Armed with recycled baubles—a potpourri of semiprecious stones, bones, horns and other accoutrements of nature—Sabyasachi Mukherjee would cruise the bustling streets of erstwhile Calcutta—Park Street and Chowringhee Lane—selling his pieces in plastic tiffin boxes. This was way before he became every Indian bride’s most coveted bridal designer.
“Calcutta has a way of creeping under your skin and injecting aesthetic into your soul,” says Mukherjee. This is the city that he reminisces about the most because it thrills with the spirit of bygone days—wafting smells of warm mustard oil and jasmine, as buxom women traipse between decorating their hair with flowers and cooking ilish macher jhol (Bengali fish curry)—like no other. And where old customs are concerned, whether pre or post-British Raj, says Mukherjee, the romance of buying jewellery has been unparalleled. It was, after all, the era of slow. Shopping entailed a leisurely process of deep admiration for design and deeper contemplation over process, intermingled with many coquettish giggles and yearning sighs—all this, before you were led down the meandering road of buying and selling. “This is how precious jewellery was bought by my mother and grandmother—and this is what I want to resurrect,” says Mukherjee.
Calcutta, the vintage city of India, has shaped Mukherjee’s destiny. And he wears this like a badge of honour. The symbolism of bygone days is resplendently displayed in each of his stores in India—antique hand-painted chandeliers, time-worn rugs, ittar bottles from the raucous markets of Hyderabad and Lucknow, block-printed chintz curtains made of 200-thread count khadi. His is a specific aesthetic—retro revolution, if you may—that is the arterial lifeline that cuts through all his creative experiments, whether it’s interiors, clothing, shoes, art or, now, his new jewellery collection. Divided into three lines, it celebrates the India of yore—Fine Jewellery (diamonds and coloured stones) which, according to him, is “an amorous kinship between diamonds, rubies and emeralds”; Heritage (jadau and vintage India); and men’s jewellery.
Diamonds pose the biggest challenge for him. For him, there is a very significant difference between how an Indian customer and a Western customer buys jewellery. “The Westerner will consume it as an object of beauty, while the Indian will come with two unfailing questions (under the tutelage of her father or husband): What is the breakup of the jewellery? And what is the resale value? I find this annoying.” Mukherjee remembers the time his grandfather gave his mother an Art Deco necklace. It was set in platinum with emeralds, diamonds and jade. “I don’t think here someone would buy ‘high-value’ jewellery with jade in it. But in my opinion, it’s the jade that gives the diamonds and emeralds a flourish of vintage,” says Mukherjee. The fact is brands like Bulgari and Cartier have made a fortune by mixing fine diamonds with semi-precious stones. But in India it is still seen as an aberration to the prevailing norm of buying diamonds as ‘investment pieces’. “Indian women will come and say, ‘Can you remove the meenakari work from the back?’ or ‘Can you reduce the making charges because what I really want is the diamond?’ For me it’s akin to a woman buying couture clothes and asking if she can wear polyester underclothes because no one is going to see it,” says Mukherjee.
He is clearly unimpressed with the diamond industry in India as it stands today. “Like bad fusion food, it’s over-designed and is neither classic nor modern. I want to make small quantities of quieter, design-led diamonds with higher value that can be worn for the next 50 years. I am not into making diamonds that look like bumble bees and neckties,” says Mukherjee. The Heritage line, full of traditional nuances predominantly in gold, is what he says an intelligent, hardworking middle-class Indian wants to buy. “They don’t believe in coloured stones. But they don’t want flashy gold either.” Mukherjee, of late, has quite a following among the NRI community across the globe, especially families whose children are getting married, say, in Silicon Valley. Families from IT businesses originally from South India, West Bengal and Maharashtra appreciate this line because they look for traditional nuances with a cultured design sensibility. We all know that the NRIs have heightened sentiments about India’s heritage and culture. Owning these pieces gives them not only value but also quiet dignity and ownership of their pedigree. “They are the ones who fuel the surge in ‘organic’ weddings. They look up to the Sarabhais of Ahmedabad, Murtys of Tamil Nadu, Sarkars of Bengal. It is not Bollywood that they gravitate towards. They want a refined and quiet aesthetic.
The real dialogue is about the idea of progress. Progress is good. But how much of the past must we forsake in order to achieve it? Mukherjee deliberates substantially on this topic. “We must acknowledge the past,” he affirms. “We need to be less apologetic about it and embrace it. Simply look at the old photos of refined opulence. Today jewellery has become so generic.” He uses the same logic for his jewellery collection that he did with his textiles from Benares. “The fundamental know-how and the intricate craftsmanship are somewhat lost to the younger generation of urbanised youth. It is the older generation of craftspeople who design with joy. The youth talk statistics and price points. Jewellery needs to go back to its purest form and exuberance,” says Mukherjee.
Lack of patronage and, worse, lack of hope is what was glaring on his journey. The artisans who have extreme know-how live in abject poverty because they have out-skilled themselves in a market that demands mediocrity. And it’s the very mediocre who are laughing their way to the bank. “In Benares,” explains Mukherjee, “National Award-winning weavers live on charpoys. The ones making synthetic yarns from Surat or China have five-storeyed houses.” Mukherjee, outspoken to a fault, believes that mediocrity has pervaded the masses of India. “I want to slowly push mediocrity out of the jewellery industry by giving work to the kind of craftspeople you no longer find easily. There are phenomenal meenakari artists in Jaipur, Jodhpur and Bikaner. They cannot do the best-quality work because the market doesn’t pay for such fine and expensive craftsmanship. It is similar to the most intelligent and dynamic women in India not being able to get married because they are too qualified, too bright for the ‘wedding market’. It is the same with Bollywood. The best of actors doesn’t get the job. Where is Naseeruddin Shah? He is too good an actor for the film industry. How ironic! I want to change this.”
A year ago he acquired a stunning Golconda necklace from a family of enviable provenance. The first thing he decided was that he would photograph this piece on Indrani Dasgupta, the sultry Kolkata-based model, wearing an 800-rupees sari. “That way the sari gives dignity to the necklace and vice versa. That is the joy of creating the imagery that resonates with people. This is a journey of authenticity.”