongside the workshop is a durbar decorated with old carpets, antique artefacts and furniture. “This is where Prince Charles and other royalty was entertained by my father,” says Samir, guiding us down a painted staircase to a private parking space for family owned vintage cars.

Samir’s maternal and paternal grandfathers, both jewellers, traded with each other. Samir studied gemmology in the US after studying for a finance degree in Italy. He then worked with some Italian jewellery shops. Interestingly, both Bologna and Jaipur are known for pink-tinged architecture.

Gems and jewellery is one of the fastest growing sectors of the Indian economy, forming 6-7% of the gross domestic product, according to the India Brand Equity Foundation (Ibef). It was declared a focus area for exports as part of the government’s “Brand India” initiatives this year. India is also the world’s largest diamond-cutting and polishing centre, exporting 95% of the world’s diamonds, according to the Gems and Jewellery Export Promotion Council (GJEPC). The jewellery market in India is expected to grow at a CAGR, or compound annual growth rate, of 15.95% from 2014-19, according to a report by Research and Markets, a market research database. The Kasliwals refuse to comment on the revenue from their store.

India is the home of revered jewellery traditions, where old jewellery houses treat authenticity and trust as their hallmark. Kundan-meena-ruby-emerald jewellery set in gold with engraving at the back, different from the creations of Italian brands such as Bulgari, dominates the jewellery designs of north India. There are other classical schools—the south Indian temple jewellery with its gem-encrusted ornaments and gold-coin necklaces on the one hand, and Bengali ornaments in finely filigreed gold on the other. Jaipur itself has a few hundred jewellery stores.

The emphasis on imperial Mughal designs as the fundamental brand statement, the sustenance of old practices in craftsmanship, the trust reposed in local artisans, and a certain European influence keep The Gem Palace distinct. The evolution of Jaipur into a globally popular hot spot for literature, culture, heritage festivals and India’s top luxury hotels has strengthened the platform The Gem Palace stands on. In response, the Kasliwals have subtly assimilated cultural diversity into their store.

The “family jeweller” fixation, however, still exists in Indian families. Ask Shivika Kumari Singh, who belongs to Jaipur and currently divides her time between New York and Bengaluru. Her family has been buying from The Gem Palace for generations, and even if she goes to Jaipur for a day, she says, she picks up a piece. “The Gem Palace plays an important part in preserving our heritage, with traditional designs and historical stones set to be worn in the modern world we live and travel in,” she says.

Designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee agrees. “If there is an iconic jewellery brand in India that has mastered the art of packaging with the right amount of mystery and intrigue, it is Gem Palace,” says Mukherjee, who collaborated with the Kasliwals for a finale collection at the Lakmé Fashion Week a few years ago. To a large extent, Mukherjee credits the late Munnu Kasliwal for this. “I am a fan not just of their jewellery, but the way they conduct their sales, after-sales and customer relationships,” he says.

The Gem Palace has featured in the world’s top fashion and luxury magazines, but it never advertises. Even so, its visitors’ book has been signed by the who’s who of the world: from the Jaipur royalty—“Maharani Gayatri Devi was a close friend of my father’s and recommended us to her friends across the world,” says Samir—to Hollywood stars, European royalty, global heads of state and Indian celebrities. The walls are adorned with photographs of, among others, Oprah Winfrey, Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Judi Dench, Goldie Hawn, Prince Charles, the late Princess Diana, and Bill and Hillary Clinton with the Kasliwals.

There is a photograph of Jawaharlal Nehru with Indira Gandhi at a 1952 exhibition marking 100 years of The Gem Palace.

In her memoir The Last Swan, Marella Agnelli, princess, Italian style icon, art collector and wife of Gianni Agnelli, the former chairman of Fiat, wrote about her favourite necklace, made of several long strings of emeralds and rubies. It was gifted by her husband, who had scoured The Gem Palace for an outstanding piece.

For the photo shoot, Samir puts on a black jacket with a red silk pocket handkerchief. He fills the frame. He was on Town & Country magazine’s 2015 list of 50 most eligible bachelors. This charming man, who refers fondly to his father every few minutes, is a foodie and loves the good life (his WhatsApp photo shows him with actor Kareena Kapoor). “I am soon opening my own restaurant with a lounge bar in Jaipur’s Palace Gardens called Baradaari. We will serve Rajasthani, Indian and Italian food,” he says, adding that his love for restaurants needed a proper trajectory.

The Gem Palace became a global name in the 1990s under Sanjay and Munnu. In 2001, they collaborated with the Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art), in New York, for an exhibition called Treasury Of The World: Jeweled Arts Of India In The Age Of The Mughals. From then till 2007, they would create for the Met jewellery that was exhibited alongside Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Byzantine exhibitions there. Showings at London’s Somerset House and Washington’s Kennedy Centre grabbed more global media attention. Their jewellery began to be retailed at stores such as Barneys in New York.

Sanjay was diagnosed with brain cancer four years ago. The Kasliwals firmly believe that the cellphone towers installed barely 60m from their residence in Jaipur caused these tumours (even the family’s dog succumbed to it). In 2011, Sanjay spoke out in the media against the state government’s decision to set up cellphone towers in residential areas. This subject was hotly debated in Parliament that year.

Sanjay has not allowed the cancer to diminish his love for jewellery, even though the tumour returned this year. The economic downturns haven’t dented the business, he says. “You never see the impact of recession on important pieces—fine luxury is immune to market ups and downs,” he says.

Sanjay, who frequented The Gem Palace as a child, formally joined the business in 1976. “I began travelling to Zambia, Bolivia, Colombia, Mozambique, Myanmar (then Burma) for raw stones,” he says, adding that natural stones aren’t found in India. Supply of Kashmiri sapphires is scant now. “For me, the perfect cut of a stone doesn’t matter; its natural, rare and rough state does. The precious stones in their natural habitat are the real jewels,” he says. Subtly, and successfully, integrating a slightly Western aesthetic while holding on to the traditional core of the design is what makes The Gem Palace so successful, he feels.

The Indo-Russian collection evolved from that thought, as did other marquee pieces that stay inside large velvet boxes at the Jaipur store.

One necklace has a pendant with a total weight of 45 carats. Another, designed by Sanjay, has a Zambian emerald rock for a pendant that weighs 55 carats. It is set with rose-cut diamonds on the chain and behind the pendant. A photograph of the necklace being modelled by American actor Mila Kunis has pride of place at the store.

The Amanda Ross collection, created under Sanjay’s mentorship, is made entirely of amethysts since Ross loves the colour purple. Ross describes it as “responsibly sourced Zambian amethyst from gemfields with 18-carat gold”. It is available on .

“Personal presence and service and long-standing friendships with customers keeps us relevant,” says Sanjay, underlining how The Gem Palace is different from stores of brands such as Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels, where customers are greeted by sales staff. “We are available” is our top sales line, says Samir.

In this era of digital and direct selling, technological outreach and Instagram-based luxury marketing, The Gem Palace wants to ward off the digital frenzy. You can’t order jewellery through their website. Quite like the luxury houses of the 20th century—which, as arbiters of taste, worked with culturally literate customers, each becoming part of the other’s narrative—to own a piece from The Gem Palace, you have to be physically present at the shop.

“To successfully compete with newcomers, luxury brands need to summon the spirit and passion of their founders and turn them into modern culture,” wrote Ana Andjelic last month in The Guardian, in a persuasively argued article titled “Luxury Brands Are Failing In Their Storytelling.”

Not so with The Gem Palace, where the old story is still the real gem. New generations polish it in their own way. “I haven’t yet shown you our upcoming collection designed by me,” says Samir, as more velvet boxes are brought in. Delicately set large rings designed in Indo-European patterns with ombré-like colour gradations glitter at us as Samir’s eyes shine.