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The dueling princes of the Gem Palace.
On a recent morning when Siddharth Kasliwal came downstairs, his mother dropped a sheaf of papers on the table in front of him. “Potential brides,” he said later. “There were some party pictures, clippings about their families. My mother is getting impatient. There are 15 to 20 serious candidates, and already in my life I’ve met seven or eight of the girls.”
Siddharth, or Sid to his friends, is 31: handsome, cultured, deferential, occasionally preening — at once humbled and entitled by his privileged birthright as a ninth-generation co-owner of the Gem Palace, India’s most glamorous jewelry business. The Gem Palace was a sleepy favorite, before he was born, of Jackie Kennedy, Marella Agnelli, and Lord Mountbatten, among others. Now there are satellite boutiques around the world, including in Istanbul, Tokyo, and New York. His father, Munnu, and an uncle, Sanjay, were the public faces of the business for decades. But Munnu died of brain cancer in 2012 at 54, and Sanjay has spent much of the past few years receiving treatment in Europe for lymphoma. (The family attributes their illnesses to the cell-phone towers that used to stand near their home.) That has left the two oldest men of Sid’s generation — him, along with Sanjay’s son, Samir — as the cousins in whose uncallused hands the future of the Gem Palace rests.
“It’s more pressure, man, heavy-duty responsibility. But it’s a dream life,” Sid said over the late-breakfast buffet at Rambagh Palace, the last-days-of-the-Raj hotel in Jaipur where he often takes his meals. Still, without a bride, everything feels incomplete, unresolved, “as if I owe an outstanding debt to my parents.” He has no problem with the inevitability of an arranged marriage. “The logic of having two families join forces makes good sense, believe it or not,” he said. “In modern Indian society, you are introduced to a woman very formally, with mothers and fathers present, but from that point, you get together discreetly to see how you like one another. You say, ‘We are both adults here.’ ”
The other day, Sid was riding across town with some British clients visiting from Morocco — a lighting designer and his wife, a former model. Sid had his driver pull over beside a stucco hut that had been built into a gully. It was a tiny Muslim temple, and even though Sid and his family are Jains, he said, “whenever I pass this place I stop to make a wish because one of my best friends is Muslim.” He found a few coins and blew a kiss into his hand before tossing them out the window onto the building’s tin roof.
There were jokes all around about what kind of woman he’d wished for.
“Someone who will love me for my smile,” Sid said.
He threw more coins. “Someone who is kind, a pretty girl who will get along with my mother.”
One last handful of change went skyward, then landed with a gentle plink.
“And, of course, someone who will understand the legacy and complicated family dynamics of the Gem Palace.”
That turns out to be no small order. “It’s more like Peyton Palace — there’s so much intrigue in that family,” says Lisa Fine, an American textile designer and longtime friend of the Kasliwals. Adeline Roussel, a family friend and jewelry designer, says, “The Kasliwals are a movie, a soap opera, Bollywood.” And even though it’s a soap opera that Sid and Samir inherited from their fathers, it plays out mostly between the two of them, every day. When Sid returned from the temple to the canopied garage at the Gem Palace, he bumped — quite literally — into Samir, who had put in a long day already.
“What’s up, bro?” Sid said, putting a hand on Samir’s shoulder.
“Hello,” said Samir, without affecting any muscular movement that might suggest a reciprocal embrace. He stopped, looked at Sid, then walked away.
Sid and Samir are equal partners in their family business, but around the shop they seem barely on speaking terms. They say this has mostly to do with “a different business point of view,” and that friction alone is enough to explain plenty. Because although they share staff and facilities and buy gemstones together as co-owners (along with a few other relatives), Sid operates as an entirely separate concern, selling his wares through a by-appointment-only business. His production and those appointments take place upstairs at the Gem Palace, where he maintains a private lair. As Sid says, it’s complicated. Clients find it confusing, and employees (both the Gem Palace corps at large and Sid’s small personal retinue) consider it an unspoken article of faith — like a household a man shares equally with his wife and mistress, except that neither Sid nor his cousin is anything but a legitimate heir.
Confusing matters further is the fact that the two branches of the family have established dueling shops in New York. In 2014, Sanjay and his children (Samir has a younger sister, Shalini) opened a tiny storefront, which stocks Gem Palace items, under the name Sanjay Kasliwal, on Madison and 76th Street. This joined Munnu The Gem Palace, a studio established — by Munnu and Sid alone — on East 74th Street in 2006. Munnu The Gem Palace sells only Sid’s and his late father’s jewelry (but absolutely nothing you can buy at the “Sanjay Kasliwal” store or any of the Gem Palace retail spaces).
Sid offers a couple of commercial analogies for his arrangement. If the Gem Palace is Giorgio Armani, then the operation his father started is sort of the Armani Privé line. Or, he says, think of Destiny’s Child. “You’re in the group, but you want to be Beyoncé on your own,” he explains. “And after my father passed away, Sanjay opened his own store apart from the Gem Palace in New York. That was his choice.”
In response to that, Samir says, “My father is not the Beyoncé in this family. I think it’s very clear who is Beyoncé.”
Sid is petite and shaggy, with rustic facial hair, a wardrobe heavy on velvets, and a disarmingly youthful tendency toward self-acclaim (“That was pretty quick of me, wasn’t it?” is a typical follow-up to one of his own ripostes). Samir is tall and polished (six-foot-two to Sid’s five-seven), immaculate in bearing, profoundly reserved, and of a barely Subcontinental aesthetic. Because Samir’s mother is Italian, he spent much of his childhood in Bologna. When he speaks Hindi, Indians tend to respond in English. Sid refers to him as his Italian cousin, especially when acknowledging that Samir is, by three months, actually the older of the two, as in, “I’m the oldest Kasliwal man of my generation, not counting my Italian cousin.” Somebody like a Godfather-era Al Pacino could play Samir if there were ever a Westernized, Hollywood version of the Gem Palace story, and the role of Sid is probably meant for Russell Brand or another smoothie in the Austin Powers mold who could pull off a Nehru collar.
Though the two lived for years in the same large house on the outskirts of Jaipur, alongside their parents, siblings, cousins, grandmother, and another uncle and aunt, Samir took the radical step two years ago of moving by himself into an apartment building downtown. “I think after a certain age you just want to live on your own,” he explains. But food also played a role. “I was raised by my Italian grandmother eating meat. My father’s family are Jains” — whose ancient religion espouses nonviolence toward all of Earth’s creatures. “I tried to live in the veg house, but I couldn’t do it.”
Sid considers Samir’s move a rejection of Kasliwal values. “For me to live away from home like that would be not so cool,” Sid says. “But Samir’s not really Indian. So it’s probably different.”
The Kasliwals’ most devoted clientele are non-Indians. “They sell a lot to people from overseas who desire a piece of the Maharaja’s India — not to the modern customers of contemporary India, the everybody-wants-a-slice-of-the-pie class,” says Vinod Kuriyan, one of the founders of the jewelry-news site GEMKonnect. “It’s a very niche product. You might compare it to Bulgari or Chaumet before they were bought by LVMH — exclusive, historic, and with a strong persona behind the brand.”
People in the jewelry industry say that this rarefied quirkiness has helped insulate the Gem Palace from a declining emergingmarkets landscape for luxury goods and jewelry. The challenges are closer at hand — psychological, really. Can the two Kasliwal cousins uphold the traditions of the business, when the traditions include enchanting but also crippling dysfunction? “A divided house is not good for the company, obviously, because it’s so confusing to customers,” says Alejandra Cicognani, a publicist who has represented Sanjay in the past. “They need to straighten out their story.” Others, including many loyal clients, regard the schism as yet another exotic or curious facet of the Kasliwals’ existence. “Divided or not, I find them to be a wonderfully enduring family and business,” says Nico Landrigan, the young president of Verdura jewelry, who spent several months working for the Kasliwals in his teens. “It’s polychromatic chaos.”
Let’s imagine a diagram of a sprawling family tree. We’ll jump down the page past the first seven generations — stonecutters from Agra who came to Rajasthan in 1728 at the request of the emperor; crown jewelers to the Maharaja of Jaipur who toiled all day inside City Palace; entrepreneurs who in 1852 opened the Gem Palace, which today is housed in a yellow mansion on Mirza Ismail Road — all the way to the second line from the bottom. This was the springboard tier occupied by Sid’s and Samir’s fathers, who together took the business from a pedigreed tourist stop to an essential hub on the global sophisticate’s Eastern circuit. While their eldest brother, Sudhir, managed accounts, Munnu and Sanjay were avid jewelry designers and tireless hosts who came to occupy their roles in very different ways.
Sanjay can be formal and brusque and has always seen himself as a businessman as well as a designer; he plied the salesroom all day and designed more traditional Indian jewelry. The Kasliwals were hardly the only multigenerational jewelry dynasty in Jaipur, but their forebears had established access to a lot of the best material — diamonds originally from India’s old Golconda mines, emerald connections in Zambia and Colombia — and social standing to match. “Members of the royal family had been in business with our father for generations, and the princess would come every day for tea and to chat,” Sudhir says.
Munnu was especially skilled at leveraging the mystique of the Gem Palace to appeal to Westerners. He began to invite clients upstairs to see the workrooms where his ideas were brought to life, a warren of hallways — the gold unit, the stone unit — with dozens of craftsmen in numbered uniforms sitting on marble floors before grinding wheels, blowtorches, spools of 24-karat-gold wire like stereo cables, and buckets of lapis lazuli the size of paving stones. “You can design a ring at 6:30 in the morning and have it by 2 p.m. here,” Sid explains. “Talk about vertically integrated. The guy on 47th Street would say, ‘I’m sorry. I have to send it out to get cut, and somewhere else for polishing, and my family’s waiting back in New Jersey.’ ”
Sanjay was of the mind that no customer should leave the Gem Palace empty-handed, so the display cases were lined with $200 elephant charms as well as one-offs like the 200-year-old ruby-studded headpiece that, when reversed, displayed 1,500 carats of rose-cut diamonds (and which is still available, at a price somewhere north of $1 million). Munnu, more of a dreamer, began to improvise, mashing up Indian standards with a distinctly current and European sensibility to create fanciful and expensive things: a gold cuff bracelet with emeralds arranged in a lotus pattern against an intricate background of 200 carats of rubies, fitted together such that they appeared to form an enamel surface; a necklace of 133 carats of antique emeralds, with tassels made out of hundreds of tiny pearls; a “naughty necklace” of diamonds and colored gemstones, featuring a hinged pendant that opened to display a hand-painted scene from the Kama Sutra. All of them were in the range of $300,000 or more.
Another favorite, the $58,000 “nugget necklace,” contains large, irregularly shaped rubies on a thick strand of diamonds. “It has 15,000 diamond pieces altogether, a total of 92 carats, and it became super-popular,” Sid says. “It takes a team of five to seven people about three months to make it. A man can set 80 pieces a day, because he has to find the right size and shape to fit my father’s sketch. In ten days, 800 pieces. It’s madness, right?”
It was mostly Munnu’s designs that were featured in exhibitions at London’s Somerset House and the Kremlin Museums and that came to be sold at Barneys and were commissioned by the gift shops at the Neue Galerie and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And it was Munnu who was celebrated for the double-strand, polki-diamond necklace that adorned Nicole Kidman’s naked back on the cover of Vogue in 2004, “in a gesture both elegant and punk,” the New York Times noted in Munnu’s obituary, “as though she’d been draped in glistening bicycle chains.”
Both Munnu and Sanjay cultivated socialites and movie stars — Goldie Hawn, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sharon Stone, Camilla Parker Bowles, Mick Jagger — but Munnu was better at it. “Munnu was so charming I can’t describe it, except to say that when he spoke he became the most powerful person in the room, in this family, on this Earth,” says their cousin Pappu, known to customers as the blue-eyed Kasliwal who beckons every day at the front door as he enjoys his morning cigarette. “Sanjay is very structured, very disciplined. It’s a different character.” Lisa Fine describes him as “wildly interesting and smart but kind of raw compared to Munnu. Munnu was the chic one, and he played the part.”
Harry Fane, a dealer of antique Cartier pieces in London, says, “In the ’80s, there were three big attractions that everybody had to see when they went to India: the Taj Mahal, the Rajmata of Jaipur” — the late princess Gayatri Devi, who functioned in the northern Indian imagination as something akin to Jackie Kennedy — “and the Gem Palace. The Rajmata’s son introduced me to Munnu, and the three of us would spend long afternoons at the royal fort, then gather every night at Gem Palace to see who would come round. It was a very energetic and amusing place to go. We’d sort of sift through these bags of gemstones and listen to Munnu’s stories about where they came from.”
It became a treasured rite to get summoned to Munnu’s studio, the sanctuary where he sketched and held court. Shortly after Munnu began his partnership with the Met in 2001, he moved upstairs to sell his own creations to customers by appointment but refused to have anything to do with the Gem Palace shop itself (except to remain an equal-ownership partner, alongside his brothers, in its revenue). And while Munnu and Sanjay continued to reside in the family house with older and younger generations of Kasliwals, they stopped speaking to each other. The rift was mysterious and rarely acknowledged by relatives or clients. “But it was parallel planets,” Roussel says.
The friction between Munnu and Sanjay has repeated and recombined by way of their sons, whose sensibilities and views of the Kasliwal legacy have diverged further. Though they come from the same patrilineal heritage, they were born to different classes by virtue of their different mothers: Sid fully inhabits the role of some wayward, bohemian royal, trading on his birthright, insisting that his only obligations are to art and beauty, honoring his father at the expense of his relationships with the others; Samir is the bourgeois European mercantilist, dutifully pumping out well-made products without airs. The whole thing is familiar to their long-standing customers, though it lacks the polish or authenticity of the previous generation’s dramatis personae. So that what was once a grand and dynamic rivalry now feels like merely its younger iteration, the same thing but a little bit spoiled and diluted.
Sid on the job: a typical weekday. Start with golf at the Rambagh club or tennis at the Ashok club, head to his upstairs studio to await inspiration, take lunch on the terrace, where his chef from home sends a stack of metal tiffin boxes by car at midday. Every night he’s in town, he puts on a dinner (or, before it was banned, a game of elephant polo) for whoever is coming through: socialites, royals, school chums, wealthy shoppers. Or sometimes several of the above in a single wellborn visitor, such as the elegant woman who sat before him one recent afternoon, Amita Birla. She was visiting from Delhi, and he addressed her as “Auntie.”
“The Birlas are like the Rockefellers of India,” he said later. “There’s a saying in India when you see someone wearing a new jacket or expensive shoes and you go, ‘What are you, a Birla?’ You notice she never asks the price once?”
Birla, who was in Jaipur for a business conference, had on Capri pants in a print that matched her Goyard handbag. Sid showed her large diamonds for a necklace, giant Zambian emeralds for a broach, and some other pieces he’d been working on for her, including a playful ring with an enormous lemon-quartz centerpiece. She was not thrilled by his ideas at first. He motioned silently toward a closet, and a barefoot attendant emerged bearing a tray of more jewelry and several plastic tubs of loose stones labeled with masking tape: FIRE OPAL, GOLD FINDINGS, EMERALD (ROUGH).
“These are from Papa,” Sid said. “It’s not rocket science. We can make whatever you want.”
“Will you just put your brain on it and send me some pictures of what you mean by ‘Art Deco’?” Birla said. He showed her elaborate diamond earrings in a tree-of-life design. “Oh, those I like,” Birla said. “That kind of dangling is nice.”
Sid’s secretary, who had worked for his father, sat quietly with her legs folded and was scarcely heard from, except to usher an ant away from the desk. “Go that way! Go that way!” (“It’s a Jain office,” she explained. “You can’t kill bugs.”)
“A person needs to be up here where the magic happens,” Sid said. “I spent the last two or three years before my father died up here. No sales. He made me go to watch a fruit vendor and see that when the customer picks up the fruit, half the job for the vendor is done. All he has to do is name the price.”
More than that, he came to understand the power of his father’s charisma: “He was so popular with all these ladies in New York — Susan Gutfreund, Nina Griscom, Muriel Brandolini, the socialites. They were like, ‘Oh, Munnu! Munnu! Munnu!’ I can’t be inspired downstairs, being bothered by tourists until ten o’clock at night. I did that from 21 to 25. The difference between what Samir does and what I do is that people come here by my choice.”
So here was Samir, taking lunch alone in a tiny chamber attached to the Gem Palace showroom, where he could still watch the floor through a curtained window. “Last night, I stayed open for a bus of 60 Chinese women who wanted to do their shopping,” he said. “You can’t dictate the hours for the customer. One time a group of Iranian ladies from Los Angeles came in and couldn’t decide. It got so late my father invited them to his house for dinner, then brought them back to make the purchases. They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars because they got competitive.”
Samir said he’d like to become more involved in designing but hasn’t yet had the time, “except after midnight,” he added pointedly. Still, to his father’s standard collections of Indo-Russian and Raj jewelry he is working to add one line of his own — large and psychedelic cocktail rings notable for their decidedly un-Indian color combinations: green tsavorite surrounded by purple and blue sapphires and yellow diamonds in an elaborate framework, or a channel-set ring featuring rubellites along with orange and pink sapphires. (“Sapphires are considered bad luck here, and Indians like red-green-white, like the flag: rubies, emeralds, diamonds, pearls.”) He showed photographs of the cathedral in Orvieto to make clear the Romanesque influence. (At the mention of Samir’s rings, Sid rolled his eyes. “Samir wants to be an artist now,” he said. “What does he think he’s doing?”)
This morning, Samir had been up early with his sales staff — he has a rotating squad of Italian university students who come for months at a time — and at the Gem Palace by 10:30, like any retail manager. “This is not a museum,” he said. “My uncle wanted to have his own exclusive business for million-dollar chokers? Well, that’s why I am here on a Sunday while someone else in the family business is at the country club.” He sipped a cappuccino. “Un momento,” he said. He asked a couple of the Italians to put together a sort of miniature trunk show for some American women from Santa Barbara who were staying at the Jai Mahal Palace and didn’t want to venture to the store to browse.
“They are friends of the princess, and they are looking for ‘simple’ and ‘geometric,’ ” Samir told his staff. “Her office says they are industrialists, and she met them on a polo exchange in California — their husbands play, apparently.”
The staff assembled a range of modest pieces, ranging from a pair of coral earrings ($3,000) to a 22-karat-gold cuff with diamonds and rubies ($40,000). Samir made a face.
“You said they asked for simple,” said one of the interns. Samir threw a few giant rings — diamonds with a walnut-size aquamarine; diamonds with a tourmaline like an egg yolk; a gargantuan purple tanzanite — onto the tray, then pointed to them one by one. “Yes, well, this is simple, this is simple, and this is the simplest thing I’ve ever seen,” he said. Then he prepared an irregularly shaped, basketball-size package containing more than 100 pieces of jewelry for shipping to the Gem Palace shop in Mumbai. It was wrapped only in layers of newspaper and tape, and the mailing address filled in on the label included the phrase “Next to Yacht Club.”
When Sanjay decided to open a Gem Palace boutique on Madison Avenue, he was shocked to learn that he was legally barred from using the name “Gem Palace.” The trademark had been registered, a few years earlier, by Munnu’s nearby shop.
The store Munnu opened is, like his atelier in Jaipur, a private affair without a sign. Inside, it’s done up in red silk and pink lacquer like a jewel box. Sid comes to New York all summer to meet with customers. Of a recent line of seven large pieces, he has sold three; they ranged in price from $55,000 to $300,000. The Sanjay Kasliwal shop is not much bigger, but is open to the public and crammed with baubles starting at $800. “Everything there, and most of what you find at Gem Palace now that Munnu is gone, is tacky and pretentious,” says Muriel Brandolini, a Munnu partisan, if that wasn’t clear. “You could give me money and I wouldn’t be able to buy anything. If you want something nice, you go to Siddharth.”
Certainly both houses within the House of Kasliwal have an impressive set of allegiances. Munnu’s line, because of his cultivation of the French jewelry designer Marie-Hélène de Taillac as a protégé, retains a strong following among Parisians in addition to American socialites. But Sanjay’s loyalists include members of the Qatari royal family and a string of Italian dynasts (Missonis, Ferragamos, and Agnellis).
Sanjay had struggled with his late brother’s separatist ways for a long time. “When he retreated to his studio to sell his $3 million pieces, I said, ‘That is his ego problem,’ ” he said over the phone from Italy, where he has just completed a five-month round of chemotherapy treatment. “But Munnu’s New York store — that was not fair. Of course, I brought it up with him, but it is difficult to discuss anything with ‘the Big I.’ ”
Sanjay added of his son and nephew, “I hope they will one day get along.” He laughed. “I think Sid is a bit like his father, very Indian. Indians come out ready for a gang fight, but Samir is not made that way. You put a street dog in a fight with a Rottweiler, and the street dog wins.”
“This city was founded on the gem trade,” Devraj Singh, one of the Rajmata’s two grandchildren, said one evening. He was a guest at a dinner Samir was throwing on the grounds of City Palace, where he was about to open a restaurant and wanted to test the menu. (Sid on Samir’s restaurant: “I’m not judging, but my father told me, whatever I do, not to get involved in selling alcohol.”)
For years, Singh and his sister, whose parents were Jaipuri and Thai royalty, were caught up in a dispute over their inheritance, but they were recently awarded their share of the Rajmata’s estate. “Jaipur is a great place to shop for wedding jewelry,” Singh said, adding that, at 35, he is starting to look for a wife. “Now that I’ve won my court case,” he clarified. “Because without an income, who wants to get married?”
“The role of family jeweler was like being part of the government,” Samir said. “The buying or selling of a stone could mean moving an asset from one royal family to another. They collected jewelry to pay for a wedding or support a war. It would be, like, strategic acquisition.”
Wedding jewelry is still seen as a durable investment for India’s middle class. “Parents who don’t inherit it start collecting the jewelry even before there’s a wedding planned,” Samir said. Some of the staple pieces in northern India are a kundan meena necklace, which drapes across a woman’s upper ribs like down feathers on a bird wing, chandbali earrings, and — for a groom — a bejeweled turban pin known as a sarpech and a three-strand bead necklace. “A child’s wedding is the peak of their social life and when a family starts getting accepted by the rest of society,” he added. “Those families always want to know how much gold is in the enamel.”
During the end-of-year wedding season, Sid and Samir tend to find themselves on the same social schedule. “We share many friends and longtime clients,” Sid says. (“Many other people like my cousin,” Samir concedes.) One night, their paths crossed a couple times, including at the ceremony for a member of an Indian royal family and, a few blocks away, at a wedding hosted by another Jaipuri jewelry family. The latter was an event of some magnitude: 3,000 guests, four stages on a lawn the size of a football field, fireworks, drones, cinema-size screens to simulcast the official union, and pink spotlights trained on giant Greek columns. Sid arrived to find Samir mesmerized by one of the paid performers, a woman made up as a living-statue fountain. A five-fingered stream gushed from her hand.
“Look at this,” Samir said, turning to record the stationary woman on his phone. “It has a water feature.”
When the marriage ceremony began on the farthest stage, Sid and Samir walked together to watch. A waiter came by with a tray of jewel-toned cocktails — pink, orange, blue. Sid took one but Samir hesitated. “They have ice,” he said, putting his hand on his stomach. “You need to be careful with water here.” He recalled that after he settled full-time in India in 2008, a friend brought him and Sid to “a very fancy grill-your-own-kebab restaurant in Mumbai. It was precooked, but there were still bacteria that didn’t like me. I didn’t leave the hotel for days.”
“I remember that!” Sid said. “You were so sick.”
“I was so sick,” Samir concurred. “You said to me, ‘Welcome to India.’ ”
Sid asked if Samir was set upon by paparazzi when he showed up, “because for me, when I walked in, madness. Everyone is expecting me to get married soon. I’m telling you.” Last year, it was Samir whom Town & Country ranked No. 21 on its most-eligible-bachelors list, but Sid notes that he, and not Samir, made the list two years earlier and that it wasn’t numerically ordered then. “My father is starting to get the calls,” Samir said later. “You know, like I was watching my dad’s reaction once in the shop when he picked up the phone. ‘Yes, he’s available … Yes, he’s very involved in our business … Yes, he was born in Italy.’ He was smiling at me. It was the family of a girl.”
Samir is in no hurry. “I’m not really looking yet,” he said. “I told Sid I’m going to need to dance at his wedding first.” And someday, before long, another generation of Kasliwals will enter the family business.
*This article appears in the February 8, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.
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