Washington Life Magazine
Washington Life Magazine

The Pearls of India
The Baroda Pearls shatter the world auction record for a natural jewel

The proliferation of wealth currently being amassed by hedge fund managers has resulted in a display of opulent living that harkens back to the days of the wealthy industrialists at the turn of the century. But even before the robber barons or, more recently, the Internet millionaires and hedge fund managers of today, the Maharajas of India’s royal families had untold wealth and riches. Most notably, the Maharajas of Baroda were known to have wealth of mythical proportions that included legendary jewels. The desire of the Maharajas to acquire flawless pearls for their crown jewels seemed limitless. In the 19th century, one such collector was Khande Rao Gaekwar, the Maharaja of Baroda, whose collection of state jewels was unsurpassed at that time. This famed necklace, referred to as the Baroda Pearls, came to be a prized possession of the royal family. It was considered to be one of the most important pieces in their collection and its luminous pearls, originally designed to include seven strands, represented the wealth and power of the Gaekwars. Many decades later, in 1943, the Baroda Maharaja Pratapsingh Rao (r.1939-1947) made headlines when he left his wife to marry a 26- year-old woman who was married to another man. Sita Devi, the new Maharani, had converted to Islam and then back again to Hindu in order to marry the Maharaja, and she became known by the media as the “Indian Wallis Simpson.” She went on to become one of the most flamboyant Maharanis in history and was known for her lavish taste, strong personality and passion for jewelry. When she married the Maharaja she received many jewels from the Baroda Royal Treasury dating back to the Mughal times including the Baroda Pearls. It is unclear as to when the necklace was refashioned into the two-strand necklace that we know today,
but what is known is that the Maharani Sita Devi wore the full seven-strand necklace in 1947, so the necklace was reconfigured some time after that date. Sita Devi left India and moved to Europe where she eventually divorced the Maharaja. Many of the exquisite jewels that she had been given by the Maharaja were sold; however, the Baroda Pearls were known to have remained as part of the Baroda Royal Treasury. In 1971, Indira Ghandi abolished the titles and privileges of Indian princes and many of the Indian royals moved to Europe. There is no way of knowing which jewels from the Baroda Royal Treasury were sold privately when the era of the Maharajas finally came to an end; however, the Baroda Pearls mysteriously surfaced early this year when it was announced that an anonymous seller decided to offer them in Christie’s April 25th auction of Magnificent Jewelry. The pearls that make up the two strands are documented as being selected from the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh rows of the original seven-strand necklace. All sixty-eight radiating pearls measuring from approximately 9.47 to 16.04 mm were impeccably matched in color, luster, size and shape and were joined by an exquisite cushion-cut diamond clasp mounted by Cartier. A pearl necklace of such exceptional quality and provenance will likely never again be seen on the open market. The history of this necklace involves many mysteries. For one, who is the Asian collector who acquired the necklace in the Christie’s sale? Keep a look out, Washingtonians!



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