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India’s Jewellery Tradition of Gold is Turning to ... Concrete?

By Phyllida Jay

Eina Ahluwalia, a jeweller based in Kolkata, India, poses for a portrait. She is wearing a necklace that says “Love, Respect, Protect,” made from brass with gold plating.
 
Arka Dutta
Eina Ahluwalia, a jeweller based in Kolkata, India, poses for a portrait. She is wearing a necklace that says “Love, Respect, Protect,” made from brass with gold plating.

In India, gold jewellery has long been used to celebrate marriage and childbirth or presented as gifts during religious festivals. Ornate bridal pieces still are popular in the northern part of the country, while pieces in 22-karat yellow gold are favoured in the south.

But change is in the air, partly as a result of shifting societal norms and the expansion of women’s roles in the workplace as well as the rising price of gold here and recent changes in the consumer tax on luxuries.

Jewellery created from unusual materials and in contemporary designs or sometimes inspired by traditional ethnic jewellery is becoming increasingly popular, with Eina Ahluwalia, a Kolkata-based jeweller, among those leading the way.

“A few decades ago, the primary jewellery buyer used to be the man, whether father or husband,” Ahluwalia said. “Whereas now, especially in the non-gold market, it’s mostly women buying jewellery for themselves, without waiting for an occasion, purely for their own joy and satisfaction.”

Many women are no longer stuck in a what Indians call a Sass-Bua relationship, in which a mother-in-law controls a daughter-in-law’s spending, a staple storyline of many Indian soap operas. “More women are earning their own money, and spending it on themselves,” Ahluwalia said. “Self-gratification no longer carries the guilt it did even just a generation ago.”

Ahluwalia, who describes herself as India’s first conceptual jewellery artist, studied with the pioneering conceptual jeweller Ruudt Peters in the Netherlands in 2010, and says the contemporary jewellery designs created by Dutch designers in the 1970s continue to inspire her.

“In 2003, when I began making jewellery, I found the customers very excited and enthusiastic about finding jewellery that looked so different than what they were used to,” she said. But when a collection using concrete did not sell well, she began to work with gold-plated silver cut into elaborate fretwork designs.

Today, Ahluwalia’s creations blend social activism, art, design and fashion — partly trying to counter what she calls the patriarchal associations of traditional Indian jewellery.

Arka DuttaCenter, a sterling silver necklace by Eina Ahluwalia, which joins the words for love in Hindi and Urdu.
Center, a sterling silver necklace by Eina Ahluwalia, which joins the words for love in Hindi and Urdu.

For example, her 2011 Wedding Vows collection took a stand against domestic violence by using renderings of kirpans, the knives that are an important symbol of her Sikh identity, in necklaces and other pieces. The words “Love, Respect, Protect” were worked in gold into chandelier earrings and layered necklaces.

That collection, she said, continues to be among her most successful, with its slogan “Accessorise the Warrior Within” resonating among customers.

Like recent industry trends among Western jewelers, Ahluwalia said her designs were inspired by traditional and personal narratives, like her Wordsmith collection that displayed the names for God in Urdu, Arabic and Hindi.

“We aren’t selling jewellery,” she said, “we’re creating totems and carriers of messages and stories in physical form that can be carried close to the body, and worn as constant personal reminders.”

Arka DuttaTrident earrings made from sterling silver with gold plating by Eina Ahluwalia.
Trident earrings made from sterling silver with gold plating by Eina Ahluwalia.

Ahluwalia’s prices start at about US$80 for a pair of shell-shaped earrings and rise to about US$400 for elaborate pieces. “At first there was a cap to how much customers would spend in terms of price per piece,” she said. But, “over the years, the Indian market is exposed to so much more, and the customer base has significantly widened.”

Suhani Pittie, a Pune-based designer who works in the gold-plated silver known as vermeil, agrees that the market has changed.

“The contemporary non-fine jewellery landscape has undergone a tremendous metamorphosis over the years,” she said in an email. “When we first began in 2004, there were only three players in the market. Jewellery was then divided into two categories only: fine and costume. There was no middle route for those interested in purchasing a product purely for the love of design.”

Today, unorthodox materials like concrete, wood, leather and found objects are used by many of the 60 designers whose work is showcased alongside Ahluwalia’s at Nimai, a concept jewellery store opened in Delhi by Pooja Roy Yadav in 2013.

“Our designers use concrete, discarded watch parts, miniature paintings, nuts, bolts and almost anything to create jewellery not as an alternative to gold but as a piece of wearable art,” Yadav said.

One of those designers, Anupama Sukh Lalvani, uses steel for her En Inde creations.

“I’m a trained architect and steel was a natural choice of material for me,” she said by email. “Steel is used for its strength and mirrorlike shine (to ward off evil). The tag line of the company is #findyoursteel.”

According to a strategic market research report by Euromonitor, the Indian costume jewelry sector is expected to show twice as much growth this year as fine jewellery, primarily because of what it calls the growing consumer preference for lightweight jewellery that can be worn every day.

Along with changes in design and materials, contemporary jewellery designers also have embraced new ways of marketing and selling their creations.

For example, Swarovski recently collaborated with 11 Indian fashion and jewellery designers, including Ahluwalia. “It has introduced our brand to a much wider base of Swarovski customers who may not have known us and our work before,” the designer said. “Also, it has given our customers something new to be excited about since we don’t actually use a lot of stones.”

Ahluwalia will not reveal her annual sales but, she said, 75 percent of them occur online, primarily to Indian buyers. Her brand also has more than 21,000 followers.

“Social media has been an invaluable tool to share these stories,” she said, “which would be near impossible in traditional retail formats, and very expensive and impersonal through conventional advertising and marketing.”

Traditionally, the Indian wedding has been the primary reason for gold jewellery purchases, with everyone from the bride to guests wearing as much as they own or borrow. Now designers, including Ahluwalia and Pittie, are creating collections suitable for bridal wear. As Yadav said, “The modern Indian urban bride wants to have fun and her choices in jewellery reflects that. They are choosing fun experimental contemporary jewellery over heavily ornamented bling.

“They want jewellery that doesn’t sit in their lockers post-marriage, but costume jewellery that they can wear more often.”