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Jewelry in India has always been an essential, not just ornamentation. Right from the time of the Indus Valley Civilization, jewelry has been part of an Indian’s ensemble and the fact that for a long time India was a major producer of precious stones and metals such as gold and silver helped to increase the popularity of jewelry in the country.
Over time different parts of the country developed different styles of jewelry and many different techniques to craft it. From the kundalas of Jammu and Kashmir to the ratanchur of Bengal to the thalaisaamaan of Tamil Nadu, the diversity of India is reflected in the different types of jewelry indigenous to different regions. The techniques to create these beautiful pieces vary just as much as the jewelry itself and can be very detailed. One such type of jewelry that is very popular is Kundan work.
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What Is Kundan?
There are a lot of misconceptions regarding what Kundan is exactly. Many people believe that Kundan refers to the precious stones embedded in the gold in this type of ornamentation. Others tend to confuse this with other styles such as polki or jadau. However, neither of these is strictly true. While there may be similarities, Kundan is a unique style in which glass pieces are embedded in gold to create absolute masterpieces. Kundan jewelry is magnificent and gives the wearer a regal air, which is not surprising since royal courts are where this style first emerged.
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Kundan jewelry is believed to have originated in the royal courts of Rajasthan and Gujarat. It is commonly accepted that Kundan work flourished in the Delhi courts of the Mughals. The perfect example of this fact is Aishwarya Rai’s jewelry in the movie ‘Jodhaa Akbar.’ This style was highly prized by Mughal royalty and noblemen, and artisans who specialized in this were much in demand. Over time these artisans also migrated to the province of Rajasthan and became immensely popular there as well. The artisans also spread to neighbouring Gujarat and the rest as they say is history. Today Kundan work from cities such as Jaipur, Bikaner and Nathdwara is very famous and highly prized.
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How Is It Made?
Kundan work is a long and arduous process, involving many different stages and artisans and craftsmen with a variety of skill sets. Each stage needs to be painstakingly taken care of as a mistake at any stage can mar the piece.
Kundan jewelry does not have a very high gold content since it is more about the stones. First, hand-beaten sheets of gold that are very fine are taken to form the frame. At the same time, gold sheets are made into cup-like shapes meant to hold the stones. This procedure is known as Ghaat. Following this, the cup-like shapes are filled with lac or laakh. This is to set the glass or gemstones being used in the piece. This step is known as Paadh. The insertion of the stones is done using a hot coal. The lac is covered by a very thin film of gold that is inserted using a very small stick in order to add gloss to the piece by reflecting light and adding a certain shine to the glass or gemstone being used. This is the Khudai stage of the procedure.
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Certain types of Kundan jewelry have elaborate designs on the back of the frame as well. This is done using enamel of different colours, a process famously known as Meenakari. Finally the frame and the gold foils holding the stones are welded or soldered together. We have now come to the Pakai part of the process. As a final step, the jewelry is washed to remove the dark spots caused by the soldering. Voila! What you now have is an exquisite piece of jewelry that is truly “Neighbour’s envy, owner’s pride.”
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Differences between Kundan, Polki, Meenakari and Jadau
Kundan – As mentioned earlier, a lot of people tend to confuse this with other forms of jewelry. This type of jewelry however, uses glass, not diamonds, set in the gold.
Polki – Polki is very similar to Kundan in terms of technique. However, the real difference here is that instead of glass, uncut diamonds are used to create the jewelry. This makes Polki sets much more expensive but also that much more lustrous.
Meenakari–A very famous style brought to India from Persia and perfected by the Sonar or Sohail caste of Kshatriyas, this process involves the creation of intricate and colourful designs on the front or back of an ornament using enamels of different colours. An elaborate process by itself, meenakari can be worked on Kundan jewelry or stand alone.
Jadau–This is actually not a type of jewelry like Kundan and Polki. However, it is often confused with those two. Jadau is a type of technique used to create jewelry. In this technique, the jewelry is made by softening gold and then setting precious stones on to it. When the gold hardens, the stones adhere to it without the help of any adhesive.
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Actually any type of jewelry looks great in this style. A simple necklace with a pendant, a choker, light and heavy earrings, chandbalis, bracelets, rings and sometimes even toe rings. The association of Kundan with royalty in people’s minds ensures that there is a great demand for this type of work all over the country. The Indian wedding season, which lasts from September to January, only heightens the demand. The enduring popularity of Kundan is also augmented by Bollywood movies, the most famous examples being ‘Jodhaa Akbar’ and ‘Ram Leela’, in which actors Aishwarya Rai and Deepika Padukone, respectively, wore elaborate jewelry in this style. And who can forget the timeless Rekha in the classic ‘Umrao Jaan?’
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How Much Does It Cost?
While Kundan is less expensive than Polki due to the presence of glass instead of uncut diamonds, it is by no means cheap. Jewelry pieces can start from a minimum of Rs.50, 000. The price is dependent upon the type of stone being used. Obviously pieces that use glass stones will be cheaper than those that employ rubies, emeralds or sapphires.
For those who are unable to spend this much, a reasonable alternative is imitation Kundan jewelry. This is the same thing except without the 24 carat gold. Instead metals such as silver or even copper are used, making this type of jewelry much more affordable.
How Do I Differentiate Between Imitation And The Real Thing?
Of course, the popularity of Kundan has its downside – namely, the possibility that you are being cheated. So how can one tell the difference between real and fake? Here are a few ways.
• Look for the BIS hallmark. This consists of the BIS logo, a three digit number that indicates the purity of the gold, the logo of the assaying center, a code that tells you the date of hallmarking and the logo or code of the jeweller.
• If you’ve bought silver jewelry and it hasn’t changed colour after a few weeks, it’s fake. However, if you’ve bought gold and it changes colour, it isn’t gold.
• The magnet test can also work on certain fakes. Simply bring a magnet close to the jewelry. If the ornament is attracted to the magnet it is fake.
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The popularity of Kundan work has endured for centuries and has only increased in the last few years. This is not surprising considering the regality and beauty of the jewelry. Even a simple set can bestow an air of royalty from a bygone era upon the wearer.