One doesn’t make a quick trip to the Gem Palace. A maze of rooms filled with mounds of precious baubles casually strewn across cloth-covered tables, the jewelry emporium in Jaipur, India, is a menagerie of exquisite bling where the hours pass unnoticed. Awestruck shoppers have been known to miss flights to prolong their sprees there, and company lore has it that both Oprah Winfrey and Bill Clinton made just two stops when they came to town: the airport and the Gem Palace. A veritable who’s who of international royals, aristocrats, fashion designers, and celebrities—among them Princess Diana, Mick Jagger, Loulou de la Falaise, and Angelina Jolie—has also dropped by. “Spend an afternoon at the Gem Palace and half the world would come through,” says Madeline Weinrib, whose vibrant rugs decorate its floors.
What drew these heavy hitters, beyond the place’s treasures, was the man who had presided over it all for the past two decades: Munnu Kasliwal, a Willy Wonka–esque character in a white linen kurta, whose family has served as the crown jewelers to the country’s maharajas since the mid-18th century. A small man with a childlike demeanor, Kasliwal, who died in August of brain cancer at age 54, could often be found in his second-floor atelier excitedly draping unsuspecting visitors with his opulent bijoux as though they were Mardi Gras beads. “I love seeing how our creations come alive when worn,” he said in Eric Deroo’s 2011 book Munnu: Irresistible Jewels. To that end, he would encourage clients to sport his jewels on the subway: “No one will ever think they’re real,” he’d reason. He called his knockout pieces “T-shirt necklaces,” believing they looked best when paired with one.
Inspired by Indian architecture, Imperial Russian jewels, flora, fauna, and “anything with a certain fluidity,” Kasliwal’s one-of-a-kind pieces were the fanciful designs of an artist, not of a businessman. He was among the few in an increasingly mechanized industry to do everything by hand. And when it came to stones, he preferred old ones, flaws and all, which he sourced from around the globe—rubies from Mozambique, emeralds from Colombia, rare diamonds from the depths of India’s fabled Golconda mines. He’d often gamble on their worth, buying them for millions in their rough rocks-in-a-sack state. (Having been given boxes of them by his father to grade since he was a child, he knew intuitively what was of good quality.) Then, under Kasliwal’s guidance, his small army of skilled craftsmen, seated barefoot and cross-legged on the floor, would cut the dusty gems with electric machines and mount them into one of the immensely elaborate designs he was constantly sketching on scraps of paper. “They realized the unimaginable—from a hunk of rock,” says Jana Pasquel, the president of the company.