India’s crown jeweller

Apr 28, 2012

Clad in jeans and a black, sleeveless top that reveal the tattoos on his arms, the jeweller Hanut Singh holds court over an assembled group of adoring customers in the anteroom of Bungalow 8, Mumbai’s famed concept store. Pink and purple macaroons are placed like pyramids in dainty containers all around, except that none of the Pilates-toned bodies are touching them.

An attentive waiting staff carries around tall glasses of bubbly refreshments. The women put down their Gucci bags and gush over Singh’s latest Moth to a Flame collection, retailing for about US$3,500 (Dh12,856) on average for a pair of earrings. Later, Singh plans to take this collection to New York and Los Angeles, but for now, he is assisting as his loyal customers choose their baubles.

“Darling, that green looks so good against your skin,” he pronounces. “Don’t you love this?” he asks, picking up a pair of ruby earrings that are carved into the Hindu elephant God, Ganesh. The women pull back their long black hair, and preen before the floor-length mirror. Singh never pushes them to buy. As he says often, his pieces are for women who already own significant jewellery and know their baubles.

Singh, 39, knows his baubles, too. His great-grandfather, Maharaja Jagatjit Singh of the erstwhile kingdom of Kapurthala, was a flamboyant Francophone, who ascended the throne at the age of five and ruled until 1948, a year after India became independent. The king was among the most widely travelled of his time and spent summers in Europe and the south of France with his five wives, including a Spanish dancer, Anita Delgado. Jagatjit Singh loved shopping for jewellery and travelled to Paris carrying suitcases of gemstones to offer commissions to Cartier, Boucheron, Van Cleef & Arpels and other European jewellers. In 1926, Cartier created a turban ornament for him using a hexagonal 177-carat emerald, along with numerous diamonds and pearls.

“My great-grandfather was a connoisseur of varied and exquisite taste,” says Singh. “Not only did he travel the world over 130 years ago, he was a visionary and aesthete.”

Singh’s paternal grandmother – Princess Sita Devi, or Princess Karam as she was called – was considered one of the loveliest women in all of India. Photographed frequently by Cecil Beaton, Princess Karam arrived in Paris when she was a 14-year-old newlywed. This “Pearl of India” cut a stylish figure with her dusky countenance, couture clothes and spectacular jewellery. Muse to photographers such as Man Ray, clad in Mainbocher and Madame Grès, Princess Karam inspired Elsa Schiaparelli to design a collection of gowns based on the saris she wore. When she was 19, Vogue magazine anointed her a “secular goddess”. Five years later, Look magazine called her one of the five best-dressed women on earth.

Elsie de Wolfe threw a party in her honour with trained caparisoned elephants welcoming the guests. Princess Sita Devi arrived wearing a Grecian gown and dripping with jewels by Van Cleef & Arpels, Cartier and Chaumet. Princess Karam wore peasant-style dresses and Grecian gowns and combined her chiffon saris with pearls and fur coats. The society pages in London and Paris tracked her clothes and considered her a stylish trendsetter. Later, the legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland, then at Harper’s Bazaar, asked the Princess if she and her team could visit the Kapurthala kingdom for a photo shoot. The Princess opened up her Versailles-style palace and the photographs now are part of the royal memorabilia.

“My grandmother, Princess Sita, was not only the most exquisite woman you could ever see,” says Singh, “but she was a great wit, raconteur, superb cook and a woman of deep spiritual practice. We were blessed to have her in our lives.”

Young Hanut grew up watching his glamorous grandmother, mother and sister wearing priceless family heirlooms and discussing jewels in a matter-of-fact way. Jewellery in his family was considered to be an extension of personal style, not something to be put away in a box. After studying literature and media studies at New York’s Hunter College, Singh worked at Elle magazine as a fashion writer and editor.

“Even though everyone said that I was good at it, I realised that writing was not my

métier,” he says. “It didn’t inspire me and I wasn’t fuelled by it.”

Eight years ago, when he was 31, he borrowed Rs50,000 (Dh3,580) from his uncle and another Rs50,000 from his mother to design his first collection of jewellery called Frutti de Mare. Much of the collection was made with pearls and Japanese abalone shells. Singh invited 40 stylish women to his sunny, spacious New Delhi penthouse for a trunk show and was sold out by the end of the day. He repaid his loans, designed his second collection, Wind Chime, within three months, and hasn’t stopped since.

Shweta Bachchan Nanda, the daughter of the Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan, has been wearing his jewellery for years. “I love that Hanut is constantly discovering new materials and using them so effectively,” she says. “I always get compliments when I wear his jewellery.” Like many Indian women, she says that the appeal of Singh’s pieces are their versatility, the fact that they can be paired with both Indian and western clothes.

For a country with a long tradition of jewellery making, India has surprisingly few independent jewellers. The London-based Alice Cicolini, a graduate of Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, is one. She works with craftsmen in Jodhpur to produce her brightly coloured rings and necklaces using the intricate meenakari, or champlevé technique. Other contemporary Indian jewellers such as Farah Khan Ali and Roopa Vohra are considered more established in that they have freestanding stores and stockists. Munnu Kasliwal, scion of the family that owns the famed Gem Palace, Jaipur, retails his Munnu collection, both at home and at Barney’s in New York and Los Angeles. Singh pegs himself as more artisanal, making jewellery “with a point of view”, as he says.

The prolific designer, who sports tattoos of doves “for peace,” bamboo stalks for prosperity, and others on his arms, says that inspiration for his designs comes in two ways. “Either I fall absolutely madly in love with a stone or I get inspired by my surroundings. It could be the crescent moon in a miniature painting or the Islamic gallery of the Met. It could be anything – a street in Morocco, Moorish architecture, music, nature, the crescent shape of the moon or the slice of a dagger.”

Today, his clients include not only Indian socialites but also global celebrities such as Madonna, Meryl Streep, Beyoncé, Penelope Cruz, Cindy Sherman, Wendi Deng Murdoch, Queen Rania and a slew of Hollywood stars and models including Rebecca Romijn, the Olsen twins and Amy Adams, among others.

“Wendi Murdoch is a long-time client of mine and she gifted Queen Rania a pair of my earrings as a birthday present,” says Singh.

Singh’s tryst with Hollywood began in 2005, when Beyoncé bought a couple of his earrings just before she went to Cannes for a photo shoot. Soon she was seen flaunting his earrings on magazine covers.

“It was so kind of Beyoncé to showcase my work,” says Singh. “She was pulling her hair back and working the jewellery. She must have known I was a young designer.”

In due course, his jewellery caught the eyes of other stars. Madonna commissioned a pair of skull earrings from him, and also borrowed several pieces when she went on holiday. The Olsen twins, who Singh calls “very cool and absolutely charming”, wore his jewels, as did supermodels such as Naomi Campbell and Karolina Kurkova.

“You know, celebrities get paid a ton of money to wear jewellery,” says Singh. “I don’t play that game. I don’t have that kind of money. And in the end, yeah, it’s a big deal [to have a celebrity wear your jewellery] but really, it’s not that big a deal. I am a bit snobbish about my work.”

Handwritten testimonials from his clients are part of his archives. The shoe designer Christian Louboutin, who signs off as “Xtian Louboutin”, says that Singh’s work “has so much in common with what I like with my own work: to be able to express through small objects like shoes or jewellery our love and passion for handicraft, women, traditions mixed and shaked with a good twist, elegance and delicatessen… I can’t stop myself buying his work, it became one of my favourite addictions, and I never, and probably never will, regret it! So, keep on, dear Hanut, and thanks for existing!!!”

The fashion designer and philanthropist Rachel Roy says in her testimonial that “Hanut so perfectly combines the richness and history of Indian detail with the modern edge of what women want to wear today”.

Clearly, many of his celebrity clients end up as friends to this savvy jewellery designer. Within India, Singh is part of the glamorous set that parties in Goa, holidays in the south of France and shops in New York. The fashion designer Malini Ramani, who is known for her resort wear, is an old friend. Ramani says that Singh has a “diamond heart that is filled with love, compassion and a strong sense of fairness”. Singh, in turn, calls Ramani his muse and “BFF”, indulging in the giggly chatter and inside jokes of longtime friends.

“I could swear he possesses some sort of shamanic powers,” says Ramani. “Every time I speak to him, a wave of calm washes over me. There is beauty all around.”

The PR guru Nikhil Khanna, who represents many of the top luxury brands in India and is a friend of Louboutin, says that Singh is “genuinely unfettered, freewheeling and counterintuitive… He is so zany and free – the way he lives, the things he says, his humour. All of that translates to his work”.

For all the free-spirited, party-loving image that he projects, Singh is a steely businessman who describes himself as clear-cut, methodical and pragmatic. He retails out of his atelier in New Delhi and through trunk shows in New York, London, Paris and across the world. Friends who are stylists also plug his work to their celebrity clients. Trained master craftsmen do all his lapidary work in house from the sketches he makes.

Singh’s forte is gemstones and he scours the world for them: Sri Lankan sapphires, Persian onyx, Japanese abalone, Afghani tourmalines, Russian topaz, blue-green Amazon beetle wings, pale pink Morganite, light green chalcedony, red rubellite, green Peruvian opal that Singh calls his favourite stone, peridot, citrine, black pearl and of course, diamonds, rubies and emeralds, all set in 18-carat gold. Unlike traditional Indian jewellery, which makes up for its use of small gemstones through elaborate embellishments and filigree work, Singh resolutely seeks out large gemstones and highlights their natural beauty with the slightest of embellishments. His focus on silhouette, colour, proportion and balance put his work closer to European brands such as Christian Dior, Tarina Tarantino, Paloma Picasso, Alexis Bittar and John Hardy, rather than contemporary Indian jewellers who work in Jaipur and New Delhi.

Unlike family-owned Indian jewellers such as S Zaveri & Sons, C Krishniah Chetty & Sons, Bapalal, and Khanna Jewellers, which cater to the masses, Singh chooses his clients carefully and creates his wares with a restrained hand. While he is a long way off from being a global brand, the fact that he is increasingly being mentioned in those circles is proof that the stars are burning bright for the man whose curved dagger earrings are coveted by women in the know.

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