Meenakaari – An Ancient Indian Jewellery Tradition

The word ‘meenakaari’ is derived from the Persian word mina or minoo, which means ‘heaven or paradise’ and kaari means “to do” and together it means to put or place paradise in an object. The history of meenakaari can be traced back to the Sassanid period in Persia where a few notes have been made by a Frenchman who toured Persia under the rule of Safavid and made references to an enamel work of Isfahan.


However, it is believed that it is the Mughals who introduced this to India. It was further expanded and patronized by Shah Jahan and through the nobleman Raja Man Singh of Mewar who brought in highly skilled craftsmen from Lahore, Rajasthan soon became the capital of meenakaari trade.


It is believed that meenakaari work was originally used to adorn walls, pillars and roofs but the wives of the emperor were fascinated with the colours and the intricate details and soon asked for it to be a part of their jewellery.


The process of creating a meenakaari piece is extremely complex and requires great skill and precision of a designer called a chitera, a goldsmith who engraves the design, an enamelist who applies the colour, a polisher, a stone-setter and a stringer. The metal sheet on which meenakaari work is to be done is first fixed on a piece of lac. The design is then engraved onto it by the meenakaars using a metal stylus. This creates the necessary indentations and small wall-like surfaces on the metal because of the presence of the lac underneath. It is these grooves that hold the colour. The enamel is then poured into the grooves and colours are fired one by one. This causes the enamel to melt and spread within the cavity. Once the last colour has been fired, the metal is cooled and polished. Thereafter a mixture of lemon and tamarind is used to gently rub the surface and get the lustre of each colour.


Enamel colours chiefly consist of metal oxides mixed with a tint of finely powdered glass. The colour yellow is obtained by using chromate of potash, violet is obtained through carbonate of manganese, green through copper oxide, blue through cobalt oxide, brown through red oxide, and black through manganese, iron, and cobalt. The brilliant red is the most difficult colour to be created. The colours are applied on the metal as per their level of hardness keeping the hardest as the first. Before the application of enamel, it is necessary to clean the surface of the object. The mixtures are fired in the kiln at an average temperature of around 850 degrees Celsius to get the true colours.


The base metal for meenakaari work has predominantly been silver because it works best with enamel. However, today one can find meenakaari work on a wide range of metals like gold, copper and white metal.


The most fascinating quality of this jewellery lies in its reversibility and the wearer can enjoy different patterns in the same piece of jewellery.


Written by Lakshmi Subramanian


* Photos are only symbolic (Taken from public domain/internet and any copyright infringement is unintentional and regrettable)

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