Jewel house rock: artisanal lustre for Akshaya Tritiya

This festive season, we shine the spotlight on heirloom designs and handcrafted contemporary versions of vintage jewellery

Rebecca Vargese Published :  28th April 2017 06:00 AM   |   Published :   |  28th April 2017 06:00 AM
Sanchita Shetty | Jewellery: Vummidi Bangaru Jewellers (VBJ) | Wardrobe & Styling: Studio 9696 | Hair and make-up: Samantha Jagan of  Wink Salon, Alwarpet

Sanchita Shetty | Jewellery: Vummidi Bangaru Jewellers (VBJ) | Wardrobe & Styling: Studio 9696 | Hair and make-up: Samantha Jagan of Wink Salon, Alwarpet

All that glitters is often pure gold in India. It’s no surprise that we count as the world’s largest group of consumers of gold jewellery, what with the World Gold Council estimating demand for over 750 tonnes, in 2017. That is all the reason we needed to celebrate this Akshaya Tritiya — a day that observes new beginnings with purchases of the precious metal. The one aspect that’s changing, we found, is in the department of design. As Siddhartha Sacheti, CEO of Jaipur Gems, puts it, trends have changed with the millennial generation. “Gold jewellery has now become a statement of individuality,” he says. “With preferences shifting towards minimalism, lightweight and artisanal pieces are in vogue.” On cue, we find some of the most well-known jewellers in South India offering contemporary handmade designs. The artisanal touch in each piece is distinctive, and full of the charm you’d associate with an heirloom or keepsake piece.

Hands-down winners
“Among new-age consumers, there is a clear bias in favour of antique 
jewellery,” says PG Kishore (inset), COO of the Coimbatore-based Emerald Jewel Industry India. A major wholesale supplier of ornaments in the sector, Emerald has earned the tag of being the largest manufacturer of jewellery among the SAARC nations.

Equipped with Italian-made machines and a 24-tonne manufacturing capacity a year, Emerald Jewel’s calling card is its technological adeptness and cast-made jewellery. However, despite the exactness and accuracy of machine-cut jewellery, Kishore points out a growing preference for antique jewellery.

“When we started in 1984, jewellery was handmade and lacked in terms of design and quality, and we swore to mechanise the entire process. But with jewellery being intrinsic to our cultural fabric, a fair share of customers look to buy artisanal jewellery, a service that we now provide.” Dashavataram, their standout collection this year, speaks for a fair amount of handmade work, notes Gunasekaran, who heads one of their  design divisions. “Many portions are handmade,” he points out. “It could be the central pendant piece or smaller parts on the rings and bangles. Large portions of our antique collections are also handcrafted,” he adds.

Jewel One recently marked its foray into the fine jewellery category, launching its diamond and platinum lines. Catering to unconventional buyers, the brand also has lightweight gem-studded collections. With 14 showrooms across Chennai, Coimbatore, Vellore and other districts in Tamil Nadu, the group is now looking to move to southern Andra Pradesh within the next year.

Fit for the divinities

Admittedly, finding skilled artisans isn’t easy. Though, at Chennai’s Vummidi Bangaru Jewellers (VBJ), the in-house team of artisans count over three generations of expert craftsmen. A lot of their handcrafted work have also found their way into temples inthe country and abroad. VBJ’s Managing Director Jithendra Vummidi tells us that he and his brother Amar (inset; above and below, respectively) are involved in the gem selection process for most of their pieces. “Both of us are internationally certified gemologists. This allows us to pick out the best diamonds and gemstones to use in the ornaments.” Their artisanal range extends from chains to hand-embossed naga neck-wear and earrings, while VBJ has also found a patron at the Tirupati Devasthanam. 

“A handcrafted sacred thread embellished with diamonds and set in platinum made by us adorns Lord Balaji of Tirupati,” shares Jithendra. With design teams at Chennai and Coimbatore, their showrooms are located at Anna Salai and Anna Nagar in Chennai, and Jayanagar in Bengaluru. While the artisans usually follow the designs provided, the jewellers also encourage them to try their hand at designing. Some of their most popular motifs used in both their traditional and combination pieces are of Goddess Lakshmi, Ganesha, elephants, peacocks and floral patterns.

At the top of their gems
Kirtilals’ signature bridal collection and their floral range, Ambrosia, are among the design and jewellery house’s many handcrafted lines and exclusive collections dedicated to artisanal ornaments. “Jewellery is a reflection of the wearer’s personality. Handcrafted ornaments ensure that each design 
is unique and cannot be replicated,” emphasises Suraj Shantakumar (inset), Director of Business Strategy. 

While temple jewellery with motifs like deities and peacocks are preferred during festivals like Akshaya Tritiya, Suraj says that gem-studded floral accents are also well-received. Their Ambrosia collection features 50 unique designs includes motifs like hibiscus, rose and tulips. “Gemstones like pink 
sapphire, pearls and savolite were chosen to keep the collection young and trendy,” he says. The collection was crafted using Italian jewellery making techniques.

With trends now shifting towards versatility and utility, skilled artisans and contemporary takes on traditional designs are critical for the brand to stay relevant. “While a significant portion of our clientele opts for artisanal jewellery, customers today are not only looking for craft but also flexibility, detailing, 
wearability and finish,” offers Suraj.

Besides customisation, detachable jewellery is something that Kirtilals is exploring. “We have necklaces where parts can be detached and used as pendants and bracelets,” says Suraj.

Fusion jewellery, a combination of traditional temple designs and diamond work is also something to keep a look out for this season. Having recently entered the online space, Kirtilals has 11 outlets in South India, including Bengaluru, Chennai, Coimbatore, Hyderabad and Kochi.

The royal treatment
Specialising in handcrafted temple and kundan jewellery, Kerala-based Pavizham Jewellers ensure that none of its pieces are ever replicated. With a reputation for elaborate design, layering and intricate joint work, Managing Director Lijo S Chungath describes their artisanal setup, involved in the making of kundan jewellery, as an assembly line of sorts.

“Different artisans handle different portions of the same piece,” he describes. “Some are involved in setting the pearls, others set the stones, a unit takes care of the enamelling work, while another group takes care of the joint work,” he says.

A traditional form of jewellery making, the kundan jewellery, which was once patronised by Mughal royalty, is available at their retail stores at Thrissur, Palakkad, Kozhikode, Coimbatore, Pollachi, Chittoor and Muscat.

Heading a team of artisans at their manufacturing unit in Coimbatore is Raja, who also goes by the moniker, UMT Raja. “UMT stands for ‘Unnal Mudiyum Thambi’ (You can do it),” he says cheerily. “That is because my team and I have never turned down a customer,” he adds, with a laugh. Having worked with the Pavizham group for 20 years now, Raja oversees every piece of artisanal work that goes out with their name. “It takes a lot of time to create these, and there is also a lot more wastage when it comes to handmade pieces,” he points out.

Temple run 
Every morning, close to sunrise, the goldsmith Muthu Shivam achari starts the day at his workshop. This has been his routine for as far as he can remember. Hailing from a family of traditional craftsmen in Vadasery, Muthu learnt the intricacies of temple jewellery at a very young age. With exact origins of the craft largely unknown, oral tradition has it that the technique was bequeathed from father to son.

However, Muthu recounts legends that date back to the early-17th Century, when minor kings from Chettinad came to Nagercoil to order jewellery to offer the gods. Although originally made from gold encrusted with rubies and emeralds, today the Vadasery jewellery is identified by silver ornaments covered with gold leaf and imitation stones.

“Initially, the jewellery was made only for temples, but now people look to buy similar pieces for bharatanatyam. We have no option but to make imitations,” he explains. Most of his designs bear a striking similarity to the sculpted walls of Chola temples, especially ones in Thanjavur. A recipient of a state award for his creation — a five- headed serpent with a jewel-studded Krishna playing the flute, this 60-year- old never takes a day off from work. The temple jewellery from Vadasery comes with a Geographical Indicator (GI) tag.

Jhumka jammin’
He possesses no drawing boards or notebooks to preserve his doodles; memory serves as the only storehouse for his designs. Unsure about his age, and the approximate number of ornaments he has crafted, the only number that Ganesh, a goldsmith from Mahalakshmi Jewellery, is certain of is of the 15 years that he has been at his trade.

Specialising in making earrings, the craftsman tells us that his favourites include jhumkas, and intricate floral patterned studs. “There are almost 60-odd components to even the smallest jhumka that I make,” he says.

Wrought and forged into desired shapes, these miniature components are placed together on a sheet or roll of black wax. “After the final design is put together on the wax, it is soldered at about 482°C,” he explains. 

Laughing off the question if there is a masterpiece he hopes to create, the artisan from Pallakad says, “We think of each work as a masterpiece. If you put your heart into creating something, it shows.” He adds, returning to his tools, “A handmade earring can take anywhere from five to twelve days (of work) depending on the detailing.”

Buy it right
“Almost 50 per cent of Indian savings is in gold. It is important that you pay attention to what you are buying. Impatience can cause hurried decisions, thereby putting your investment at risk,” says B Muthu Venkatram, President, Coimbatore Jewellery Manufacturers Association. Here are some things to keep in mind while buying gold — 
■ Make sure that your jewellery contains all recognised markings denoting purity.
■ Discuss the origin of the piece you are buying. Making charges on machine-made ornaments are lower than charges for handcrafted pieces.
■ Keep in mind that gold jewellery is sold by weight and that precious stones are often added to jewellery, making them heavier. Always check the net gold weight before purchase.
■ Ask your jeweller for advice on what to buy. Specify the purpose of the accessory.
■ Always double-check the joints of the jewellery. Defective joints will affect the overall quality and life of the ornament.
■ Enquire about after-sales service and durability of the goods.