Asia Society Hong Kong Center sat down with Susan L. Beningson, the private collector behind the exhibition When Gold Blossoms: Indian Jewelry from the Susan L. Beningson Collection, for a chat in which she explained how she started collecting jewelry and the societal, political and religious significance of jewelry in Indian culture.
How did you begin collecting Indian jewelry?
I initially started collecting jewelry so I could wear it. I bought a necklace at a jewelry store in Bangkok, actually, and fell in love with it and came home and wanted to buy a pair of earrings to match. I went to a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and asked him to introduce me to dealers of Indian jewelry, which he did. And here we are, 180 objects later.
Tell us about how you collect the jewelry.
I think when you are a collector, you have to be opportunistic. You have to see what you can find and what’s available. At that time when I started collecting, I focused primarily on South Indian gold. I had collected some classical jewelry before this, Greek and Roman jewelry, and I was very interested in gold work. So when I looked into the Indian jewelry, I was attracted to south Indian gold because of the gold work and also because of the stones. South Indian gold primarily uses rubies, diamonds, emeralds and pearls, so I like the gemstones also. I just felt an attraction to it.
At that time, most people who were collecting Indian jewelry were collecting north Indian jewelry gemstones and carved emeralds, and things like that. From my personal taste was less interesting to me, so a lot of jewelry at that time, south Indian gold was being melted down for the gold content. People weren’t collecting it, so I was able to find lots of different kind of things. I couldn’t put this collection together today. The material is not available. A lot of people are collecting this material now, so the market has changed, dramatically.
What is the difference between Indian jewelry versus Western jewelry?
Indian jewelry, the stone for example, is much more important to have a stone that looks good., that’s sparkly, as opposed to Western jewelry which might focus on the carat content or something like that. So the focus on the stones is different than in Western jewelry. I wasn’t putting together an academic collection. I was just putting together things I like, so it’s pretty much personal taste, what I felt in love with.
What is the societal meaning behind this jewelry?
One thing about Indian jewelry is that it’s more than just wearable jewelry. There are traditions involved, there’s history, there are rituals, there are stories, and you can learn a great deal about Indian culture and about Indian history from looking at, not just the wearable jewelry, but also the ritual objects.
One thing that has been gratifying for me, for example, when the exhibition was in New York, Indian families were coming to see the show, you can see mothers and grandmothers talking to their children and grandchildren about the importance of jewelry and what it meant to society. That was really gratifying to see, that people are using it as a teaching tool, to learn about traditions and the past, and also how jewelry is important still in present-day India.
Published on Asia Society Hong Kong Center’s blog on November 8, 2013.