Singer Pharrell Williams’ newest collaboration with Tiffany & Co. has angered netizens all over the world, especially Indians. Williams attended Nigo’s Kenzo Paris Fashion Week Men’s show in a pair of custom-designed Tiffany sunglasses that look uncomfortably like a pair of Mughal-era spectacles that went up for auction at Sotheby’s last year.
While cultural appropriation has unfortunately become all too common in the fashion world, it is not unusual for modern styles to take after historic pieces, so what rankles is the lack of credit given to the source of inspiration. Pharrell’s sunglasses are made in 18k gold with 61 round brilliant diamonds of over 25 total carats and two emerald-cut emeralds. These sunglasses are a teaser to the much-awaited collaboration, or as Pharrell called it “engagement” between him and Tiffany & Co. At Kenzo’s January 23 show the singer told WWD of the association, “I can’t give it all away now. I don’t want to go too much into detail, OK, because we’re here today to celebrate my brother NIGO [Creative Director of Kenzo].”
Fashion watchdog, Diet Prada, known for calling out copycats in the industry pointed out the eerie resemblance of these frames to the 17th century Mughal frames. Sotheby’s put up two pairs of historic spectacles for auction, one with an emerald lens (Emeralds for Paradise) and another with a diamond lens (Diamonds for Light). The origin of the emeralds can be traced all the way to the Muzo mines of Colombia, and reportedly weighed 300 carats, while the diamond lenses probably came from the legendary Golconda mines of Southern India, weighing 200 carats. The ancient spectacles are of the same drop-shape, in diamond-mounted silver and gold frames. Sotheby’s put both the lots up for auction in October 2021, each selling for an upper estimate of a £2.5 million, however neither sold at the time.
These frames come with a rich history, according to historian William Dalrymple, “This is the work of a supreme master, both of gemstones and of optics. This is a slice of diamond and a slice of emerald; through which you can see… they were definitely created to be worn.” The reason for emerald lens frames is rationalised as a belief from the ancient times, wherein emeralds were known to soothe the eyes. In the first century AD, Pliny the Elder notes that: “After straining our eyes by looking at another object, we can restore our vision to normal by gazing at an emerald.”
Shah Jahan’s emerald pince-nez
According to Sotheby’s the spectacles were made at the time of Mughal king Shah Jahan’s rule in India. Professor Ebba Koch of the Institute of Art History, Vienna, speculates, “Emeralds were held to have miraculous healing powers and to ward off evil. For Shah Jahan, in his extreme mental state of mourning for a lost beloved, looking through emerald glasses could have been… meant to strengthen and heal his vision.” He also cites the colour green to be that of a part of the reason, as it was the colour of the popular Islamic saint Khwaja Khizr, who was believed to have found the water of eternal life.
The frames into which the jewels are set are said to be from the 1890s, reframed into a more ‘trendy’ design than the original. A European open claw design, which was popular in the 18th to 19th century is used in the frame. Historians say there is a high probability that these were originally in the form of pince-nez (spectacles fastened with nose clips, not earpieces).
Not crediting these antiquated pieces of history as the origin of his design is not the only time Pharrell has come under the scanner for cultural appropriation. In 2014, he appeared on the cover of magazine Elle UK in a Native American headdress, which is considered the sacred headwear of chiefs and warriors. Later, in 2018, Pharrell Williams and Adidas Originals came under fire for their ‘Hu Holi Powder Dye Collection,’ inspired by the festival of colours. An African American singer and an American household brand were criticized for not including any Indian voices in the collection that used a festival precious to the country as its USP.