Monday, February 2, 2009
A Jewelry Junkie in India
I am a jewelry junkie. And there's nowhere better to be one than in India. The country is a treasure trove of jewelry and gems. Gold and jewels are on billboards and in stores,
adorning residents, depicted on deities, and embedded in buildings. Even animals drip in
jewels. During festivals elephants sport massive jangling anklets and ornate howdahs (riding carriages) studded with gems and precious metal. Horses and camels wear special headdresses covered with stones.
Jewelry is much more than pretty ornamentation in India. It's an integral part of the culture and economy. When babies are born they receive miniature bangles and silver anklets for their tiny wrists and ankles. Families often save up from birth for their daughter's weddings and dowries. (Dowries are technically outlawed but commonly practiced.) Brides are heavily adorned and showered with gifts of jewelry.
During auspicious occasions, holidays, and weddings women wear their finest jewels from gem-studded forehead ornaments to nose rings and earrings so heavy with gold and precious tones that a special support chain is wrapped around the top of the ear and attached to the earring. Like family doctors, most women have a family jeweler, usually the same one as their grandmother.
The Indian appetite for this precious metal is insatiable—and the population spends a considerable portion of their income on gold, especially solid, 18-24 karat gold jewelry which is popular among the masses. Forget stocks and bonds—jewelry is their bank account. One New Delhi business woman told me "Investing in gold jewelry is as good as investing in property." She also said solid gold bangles are considered one of best investments because they're in one piece without any cuts. Jewelry is handed down to daughters. "It's money saved as well for bad days that may come upon us," she said.
By some accounts, 90% of the world's colored stones are cut in Jaipur. Rubies, rose-cut diamonds, tourmaline, blue topaz, smoky quartz, citrine, emeralds, chalcedony, you name it, you'll find it. Gems are everywhere—even in small general stores.
I walked into one wholesale market and the clerk was sorting through piles of polished labradorite cabachons and ringing up Coke and bags of potato chips in between. The window display outside the towel held rolls of toilet paper next to hanks of faceted green amethyst. "Hey honey, don't forget the toilet paper while you're out—and pick ups some gems while you're at it."