Hidden gems of Belgium, Italy and India
De Beers may keep its bling buried, but fine-jewellery collections are finding public homes in cities such as Antwerp and Jaipur
If you want to feel safe living in a big city, you could do worse than London's diamond district, where among the pageant of merchants and affianced couples, men lurk in doorways, perfectly average-looking save for the spiral surveillance earpieces rising from their collars. I lived there for two years without knowing just how much loot was stowed away in those vaults – just that if any trouble did come along, it wasn't looking for me, and it would likely be sorted. Quickly.
With the De Beers headquarters in Hatton Garden beginning its relocation to lower rents across town, it's emerged that some $6.5-billion in uncut diamonds could be found in its subterranean vaults at any time – a few weeks' supply, apparently. At the company's peak, 90 per cent of the world's diamonds passed through the building – De Beers stockpiled them here to control the market.
You could earn a small fortune charging for tickets to view that sort of bling – but De Beers doesn't deal in small fortunes. Of course, the majority of the world's bijoux will never reach the eyeballs of the third estate. The stash of gold at the Federal Reserve Bank and Fort Knox are legendarily garrisoned. In the case of a $1-trillion treasure believed to be lying beneath the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Kerala, India, well, it may never see the light of day in our lifetime. And most fine-jewellery purchases take place secreted away in bodyguarded VIP suites.
Beyond skulking around Tiffany & Co., however, there are ways to get up close with sparklers many of those more fortunate would, literally, take to their grave – and not only with ye olde tour of the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London. Fine-jewellery collections are finding new homes around the world, and they're worth mining if you plan to be nearby.
Of the world's top diamond exchanges, Antwerp's is perhaps the most compact and amenable to tourism. Recognizing this, the Flemish golden-age city recently consolidated its diamond, gem, gold and silver stores in a supercollection that will debut to the public as DIVA, a new townhouse museum around the corner from the gilded 16th-century town hall.
The launch – planned in two phases between December, 2017, and May, 2018 – coincides with Diamond Year, a celebration of Antwerp's 570-year history in the diamond trade. At the forefront will be 80 interactive screens flashing key moments in the history of gem exchange. But the pièces de résistance will be the fierce collection of jewels – egregious colonists, the Belgians seem to have been obsessed with the animal kingdom: peacock brooches, snake bracelets, silver owls and such. Director Jeroen Martens is quick to point out that, together with the city's Diamond Year organizers, the museum will own up to its ignominious history of falsification and campaign against modern perpetrators in the industry.
And so to Italy. Considering much of Europe's finest jewellery traces its inspiration back to ancient Rome, it's astonishing that no one museum in Italy ever dedicated itself to the rich history of jewels – until now. In 2014, Italy's first Museo del Gioiello opened temporarily in a colonnade-wrapped basilica in Vicenza, a city of Palladian villas between Venice and Verona in the fertile Veneto region. And this year, it reopens with a modernized interior by the Spanish designer Patricia Urquiola and 10 new displays curated by international jewellery experts, from New York's Museum of Art and Design to Van Cleef & Arpels in Paris.
Organized chronologically, spanning the pre-Roman to the contemporary, Museo del Gioiello's second incarnation features lobe-tugging Iron Age earrings, Masonic brooches, decadent pop-art pendants, bronze arm amulets and arty adornments by Alexander Calder and Gianni Versace. It's open now through the end of 2018.
Further afield, in Jaipur, India, jewellers and collectors Rajiv Arora and Rajesh Ajmera are putting the final touches to their museum, which next month will begin exhibiting choice pieces from the vaults of their successful retail chain Amrapali. In a country where certain social classes consider jewellery to be as essential as clothing, Jaipur is the unofficial jewellery capital. The museum-like Gem Palace, a veteran jewellery emporium where familiar faces such as Susan Sarandon and Gwyneth Paltrow turn up in shalwar kameez for photo ops, is a few blocks down the road. But not even Gem Palace has officially opened up the archives for public viewing. The Amrapali's new 6,500-square-foot gallery, next door to the company's headquarters, will be the first.
It will display more than 2,000 silver baubles, going back five centuries, plus antique jewelled slippers, men's wedding tiaras, perfume rings, bondage-reminiscent mouthpieces, matha patti head coverings and enamelled ear covers that make earrings seem quaint. Having it here, in the heart of the Pink City's jewellery quarter, may cut down on the number of plebs popping in on retailers to rubberneck polki-set diamond trinkets. And that's good for everyone. But it does make me wonder what they're not showing us.