The important centres of jewellery making in West Bengal are the Bowbazar, Baghbazar, Bhawanipur, Kalighat, and Gariahat areas of Calcutta. Silver craftspersons can be found in Maukhali and Fatepur villages in the south of the 24 Parganas district. Filigree and filigree work in gold and silver thread is part of Bengal’s craft heritage. About 30 villages in the South 24-Parganas have 3,000 artisans together who make filigree work and silver jewellery known as ‘gazra’ in local parlance. Ornaments-necklace, pendants, bracelets, anklets, armlets, bangles, ear rings, hair pins, and brooches, along with birds, animals, vermilion pots, and rose water sprinklers are some superb examples of the Bengal silversmith’s art and craft.
The jewellery in West Bengal is made from gold, precious stones, silver, brass, or even a zinc alloy. All types of jewellery are rich in variety and design and are extremely beautiful. The jewellery is made by the swarnakars or jeweller caste; the traditional members of the swarnakar caste are called as the swarna baniks. Along with the elaborate and highly ornamented precious jewellery made for the affluent groups, typical tribal ornaments are also made by the swarnakars.
The old Bengal jewellery is very similar to that of Odisha. The tarkashi or filigree work of the Maukhali area in Bengal is equivalent to that found in Odisha. During British rule the setting of gems in Bengal jewellery changed from kundan setting of uncut gems to the open, claw setting of multifaceted gems. Both the techniques are being practised now. Under European influence, swarnakars introduced polishing of metals and ornaments. The faceted cutting of raised gold surfaces finished with a high polish, called diamond cut, are very popular.
Nowadays, lighter ornaments of elegant shapes with minimal stones and fine craftsmanship are sought after. In the place of gold, costume jewellery with semi-precious stones and tribal designs are preferred, with the essential elements of traditional jewellery still intact. The items commonly used are hair pins in silver filigree, shaped like a flower, chunky piece of silver of tribal origin, or silver ornamental hair clasps. Tribal adibasi women use flowers, buds, bamboo, wood, reeds, grass, and seeds as ornaments. The tribals themselves make colourful necklaces of glass beads.
At the time of her marriage, a young Bengali girl wears a tikli or forehead ornament attached to the central parting of her hair by a string of pearls, or a chain of silver or gold that lies along the central parting. The tikli is set with precious stones or beautifully crafted in plain gold or silver. The zinc alloy tikli of the tribal women has equally beautiful designs and excellent craftsmanship. In the olden days the bride was also given a tortoise shell or buffalo horn comb of a semi-circular shape called a chiruni which had gold and silver inlay work; this decorated her bun and had messages engraved on it and highlighted with coloured lacquer. The matriarchs wore a whole row of gold or silver hair pins with filigree flowers set on their heads and linked by a fine chain; this was worn in a semi-circle above a finely coiffured bun called phool bagan or flower garden. Santhal tribal girls still wear silver or zinc alloy phool bagan in their hair and a heart shaped shield in the centre of the bun. It is embellished with intricately embossed floral designs with delicate chains hanging from it. They also wear solid looking ornaments with cast, chased, or embossed designs. They have a variety of lockets hung from necklaces of beads and simple glass beaded necklaces twisted into many strands are popular with them.
Kaan is a traditional ornament for the ear. It covers the entire ear with thin plates of gold or silver with intricate filigree decorations; it also has diamonds and other precious stones embedded in it.This is worn for special occasions. Makri is a modern ear ornament, which is a simple hoop. It is made of gold or silver and has a diamond cut surface. Kaanbala is a more elaborate ornament with a wider flat surface covered with fine filigree decorations. The jumka is a pendant earring of bells of graded sizes. Seed pearls or other stones are suspended at the ends like precious clappers in an ornate bell. Dool is also a pendant ear ring, smaller in size, and found in numerous designs with or without precious stones.
Chik is a gold choker sometimes more than an inch wide with rows of diamonds or other precious stones set on it. Pancha or sapta lahari is a necklace of five or seven strands. Makar mukhi bala is a bracelet in gold and solidly worked gold chain. Nakchhabis are nose rings. These used to be which ere very elaborate traditionally but are now restricted to a tiny precious stone set in gold or a plain gold stud.
Polia tribal women of north Bengal wear unique silver or brass necklaces. These necklaces have five or seven strands of small chains linked together, with embossed or filigreed elements fixed at their two ends to a base of two semi-circular or triangular flat decorative pieces that rest on the back of the shoulders. These two pieces are linked by an elaborate central piece that rests at the nape of the neck.
Though traditionally worn only by Muslim women, the hansuli is being worn by several women now. It is made of soft silver in the shape of a crescent moon and worn just below the column of the neck around which it fits snugly. The traditional ornaments for the upper arm are baju or a thick, round, and hollow bangle of gold or silver with intricate chased decorations, or tabiz or tagaa of delicate filigree held in place by silk tassels with gold or silver pendants.
Choories are thin bangles worn on the wrist. They are of different designs and are made of gold or silver. Married Bengali women first wear a conch shell bangle then an iron bangle (symbolising married state), then choories, and at the end of the wrist there is a kankan, a ridged wristlet, or a bala, a narrow cylinder of gold or silver covered with chased and filigreed decorations with an auspicious pair of makara or mythical crocodile heads at the ends of the circle. Mantasha is a graceful Bengali wristlet with strands of pearls and precious stones in a gold setting. The origin of the design was Mughal and some varieties of mantasha are of pure gold or silver without any jewels. Chur is an elaborate gold bracelet seen in old Indian paintings and sculptures which is wide and set with precious stones and hinged to fit the wrist. Ratanchur is Mughal in origin and is made in gold or silver. The ones in gold are set with pearls and/or precious stones. The ratanchur is set at the back of the hand and fixed to a chur or wristlet. Ratanchur starts with five rings for the fingers and thumb in each hand and five chains run from each ring to an elaborate combination of a decorative crescent moon and the sun or lotus at the back of the hand. Two strands attached to the sides of this centrepiece are connected to the exquisitely worked wristlet.
Ornaments for the feet are never made of gold, as gold is the symbol of Goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity and even the Muslims of West Bengal do not use gold ornaments on their feet. Feet ornaments include toe rings worn on two or three toes and a pair of silver ankle chains with tiny bells called payels. Small girls wear toras, which are hundreds of very small brass or silver bells arranged tier upon tier.