He was the preferred jewellery designer to the who’s who in the world, from royals like Queen Elizabeth II of England and King Farouk of Egypt, to Hollywood stars like Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren, Oprah Winfrey and Madonna.
He was so famous that when he retired in 2001, The New York Times carried a story titled ‘The Man who romanced the stones’. His obituary in 2003 was carried by every major international publication like The Guardian, The LA Times, Financial Times and the NYT.
Yet he remains unknown in the land of his birth. This is the incredible story of Ambaji Shinde, son of a bangle seller from Goa, whose talent and sheer grit earned him the tag, ‘greatest jewellery designer of the 20th century’.
India has a long history of jewellery and jewellery design that goes back more than 2,000 years. From bead necklaces found in Harappan settlements to the Peacock Throne of the Mughal emperors, Indians are perhaps the most ardent lovers of jewellery in the world. And while many jewellery motifs, like those of peacocks and mango leaves remain unchanged for millennia, each new culture that interacted with India, from the ancient Greeks to the colonial British, added their own layers of influence to Indian jewellery design. The period between the 1900s and early 1940s can truly be called the ‘Golden Age’ of jewellery. New jewellery houses emerged not just in Europe but in India as well, each of them pushing the frontiers of new designs.
Far from the dazzling, glitzy world of Maharajas and their jewels, was a man named Ambaji Shinde, who was born on 22nd December 1917 in the small town of Mapusa in what was then Portuguese-controlled Goa. The eldest of four children, Ambaji was born into a family of modest means, his father Venkatesh Shinde being a dealer in bangles.
Ambaji Shinde’s nephew, Dinesh Shinde , a Mumbai based Jewellery designer, remembers hearing stories from his father about Shinde’s passion for drawing at a very early age. Although Shinde loved painting, economic difficulties made plain paper and paintbrush a luxury. As a child, Shinde used to sneak into the local police station to search for used ’carbon paper and dig them out of dustbins, to trace designs.
It was one of his teachers who recognized his talent for painting and suggested to his parents that they enroll him at the Sir JJ School of Art in Mumbai (then Bombay), to train as a painter. The Sir JJ School of Art was one of the most pre-eminent art schools in India at the time and a training ground for emergent artists.
Family circumstances forced Shinde to enroll into what he considered a ‘practical’ degree in Textile Design at the school. His father arranged for him to stay with a family friend in a chawl in Banana Lane, Girgaum, in Mumbai. Shinde used to sleep in the passage and enter the house only for meals.
It was Shinde’s father’s death in 1937 and the financial difficulties that followed that forced him to seek employment. But it was not textiles but the world of diamonds that awaited him. Shinde applied for a job at the noted jewellery firm of Narottamdas Bhau (N Bhau) for the post of a jewellery designer. He later confessed, “I had never been in a fine jewellery store, nor had I ever seen a diamond before”. The firm had faith in him and he got the job.
It was here that Ambaji Shinde would meet one of the two men who would have the most definitive influence on his life, Nanubhai Jhaveri and Harry Winston. At the time, Nanubhai was working as a store manager for Narottamdas Bhau, in which his father had a 25% shareholding. He was the rising star of the Indian jewellery world. Not only did Nanubhai have a very keen eye for gemstones and great social skills, he was himself a great jewellery designer, having trained under the renowned artist K K Hebbar.
It was Nanubhai who took Shinde under his wing and taught him the intricacies of jewellery design, the placement of stones, the intricacies of settings and so on. Shinde used to accompany Nanubhai on his visits to numerous princely states, giving the boy from Goa was exposure to some of the greatest jewels in the world. This early exposure had a profound influence on his later work in US.
The first great commission Shinde worked on was for the coronation for Maharaja Sir Pratapsinhrao Gaekwad of Baroda in 1939. A successor to Maharaja Sir Sayajirao Gaekwad, Pratapsinhrao, known for his extravagance, was described by Time magazine as the “last of the great spenders”. Shinde created a number of jewels for the occasion.
His next work would also have an impact on his career. In 1940, the impending marriage of Maharaja Jiwajirao Scindia and Lekha Divyeshwari (the late BJP leader Vijayaraje Scindia) was the talk of India. Nanubhai visited Gwalior, hoping to make some great sales. The trip was a success and Shinde was asked to design a number of spectacular pieces for the wedding.
Nanubhai and Jiwajirao Scindia stuck up a lifelong friendship, and with financial help from the Scindias, Nanubhai walked out of Narottamdas Bhau. Loyal to his old mentor, Shinde walked out with him. For the next decade, Shinde worked with Nanubhai Jhaveri at Nanubhai Jewellers, a time he described as “the most exciting” period of his career. With his career on the rise, Ambaji Shinde got married and had six children. His younger brother R V Shinde (Dinesh’s father) was also a prominent jewellery designer who worked for Nanubhai.
Bombay in the 1930s and ’40s was dominated by three great Indian jewellery houses – Narottamdas Bhau, Chimanlal Manchand and Gazdars – whose designs and craftsmanship rivalled those of any international jewellery house. The new kid on the block, Nanubhai Jewellers took them head on and bagged some very prestigious commissions, including coronation jewels for the King of Nepal and a spectacular crown for Tirupati Balaji commissioned by a Marwari textile magnate as a donation to the shrine.
In 1946, Ambaji Shinde designed a sari studded in 1200 diamonds for Begum Aga Khan , on the occasion of Aga Khan III’s 60th anniversary.
Other clients of Nanubhai included the King of Saudi Arabia and the Emperor of Ethiopia. These ultra-wealthy clients with their unbelievable collections gave Shinde the opportunities that no other jewellery designer probably had in his time. The only thing that limited his and Nanubhai’s extravagant creations was the imagination!
But for jewellers like these, with India’s independence in 1947 came hard times. The princely states and their wealthy Maharajas disappeared, and patronage for jewellers drastically shrunk. India’s new socialist government frowned on the jewellery industry and burdened it with heavy taxation. Nanubhai had seen the writing on the wall and planned an ambitious foray into the polymer business. He would go on to launch NIRLON, one of India’s premier companies in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Shinde’s destiny took him to a new world, through a meeting with the second person who had a profound influence on his life, Harry Winston. An American jeweller, Winston was to America what Nanubhai was to India – a smart and dynamic rising star in the jewellery world. Winston was a marketing whiz who knew how to make a splash in the world of jewellery.
Winston, a close friend and associate of Nanubhai, was also buying jewellery from the Indian Maharajas and selling it in Europe, and he first met Shinde while on a trip to India in 1955. He was so impressed with Shinde’s work that in 1959, he offered Ambaji Shinde a job at his firm in New York.
Neerja Kamani , Nanubhai’s daughter, told me an amusing anecdote about how Winston asked his friend Nanubhai if he could take his cook and his designer with him to New York. Nanubhai, famed for his parties and dinners, refused to let Winston take his cook but happily let Shinde go! Kamani explains that her father, who was now foraying into industry, realised that his protégé had a better future in New York.
In 1959, Ambaji Shinde joined Winston’s jewellery firm, but difficulties in getting an American visa meant that he had to work at the Geneva office. Also, his wife’s ill health meant that he had to leave his family in India. He entrusted his family’s care to his younger brother RV Shinde. In 1962, Shinde moved to New York, before returning to India briefly in 1964, and then moved to New York permanently in 1966. He moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Queens, where he lived for the next 35 years.
Shinde’s first commission with Winston would link him to one of the great movie star romances of all time. In 1966, he designed a necklace featuring a spectacular 69.42-carat diamond, a stone which three years later would be bought by actor Richard Burton and offered as a gift of love to Elizabeth Taylor. From then, it became famous as the ‘Taylor-Burton diamond’.
Through Winston, Shinde designed pieces for the world’s super rich and famous. He created a spectacular emerald necklace for Emelda Marcos, a diamond necklace for Queen Elizabeth II of England, and numerous jewels for Hollywood celebrities like Sophia Loren, Madonna, Sharon Stone and Oprah Winfrey.
After a career that spanned more than six decades, Ambaji Shinde retired in 2001 at the age of 84. His retirement caused a sensation in America and prompted The New York Times write a piece on it. The article mentioned Shinde’s humility and how fame had not changed him. Shinde continued to design even after he had retired, up until his death in 2003. An obituary on him was carried by some of the most prominent newspapers in the world. His collection of more than 25,000 drawings and sketches was donated to the Gemological Institute of America and continues to inspire younger generations of designers.
While none of Shinde’s children pursued jewellery design, the family’s legacy in jewellery design is being carried forward by his nephew, Dinesh Shinde, a Mumbai based jewellery designer and his son Gaurang Shinde. Dinesh rues that very few Indians are aware of his uncle and his work, and is trying to document his family history.
Dinesh says, “What is most inspiring about my uncle is that, through sheer passion for his work, he was able to rise above the circumstances of his birth to great fame. I remember, he was always doodling even when he was sitting idle or relaxing. He never stopped. His life is an inspiration for young Indians, of what you can achieve by combing hard work and passion.”
From a bangle seller’s son to designer to the stars, Ambaji Shinde’s life is truly an inspiration.
DID YOU KNOW?
US President Donald Trump married TV actress Marla Marples in December 1993. For the wedding, the bride wore a diamond tiara, created by Harry Winston and designed by Ambaji Shinde.
What if we told you that Bhagalpur in Bihar was once home to a rich and influential town called Champa? This ancient kingdom was so successful that its traders took Indian culture to the other side of the ocean- Champa, in Vietnam. Catch this riveting tale of two cities...
The truth about a paranoid Maharaja’s hidden treasure and how it was discovered, is revealed through ‘Treasure papers’ unearthed from a Sarkari office in Delhi. Catch the jaw-dropping tale of the Scindias’ buried treasure, and how it was discovered.
Get access to weekly Live events, experiences and an exclusive repository of films, articles and books