The jewels of Jaipur

Using centuries-old techniques and designs, Jaipur's gemstone industry is still going strong. Meet the region's craftsmen.

In the heart of Jaipur's Pahar Ganj quarter, and within the pink walls of the Old City's criss-crossed bazaars, one of the Rajasthani capital's oldest industries thrives. In tiny workshops and emporiums, jewellery designers and craftsmen shape and polish the gemstones and precious metals on which Jaipur's gem trade rests, patiently working rough stones into brilliant jewels. One trader explains: "This work is centuries old, and the traditions have made Jaipur's gem trade famous around the world. You won't find anything like it anywhere else."

Johari Bazaar, one of Jaipur's premiere gem trade centres, is crammed with tiny emporiums. Each sells ornate wedding jewellery, heavy strings of precious and semi-precious stones, traditional Rajasthani ornamentation and Jaipur's signature meenakari: lacquered and coloured enamelled pieces often inlaid with precious gems. A walk through Johari is dangerous for your purse - traders promise heavy discounts on the Tibetan turquoise, African garnets and tourmaline and citrine stones from Jaipur that hang in thick strands in shop windows or nestle in tiny boxes, brilliantly-cut edges glinting.

A short walk from the pink-hued and fluted walls of one of Jaipur's most famous buildings, the Hawa Mahal, or Wind Palace, in the heart of the Old City, is Rakesh Khandelwal's Gems Art jewellery store. "We import from all over the world," Khandelwal says, spilling Tibetan turquoise beads and lapis lazuli stones from Afghanistan across a glass counter. "These cost between 15 and 100 rupees (Dh1-8) a gram, and the precious stones much more, depending on weight, clarity and the type of cut used. The stones are brought here and then shaped by Jaipur craftsmen - they're very well-trained, traditional craftsmen.

"Also we stock and make a large range of traditional Rajasthani jewellery, especially necklaces made from small, diamond-shaped semi-precious stones. We use colour patterns and styles that have been used and developed over two, maybe three centuries now. There's a huge mix of modern and classical design." The history of Jaipur's gem industry stretches back to the reign of Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh in the first half of the 18th century. He was responsible for much of the city's physical and economic growth, and he invited jewellers from across India to come to the city as a way of sustaining Jaipur's flourishing gem and jewellery trade.

Despite the obvious appeal of the jewellery on offer, there have been times when the industry has struggled to stay afloat. The international conflicts in the first half of the 20th century caused a sharp drop in the availability of gemstone imports, the growth of foreign markets, and the development of the synthetic jewellery industry. However, the development of strong gem workers' associations, and a commitment to continuing the high-quality training and import business that supports Jaipur's locally vital trade, has cemented the importance of the contemporary industry.

Often coming from a long line of jewellers, contemporary gem craftsmen are based in workshops around the Old City's Pahar Ganj and Bapu Bazaar areas, traditionally a Muslim quarter. These skilled craftsmen cut and shape almost 90 per cent of the gemstones used in India's gem and jewellery trade. Very few of these gems are mined in India, and Jaipur's traders run a huge import industry to keep the local trade running.

Globally imported, the gems are then cut and polished to local specifications in the city's workshops, where entire families can be employed. Jahangeer Khan and his family run the Almas Jewellers in Pahar Ganj, cutting and shaping stones in tiny workshops behind their gem-filled store. "Most of the jewellers and gem stores are family run, like ours, so we work at home, and then we sell the stones here too. This area is a Muslim area, where a lot of skilled craftsmen and families live, and have a history of being based, and these streets are famous for the gem industry. There are a lot of workshops and stores, all family run."

From behind his lathe, Khan explains the process of turning something ordinary into something exquisite. "A lot of our stones are imported - we take some from India but they come largely from Brazil and Africa and a lot of the stones are bought and shipped in from markets in Bangkok. "The stones are first cut to size, then we take out impurities, spots, blemishes," he says, slicing a rough-cut lemon topaz stone in half, and then shearing away jagged edges, fingers dangerously close to the spinning circular blades.

Momentarily checking the rapidly changing size and shape of the stone for imperfections, Khan hews the gem into something approaching a square, and then moves to a second machine. "There are a few stages - cutting, rough shaping, and then we start shaping more closely, to get sharper edges, a flat base, a perfect circle - and then finally we polish and buff the gems into the jewels you see in the shop, ready to be bought or made up into pieces of jewellery," he explains.

After being cut to size, gem workers use circular lathes to sand and shape the gems into recognisable cuts, sharp edged and multi-faced to reflect as much light as possible. Chemical solutions are then used to polish and buff them, revealing the flawless shape and transparency achieved by gem craftsmen. Khan's family deal in a huge array of gems, from semi-precious lapis lazuli and turquoise which sells for around Rs20 per carat, to finely-cut and sparkling diamonds, which sell for around Rs10,000 per carat.

Cheaper and equally dazzling gems are also on offer - a hefty 154-carat lemon topaz gem costs around Rs3,000 and elegant pink tourmaline sells for Rs4,000 per carat. As well as working to craft an array of stunningly polished and cut gemstones, Khan's family work with silver and gold to create a range of ready-to-wear jewellery, and sell huge strings of onyx and opal-coloured beads. "We use gold and silver work to make the gems into necklaces, bracelets, rings - so you can buy a stone and then have a unique design crafted here - and the metalwork is not expensive, so many people chose to have something made for them."

Exporting entirely to foreign markets, Kahn explains the wholesale industry forms the bulk of the family's trade. "We ship abroad - America, Europe, particularly France, Italy and Greece, and elsewhere. And we frequently deal with the tourist trade and foreign buyers. A lot of Jaipur's industry exists for the export trade, and it is very lucrative." Jaipur's gem trade is not just a sparkling claim to fame, or celebrated tradition, but also a highly valued export industry. Estimates this week by Jaipur's Gem and Jewellery Export Promotion Council Chairman, Vasant Mehta, put the city's total gem export value at just over $21 million (Dh77m) for the 2008-09 financial year, declaring: "The contribution of gem and jewellery industry to the Indian economy is undeniable."

The revenue generated by the Jaipur's gem industry is one of the highest contributors to the national exchequer, drawing in around 14 per cent of the total revenue generated by merchandise exports. The substantial economic clout the industry carries is attracting ever-increasing national support and investment. Sweeping efforts to establish India's first National Manufacturing and Investment Zone in Rajasthan announced recently are aimed squarely at Rajasthani trade and exports, and regional government pledges, also made recently, have promised both land and increasing support from the legislature for the gem industry.

Although several Johari Bazaar traders lamented a fall in sales, Khan explains how the industry continues to enjoy wholesale success. "We're selling in huge volumes around the world - we have buyers coming from Delhi this week - and wholesale traders buy huge volumes of all types of jewel. "It's where a lot of serious gem traders make their money, so although some shops see a drop, the wholesale market is still very important, and it makes up most of our trade.

Khan adds: "Also this is Jaipur's most famous industry, and the centre of India's gem trade. We have the most skilled well-trained craftsmen and we create a huge range of jewellery. The industry is an ancient one, and it is still vital to the city."