How Zardozi Lost Its Gold

The world’s most expensive embroidery used to use real gold and silver. Until the British came along.

zardozi feature GettyImages-452331266
Workers perform custom ‘zardozi’ embroidery work on a saree in 2014 (Noah Seelam/AFP, Getty Images)

Mehr Singh


August 8, 2023


8 min

In 1618, Mughal Emperor Jahangir commissioned a robe inset with precious gems and embroidered with pure gold and silver thread, known as zardozi, to present to Shah Abbas of Iran. Many Mughal courtiers considered the gift ill-advised and excessive, especially since the Mughal empire and Iran already had a reason to be allies: they shared a common nemesis, the Turks. As a result of this gesture, though, the two leaders developed a lifelong friendship, as the many portraits of the pair embracing suggest.

Jahangir’s father, Akbar, was a patron of the arts and helped popularize zardozi, three-dimensional intricate embroidery that used gold and silver threads, which decorated everything from his turbans to his sword sheaths.

While spun gold seems like a plotline in fairy tales such as Rumpelstiltskin, zardozi is the personification of luxury. Today, we see it everywhere, from bridal trousseaus to Dior ateliers. South Asian artisans continue to preserve zardozi patterns and techniques, often family secrets, but the patronage that once allowed the craft to flourish has withered away — in part, thanks to the British.

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