How a traditional jewellery house can morph into a modern avatar without losing its cross-generational clientele
Heritage jewellery from C. Krishniah Chetty & Sons
In 1877, a young Greek jeweller named Sotirios Boulgaris left his village in the Epirus region and travelled to Corfu, Naples and, finally, Rome, where—in 1884—he opened a store on Via Sistina under the name Bulgari. A century later, Claudio Mariani, a young Italian, joined the company, first as a jewellery designer, then as manager of their Geneva outlet, and later as head of their Asian operations. At the time, Bulgari had just four stores, in New York, Paris, Rome and Geneva. Forty years later, they are everywhere, with over 300 stores selling their jewels and watches.
The question is: Which will be the first Indian jewellery brand to achieve this level of success? And how do you define success in the jewellery universe today? Is it stores in 300 cities; or sustainably sourced stones; or creating important pieces of jewellery—valued at $100,000 (around Rs.67 lakh) and up; or online sales?
Graff Diamonds, for instance, occupies a rarefied niche market catering to, say, a thousand of the richest people in the world. You could argue, and jewellery designers do, that Graff is limited by the quality of its stones. It has less creative freedom in terms of design. When you have a 100-carat emerald, all you need to do is get the best out of that stone, not create a mind-bending piece of jewellery. “If you have a Kashmir sapphire of a few carats, a few good diamonds and emeralds, the piece will easily cost a million dollars,” says Singapore-based Mariani. “Where Cartier and Bulgari have strong creative content, Graff is focused on the singularity of its fantastic stones.”
When people talk about luxury jewellery brands, the names that come up are Cartier, Bulgari, Van Cleef & Arpels, and Harry Winston. Cartier has serviced every Indian maharaja worth his name. Harry Winston is a favourite of the red carpet, although actor Kate Winslet wore Nirav Modi to the Oscars this year. Each of these brands—like Rolex and Porsche—has metamorphosed, but gradually, to suit the current times. You can trace their evolution. Which begs the question: How can a traditional Indian brand morph into a modern avatar while retaining its cross-generational clientele?
Umesh Ganjam stands at the entrance of his flagship jewellery store in Bengaluru, right across the street from UB City where LVMH and Salvatore Ferragamo share space. Malls like DLF Emporio and UB City don’t like to give first-floor retail space to Indian brands, says Umesh.
The Ganjam store may have the spare interiors of a Christian Dior or the Guggenheim, but its origins lie in temple architecture. Only five materials—teak, rosewood, stone, silk and glass—have been used because five, or pancha, is how ancient Indians measured many things: pancha bhoota (elements), pancha kosha (body sheaths), pancha tattva(philosophies), panchatantra (stories), and so on. Eye-popping necklaces made with tanzanite, opal, sapphire, emeralds and, of course, diamonds, are placed inside glass cubicles. In the centre is the garbha griha, or womb chamber, that is empty to honour the air element, says Umesh.
India has jewellery houses that are several generations old. Ganjam jewellery, for instance, is 127 years old. C. Krishniah Chetty & Sons is 145 years old. Both are Bengaluru-based. In comparison, many of the top north Indian brands that came up in the 1980s, like Nirav Modi, The House of Rose, Amrapali and Anmol, are far younger. Of the lot, the Jaipur-based Gem Palace (1852) and Kolkata-based Raj Mahtani (2000, although the family business was founded in 1880) and Surana (1735) can claim a heritage that goes back more than a century. Most Indian jewellery brands have been so busy catering to the Indian market that they haven’t really thought about becoming global brands, using their heritage as a springboard.
Umesh wants to change this paradigm. Confident, erudite, and rooted in Indian culture, he quotes Sanskrit poetry at will. “Hastasya bhooshanam daanam, satyam kanthasya bhooshanam,” he says. Which roughly translates into: The best ornament for the hand is giving. The best ornament for the throat is speaking the truth. And because much of south Indian culture originated in Hampi—whether it is Carnatic music, temple architecture, or jewellery, the Ganjam brand patronizes these arts. Their latest is an exhibition, on till 30 March, of black and white photographs of the Hampi area by the late photographer Prabuddha Dasgupta.
“We can’t compete with the French, Italian and British brands, and why should we?” says Umesh. “Their ideas of beauty came after the industrial revolution. The world is now a different place.” He cites examples: Coco Chanel wanted to carry a cigarette in one hand and shake hands with the other. The handle of the handbag came in the way, so she invented the sling. Today, smoking is out of fashion. Fur used to be luxury but now it is an environmental no-no. Notions of luxury today have to do with fair trade, sustainability and hand-craftsmanship.
For Umesh, the way forward is to embrace Indian heritage. They always present themselves as an Indian brand, says Umesh, even if they are sponsoring polo matches in England, hiring the firm that designs the Hermès showrooms to design their flagship store, or getting Kazuo Ogawa as their jewellery designer. All their jewellery is handcrafted by the 100-odd karigars (craftsmen), who use coconut shells, coal and a low flame to bend, twist and tame gold into holds for precious stones. “Indian aesthetics come from a different edifice,” says Umesh. “Our ideas of beauty are rooted in spirituality and connectedness. Our jewels are born of colour and we used coloured stones in a way that is unlike anyone else. We should capitalize on these instead of glorifying everything that is Western.”
Traditionally, ornaments in India tend to be underplayed. Women wear mangalsutras laden with precious stones that they hide within the folds of their saris. It is casual and sensuous, mixing plant-based mehndi (henna) designs on the hand with gem-studded haath-phool bracelets. It is ritualistic: People wear different stones for different days, and link this to planetary movements and seasons. Jewels are an investment and an offering to God. Umesh shows me designs of the vastu-purusha, or primordial man, based on whom temples are designed.
“The reason we wear jewellery on certain parts of the body has to do with vastu,” says Umesh, who says that his guru is C. Sivaramamurti, the Sanskrit scholar-savant who also taught art historian B.N. Goswamy and was the first director of the National Museum in Delhi. Umesh also reads Stella Kramrisch, Ananda K. Coomaraswamy and other Sanskrit scholars in their original.
The biggest challenge for Ganjam and other family brands is succession: how to maintain traditional clients while attracting the newer generations whose ideas of beauty and brand value are more modern.
C. Vinod Hayagriv, managing director of C. Krishniah Chetty & Sons, is trying to tread this fine line. For one, they have rebranded themselves as CKCSons rather than the long traditional name. They host fashion shows in their showroom and have three generations working in the family business. While this ensures continuity, reaching a consensus on design and marketing strategies is hard. The elders want to hold back on radical change while the younger members want to shake things up.
“You have to convince teams to evolve; mix the old and the new,” says Hayagriv. “It is an HR challenge on one side and a brand management challenge on the other. What is keeping me up at nights these days is a family member wanting to run an independent wing of the business rather than through teamwork, which is not acceptable to us. So there is conflict.”
So Hayagriv tinkers. He commissions experimental lines of jewellery to see if they sell. He holds on to old customers while wooing new ones.
All Indian brands walk this tightrope. Most tend to stay true to their heritage without too much experimentation—unless you happen to be Viren Bhagat, in which case you can work on anything from Mughal designs to art deco patterns and still have your pieces fly off the shelf. Then again, Mumbai-based Bhagat is arguably one of the two best jewellery designers in the world—the other being JAR, or Joel Arthur Rosenthal. The way Bhagat uses stones to “evaporate” the metal, it looks as if the stone is floating.
Mariani says that when he headed Bulgari in Asia, he travelled through the country searching for craftsmen who could duplicate the complicated workmanship of the “Parenthesis” necklace; and couldn’t find one. “Things may have changed now,” he says. “Indians are luxury oriented and will spend on jewels that they want. They are the toughest customers because they negotiate so much. But they love jewellery.”
The challenge and triumph for Indian jewellery brands will be their ability to stay rooted to the soil that gave them their aesthetic sensibilities while reaching for the stars.