Jewelers find inspiration in India

New York Times, November 23, 2007

No country can claim a jewelry tradition more robustly entrenched than India's. On the Bollywood red carpet, and at any respectable Indian wedding, it is commonplace to see women staggering beneath lavish burdens of gold -22-karat bangles stacked along their arms, bell-like jhumka ear ornaments weighing down their lobes, chokers strung with gem-set triangles dangling from the neck.

At the turn of the past century, Western jewelers frequently adopted Indian motifs - peacocks, lotus flowers and other images redolent of mosques and Mogul treasures - as the Pax Britannica freed India's ruling elites from more pressing concerns, allowing them to indulge their penchant for baubles from the finest ateliers of Europe.

The trend reached its zenith in the 1930s with Cartier's extraordinary commissions for the maharajahs, for whom it fashioned extravagant parures incorporating antique stones from the royal treasuries. The jewels, assembled in Paris, ushered in a style that Cartier nicknamed "Tutti Frutti" for its exuberant combinations of ruby, sapphire and emerald beads set in floral compositions.

After India gained independence in 1947, however, the orders dried up and Western designers found new muses. For decades, the look was simply too ethnic to play on the postwar, postindustrial, postmodern fashion stage.

Until now.

Suddenly, inspired by India's star turn on the global scene, jewelry connoisseurs are again citing the country's 5,000-year-old design heritage, newly co-opted by a rising cohort of luxury jewelers besotted with traditional Indian craftsmanship and locally sourced precious stones.

Cartier, for one, has come full circle with its "Inde Mystérieuse" collection, introduced in September at a glitzy event in London, where 300 meters, or nearly 1,000 feet, of organza ribbon, 1,500 meters of Indian fabrics and 2,000 meters of wood helped to transform the neo-Classical Lancaster House into a sumptuous Rajput palace. So convincing was the decor that one could almost see Sir Bhupinder Singh, the maharajah of Patiala, strolling through the house adorned with the Patiala necklace, a platinum and diamond bib that he commissioned in 1928, the most impressive necklace ever made by Cartier.

Of 82 pieces in the new collection, a platinum and diamond neckpiece anchored by a 63.66-carat pear-cut diamond might be the Patiala's closest runner-up.

"It's worth about €10 million," or $14.6 million, said Pierre Rainero, Cartier's image, style and heritage director.

Most of the unique pieces - although not the platinum and diamond collar - sold out within days, Rainero said. Cartier will reproduce 48 of the designs at prices ranging from €40,000 to €550,000.

In the rarefied luxury market of today, which prizes exclusivity above all, "style is about having fewer things and having those things be one of a kind and crafted by designers who don't belong to the mainstream," said Paola De Luca, creative director of Trends Jewellery Forecasting, a consultancy and magazine based in Arezzo, Italy.

In search of authenticity, sophisticated clients are patronizing Indian jewelers who have built a reputation abroad. "So many of our customers are keen to embrace Indian jewelry," said Nathalie Kabiri, owner of Kabiri, a jewelry boutique in the Marylebone district of London, "because it seems they're helping to keep a tradition alive."

Kabiri's new concession at Selfridges department store devotes prime showcase space to Amrapali of Jaipur, a manufacturer based in the Rajasthani capital, the hub of the Indian colored stone industry. The company's ornate necklaces, encrusted with shallow rose-cut diamonds, and Bakelite cuffs studded with red spinels, a Mogul favorite, are a hit in Hollywood, Paris, Moscow and of course Mumbai.

"Indian consumers want 22-karat gold, but for the international market we do 18-karat and we make it daintier," Tarang Arora, son of Amrapali's owner, Rajiv Arora, said. "We try to take old Indian ethnic designs and contemporize them."