Among his many showstoppers: a cuff made from 170 carats of rubies, so seamlessly inlaid with diamonds that it resembles enamel; a flower ring pieced together from delicately sliced diamond petals; and his final creation, a branch necklace fashioned from emerald dew drops and diamond leaves that dance in the breeze. Dotted with diamonds or pierced like lace, the backs of his designs were as outstanding as the fronts. “Why should I pay for this?” a customer once asked Kasliwal, figuring what wasn’t readily visible wasn’t all that important. “Why do you buy expensive underwear?” he retorted.
But customers need not have purchased anything for Kasliwal to like them. Their delight in the beauty of his gems was enough to earn them an invitation to the back terrace for a cappuccino—or to his country house for a dinner. “The food would always be served around midnight in these big, beautiful bowls,” recalls the interior designer Muriel Brandolini. “We would all gather around a fire pit, seated on pillows, with blankets wrapped around us. And there was Munnu, with an enormous smile, making sure everyone was happy and everything was perfect.”
Kasliwal advanced contemporary design in the family business with that same sense of perfectionism. Before Kasliwal, jewels of the subcontinent consisted almost entirely of diamonds, pearls, rubies, and emeralds. He brought semiprecious stones like tourmaline, amethyst, and peridot into the picture, shaping them into the briolette and rose cuts ordinarily reserved for finer gems. “Most Indian jewelers would reproduce what their grandfather had done,” says Marie-Hélène de Taillac, who began working with Kasliwal on her own jewelry line in 1996 (her first New York shop just opened on the Upper East Side). “He wanted to change, to move forward.”
“I never thought of it as Indian jewelry,” says Julie Gilhart, the former fashion director of Barneys New York, which began selling Kasliwal’s designs in 2002. “The store was looking for something exquisite and high level—that’s where he came in.”
Among Kasliwal’s proudest achievements was creating a collection to complement the exhibition of Mughal art at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2001. Despite the economic standstill following September 11, his pieces flew off the gift shop’s shelves. Three years later, Nicole Kidman appeared on the cover of Vogue wearing a double-strand diamond necklace of his confection—a coup for any designer, let alone one based in India.
“My father had a huge role in changing American opinions of Indian jewelry—he was really the first to give it international recognition,” says Kasliwal’s elder son, Siddharth, who now helms the business. “He took it to another level.” Adds Brandolini: “The thing about jewelry in India is that it’s elaborate and colorful, and it mesmerizes you while you’re there. But once you get home, it’s too ethnic and you can’t really wear it. Munnu modernized Indian jewelry—you can wear his pieces every day and everywhere, and they always look stunning.”