Jewellers to kings and queens: Meet Two young Kasliwals whose business dates back to the Mughal era
Two young Kasliwals now hold the reins of a ninth-generation business that counts monarchs, tycoons and celebrities among patrons.
The owners have let the interiors remain traditional, with a grand, yet lived-in feel, and a faint whiff of antiquity. The store retains the wall linings and furniture that feature in monochrome photographs from decades ago. Glass cabinets showcase glittering creations that have helped this shop earn the kind of clientele few other jewellers in India can boast of.
Generations of global elite have patronised The Gem Palace creations. Princess Diana, Jackie Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Judy Dench, Goldie Hawn, Mick Jagger, Bo Derek, Oprah Winfrey, Nicole Kidman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kendall Jenner and the Olsen Twins have all been patrons, quite apart from figures of imperial Britain, such as Louis Mountbatten.
“It takes generations to build a business and just one to bring it down,” says Siddharth Kasliwal, the ninth-generation jeweler who runs an appointments-only atelier on the first floor of the store. The ground floor, which houses the walk-in store, is helmed by his cousin Samir Kasliwal. Samir’s late father Sanjay and Siddharth’s late father Munnu, both jewellery designers, built the store’s global reputation. Now the cousins, both in their mid-30s, single and sought after, celebrated on Instagram and fashion magazine covers, must helm the family heirloom, at a time when jewellery tastes are undergoing tectonic shifts.
There have been murmurs about a rift in the family for a long time. Munnu and Sanjay both set up separate stores in New York and the latter was cross that he couldn’t use The Gem Palace name in the US because his brother had registered it first. Munnu’s reputation was a cut above Sanjay’s both for his unconventional designs and an earthy charm that New York elites and society queens were drawn to.
The business of selling high-end jewellery to the whimsical and moneyed, afterall, is rooted in relationships. Sanjay, who passed away earlier this year, had deep links in Italy, where his wife Andrea hails from. Famous Italian families such as Ferragamos and Agnellis (owners of Fiat Automobiles and Juventus FC) are said to be clients. But for now, the children of the brothers carry on business in uneasy harmony, running separate operations while remaining partners in the overall business. Samir’s sister Shalini runs the boutique in New York. Sudhir, a brother of the elder Kasliwals, still handles accounts. The business has 24 outlets in India and boutiques in Istanbul, LA, Atlanta, Bologna, Paris and Tokyo, apart from the two in New York’s Madison Avenue.
Samir told this reporter that there were no differences within the family. “We are together.”
He shows me a visitors’ book at the store. “See, here is a signature from when Princess Diana of Wales and Prince Charles bought from us in 1992, and here’s one from when Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles came in 2017,” he says, with a smile. The Kasliwal family have been jewellers for nine generations. It first made a reputation in the Mughal courts of Agra. When Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II founded the city of Jaipur in 1725 and set out to make it a hub of artists and craftsmen, the family was among those invited and served as jewel makers at his court, working within the palace walls. It moved to a spot in the city in 1852, where it remains today. The store we see today was built in 1923.
The location proved fortuitous for Kasliwals’ success. If the past gave them royal patronage, more recent years has seen Jaipur emerging as a major global centre for the trading, cutting and polishing of semi-precious stones, particularly for emerald. This means the jewelers in this city gets ready access to the best gems as well as cutting and polishing facilities. The Kasliwal family also scours the world’s mines in search of the rarest of stones.
“Customers come to us because we can customise large-sized pieces. They cannot find this anywhere else, or even in terms of stones because being in the business for such a long time my family started collecting from Zambia, Colombia, Kashmir, Burma, We have a good collection of stones because my family’s been in this business for a long time,” Samir says. The work can be intricate and time consuming. “Our style is unique.
Something like this takes nine months of my time — normally that would be three workers sitting next to each other because there’s one setting the diamonds, one making filigree and one creating the setting,” Samir says, showing this reporter a necklace his store made for a friend’s wedding. Some of the signature creations of The Gem Palace can cost upwards of several crores of rupees. “Middle Eastern royalty, I would say, are the biggest spenders in absolute numbers,” says Samir. “They buy wedding sets and heavy jewellery—often rose cut diamonds. On an average, Americans are the biggest spenders… We have pieces starting from Rs 5 lakh. There is no upper limit.
I’ve seen a Kashmiri sapphire that sold for Rs 7 crore. But that was once in my lifetime.” Indian customers contribute only 15-20% of sales. This can sometimes pose a problem. Reviews of the store on TripAdvisor are full of overseas visitors praising it and thanking them for their hospitality, and Indian customers complaining about rudeness and indifference. Samir did not respond to a text message seeking a response, but then customer profiling is hardly uncommon at high-end stores across categories.
The cousins have other challenges to deal with. Technology has ushered in new connections with customers. Wealthy, eager customers now have The Gem Palace owners on speed dial. Sometimes orders come in through WhatsApp and Instagram. But the attitude towards has undergone a shift and that’s a concern.
“Wealth is more widespread in society now but it’s not the easiest business to be in right now,” says Siddharth. “Earlier, jewellery was looked at as an investment but now a lot of people are treating it as an expense… People are opting more for experiences than timeless pieces… No one wants the Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor style romance anymore. Buy a necklace? No way! They would rather go heliskiing and pay $50,000 for it rather than buy a necklace.”
Smaller, more subtle jewellery is becoming more fashionable. That’s not a trend favourable to houses such as The Gem Palace, known for pieces that make a statement.
But neither cousins have reasons to be worried. Creations at the top of the jewellery pyramid will always have takers, hopefully. For now, they are busy taking the business forward, remaining mindful of their heritage.
“This is as an institution, a sort of museum,” says Samir. He shows off an exquisite green parrot with ruby and diamond-encrusted enameling, a piece his father bought back from a customer. It will be put in a future museum of the family. What is the price? A buyer once offered over a crore but it isn’t for sale.
But the boutique isn’t just about its jewellery though. A number of artifacts, curios, bejewelled swords, golf clubs and mystique gems are on display on the ground floor. Sanjay was said to have been particular that customers who walk in should be able to buy something, even if they aren’t uber-wealthy.
Samir pulls out a gunny bag full of emerald stones that have been mined from Mozambique, Zambia and parts of South Africa and are waiting to be polished.
“The beauty of it, really, is that we are not traditional jewellers anymore. We are modern and yet don’t want to lose that this identity of tradition which can be seen from the way the building is. It’s kept the same way, so it’s something that I want to preserve as our main base. But in the future, I suppose it will mean expanding across various other parts of the country,” he says.
Upstairs, the second floor atelier where Siddharth works out of, somber shades of pastels are replaced by modern straightlines, bright pinks and golds. It is decidedly more bright and lively. Dutch fashion designer Marie-Anne Oudejans worked on the studio about two years ago and themed it as an ode to the Pink City.
Siddharth has just received orders on WhatsApp from a group of women customers in Delhi. His store is appointment-only, but orders can flow in without a customer visiting.
He says he is exhausted because he was up late the previous night, attending a party thrown by the Bamfords family, owners of JCB.
Unending socialising can be one of the downsides of being a sought after jeweller. “I am exhausted. I flew back last night from Egypt for this event because they wanted us there. Their family has been shopping with us for generations. But, even if you are exhausted, you have to attend these events. We aren’t like traditional jewellers who shut shop and go home at the end of a day,” he says, showing this reporter pictures of himself standing on top of a camel in Egypt.
The Kasliwals are trying very hard to preserve a part of history with their karigars or craftsmen who have also worked with the family as long as the business has been around. So far, the chain remains unbroken, jobs are being passed on from father to son, just like in the Kasliwal family. “Generations of these craftsmen have been with our family. But I fear that the next generation may be gone because they would much rather have their children work in banks than with us. And some skills like meenakari work might disappear within the next generation,” says Samir.
Siddharth is more optimistic. The company is training more craftsmen in their homestyle back of house. “A very important part of the company’s success story is that we are based in Jaipur. This city was built for artists and craftsmen. I don’t think The Gem Palace would be The Gem Palace if it were based in Delhi or Bombay.”