In New Delhi, shopping for one-of-a-kind jewelry is as much an art as the pieces themselves.

When I was born, the story goes, my father bought a gold coin. Eager that this family tradition be continued, my mother repeated the story to my husband just as I was about to deliver my daughter in a New York hospital. My husband bought some cake instead, which we shared with all the nurses. And therein lies a difference between the Indian culture I was born into and the American one I adopted: Indians buy gems and gold to celebrate an occasion; Americans buy food or foliage.

Indians are obsessed with jewels, largely because of the dowry system, which is slowly disappearing, although the culture that surrounds it is not. Even now, when a daughter is born, congratulations to the parents are usually followed with a jovial, “Ah, now you’d better start collecting jewelry.” Because a woman’s worth was literally measured by the amount of gold and diamonds she brought with her to marriage, jewelry became an insidious part of her self-esteem. At parties and weddings, women still scrutinize one another competitively and hit the jewelry stores the next day to acquire new baubles in an effort to keep up with the Patels. Nowhere is the subcontinent’s love affair with all that glitters more apparent than in New Delhi, its capital and richest city, which boasts thousands of jewelry shops–most of them honest–offering some of the best shopping of its kind anywhere in the world.

To be sure, Indian jewelry is an acquired taste. Some love the Moghul-inspired designs–even the simplest examples of which have delicate filigree work in which gold foils are shaped into intricate, almost Arabic designs–while others find them gaudy and too ornate. Gems are set in multiple ways: The highly popular kundan jewelry, for instance, is created through a champlevé technique, in which the craftsman hollows out a recess in the gold, fills it with a mineral such as cobalt oxide to give it a blue color, embeds uncut diamonds, rubies or emeralds into the recess and seals them in using fine gold foils (kundan) instead of the traditional gold rim or claw. Sometimes red-and-green meenakari enamelwork is embossed on the back and sides of these necklaces using traditional Indian motifs like peacocks, tree vines and flowers.

Polki diamonds are rough diamonds that are set using kundan-like techniques, but they have a white rather than multihued visage. Temple jewelry, in contrast, is chunky and dramatic, with rows of uncut rubies and emeralds.

It can be difficult, if not impossible, to find such intricate designs anywhere else. But quite apart from its exotic native styles, India is popular among jewelry consumers because of price. Gold is more expensive there than in the United States because Indian jewelers use the 22-carat variety, but labor is cheap–hence the savings. Knowing you’ll find something both unique and reasonable makes the quest for a great piece almost irresistible, and it’s best to start at the top: Greater Kailash, which carries the most shopping cachet of any Delhi neighborhood. The jewelers here have the latest designs and competitive rates. One of the biggest is Hazoorilal and Sons Jewellers, which covers a full block. The store can custom-make pieces–if, for instance, you want a Cartier, Bulgari or Tiffany look, a Hazoorilal designer will sketch your desire in a matter of minutes and create the piece in a few days (unless it is wedding season, October through March). The staff scours the country for traditional kundan, bikaneri and polki jewelry from Calcutta, Mumbai, Gujarat, Jaipur and the South, and the store also sells “hallmarked” gold jewelry, pieces certified by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS). A kundan necklace that uses unpolished diamonds can cost up to $6,400; a smaller set, about $3,000.

A 50-year-old entrant into the jewelry scene of Delhi, M. Rajsons sells certified diamonds, and specializes in platinum and gold jewels with various finishes: frosted, rhodium-polished and oxidized, to give the gold a coppery, pinkish or silvery hue. It was wonderfully ornate kundan, polki and meenakari pieces from $1,000 to $10,000.

From Greater Kailash it’s a half-hour car ride to Connaught Place, the geographical heart of the city and a rabbit-warren of shops, bookstores, ice cream parlors (Nirula’s is a favorite) and restaurants. Directly across, Janpath Road is lined with roadside stalls selling snuffboxes, pashmina shawls, handmade sandals, Kashmiri carpets, handicrafts and other souvenirs. Amidst these tiny stalls offering souvenirs for a song, spacious, air-conditioned showrooms sell millions of dollars worth of branded and other jewelry.

The Delhi branch of Tribhovandas Bhimji Zaveri is a sparkling granite-and-steel showroom in the heart of Connaught Place. Although the prices are a tad high, the shop is perfect for those with limited time who want to pick up something from an authentic, trustworthy source.

Another popular jeweler is Mehrasons Jewellers, which has showrooms in South Extension, Karol Bagh and Connaught Place. I have a soft spot for this particular shop because it’s where my mother-in-law bought me my first gold necklace–a beautiful piece with blue-and-red peacock enameling. The store also sells the Enchanté line of diamond jewelry, as well as pieces by Indian jewelry designers such as Reena Thakur. In the early 1990s, Mehrasons became famous for making a replica of the legendary Koh-i-noor diamond.

One shop that I like in the ultrachic, self-contained Hauz Khas Market is K.K. Jewels, specializing in innovative designs exported and sold all over the world. While the store offers traditional styles, its designers also cater to Western tastes with clean lines and simple embellishments.

With three showrooms in different parts of the city, you can hit a Khanna Jewellers shop no matter where you are staying in Delhi. Although it’s famous for sumptuous wedding necklaces–ranihars, as they are called locally–it also makes smaller party pieces.

Poking around in South Delhi, you might want to consider adding unique pieces of Indian jewelry to your collection–things like a gold waistband, diamond nose ring, pearl bangles or a navratna (nine-gem) ring, which you won’t find anywhere else. But for these traditional pieces, the best place to go would be Chandni Chowk, the ancient heart of Delhi’s jewelry trade and a must-stop for anyone interested in Indian jewelry. The narrow maze of lanes cannot accommodate much traffic, so most people walk. Fruit sellers ply their wares; cows chew on billboards meditatively. Colorfully dressed Punjabi matrons descend en masse to buy jewelry for family weddings. Hairless old men cart them in wagons down Dariba Kalan street, lined with jewelry shops, many of which have been owned by the same family for generations. Boys in briefs run from shop to warehouse, bringing diamond solitaires and the latest polki cuts to their demanding clientele.

Bhagwan Dass Khanna Jewellers is a favorite of old Delhi families and now exhibits all over the world, including at the JA New York jewelry expo. The shop is usually manned by the genial Naresh Khanna, who promises to “take care” of you. If you desire diamond solitaires, he will send you to his shop in South Delhi; if you want traditional designs that aren’t altered to suit foreign tastes, he will pull out a few choice sets from his cabinet. Watching over it is the incense-shrouded photograph of the shop’s patriarch and founder, Bhagwan Dass.

A world away from the mazelike alleys of Old Delhi are the broad boulevards of the embassy area, with most of the city’s five-star hotels. The Oberoi and Taj Palace each have stores in their shopping arcades where quality jewels can be bought for a slightly higher price. Here as elsewhere, it’s better to shop with a local. But even if you go alone, most salespeople speak English. Each piece comes with a price tag, so be assured that it hasn’t been marked up for a foreigner.

Finally, a word about bargaining: Since jewelry merchants make their profits through volume of sales rather than individual markups, they will stubbornly refuse to reduce prices. This means that bargaining is more attitude than act: It may not get you a discount, but it will get you the jeweler’s respect–and therefore access to the higher-quality stuff that he keeps at the back and brings out only for bona fide customers. It is all about posturing, and first impressions are key. When I go shopping, I try to simulate the quiet swagger of the Godfather, or a British schoolboy. I cast a withering eye over the jeweled offerings in the display case and ask him peremptorily if he has anything else to show me. As the salesmen stir themselves, flip the lights reluctantly and begin pulling out jewel-boxes from the recesses, I casually pull out a gemologist’s kit from my handbag (bought for $17 on the Internet) and set it on the counter. First, I take out a magnifying glass, then a triplet loupe and finally, my pièce de résistance, paint thinner. Having bought gems all over the world, I say, I know about unscrupulous jewelers painting their gems to hide flaws. While I am sure that this particular shop is honest, having been recommended it by my friend Queenie, I have brought some paint thinner just in case. By this time, all the salesmen in the shop are galvanized into action, fawning around me with their choicest pieces, switching on additional lights so I might see the jewels better, plying me with Diet Coke and effusive praise.

That’s how it’s done in New Delhi.


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