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How the founders of Amrapali built a timeless brand

Tarang Arora, the creative director of Amrapali, talks about mapping history through jewellery and training karigars to sustain growth

Tarang Arora. (Illustration by Priya Kuriyan)

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The full title of the book Wanting, by Luke Burgis, is The Power Of Mimetic Desire In Everyday Life. It explores how humans are drawn to mimicking other humans. The crux is about breaking free from the cycle of thin or shallow mimetic desires—perhaps feeling the pressure to produce Instagram reels is one example—to work on something that satisfies greater or deeper desires, perhaps a documentary or a book. It persuades readers to examine their core values and deep desires to create something of lasting value.

The Jaipur-based jewellery brand Amrapali, which traces its roots to the 1970s, could well be a case study. That was the time when Rajiv Arora and Rajesh Ajmera, school friends and history buffs, were looking to do something with their favourite subject—history. Then in their early 20s, they considered selling handicrafts, using their contacts to source and sell handcrafted boxes. Serendipitously, one client happened to inquire about garnets.

GETTING STARTED
This is when they realised the historical significance of jewellery, particularly Indian tribal jewellery. Setting off on an exploratory tour into the hinterlands of Rajasthan, they found that jewellery, like food, changes every 100km and served as a clear marker of caste and class. One example was the Shiva-following Lingayat community pendants that would open up to reveal a Shiva linga, somewhat like a shrine. At pawn shops, they came across the anklets, bracelets and armlets nomadic tribals would sell to earn some money.

They bought many of these, putting the finest pieces into a safe box for study and remaking the rest to create something entirely new. For instance, a necklace could be taken apart to create earrings, nose pins and pendants. Since they were not making jewellery from scratch, just working on old pieces, no two pieces looked alike. In 1978, they opened a small shop in the congested Chameliwala market in Jaipur and named it Amrapali. It became popular for its one-of-a-kind jewellery pieces.

Word began to spread beyond Rajasthan. In the early 1980s, they found loyal clients in Bollywood: Rekha, Dimple Kapadia and Shabana Azmi would travel from Mumbai to buy from them. In the mid-1980s, they opened their first store in Mumbai, at the Oberoi hotel shopping arcade.

In the 1990s, Amrapali became the official jewellery designers for the Femina Miss India pageant. In 2002, they opened a booth at Selfridges in London and became the official jewellery partners for an event called 23 and A Half Days of Bollywood. It was a time when brand India was gaining currency globally and Bollywood was glamourising the NRI life. Amrapali’s heavy silver, tribal jewellery, with its fine craftsmanship, found fans in London.

There’s more to be said about timing. In 2002, as it happens, Rajiv Arora’s 18-year-old son, Tarang, was searching for courses on gemology. And the Gemological Institute of America opened a campus in London that year. His father encouraged him to study there and look after the fledgling business at Selfridges. “My father said this is your college, then there is the business (at Selfridges), and it’s up to you now. At that age, it felt like a hard push into the business world. It was also the best time.”

Today Rajiv Arora is a minister of state in the Rajasthan government and chairman of the Rajasthan Small Industries Corporation and Rajasthan Export Promotion Council. Ajmera remains a co-founder. Tarang, now 39, is the creative director of Amrapali, a second-generation jeweller who has imbibed his father’s passion for history, jewellery and craft. His wife, Akanksha, looks after marketing.

“This bracelet I am wearing is more than 150 years old,” says Tarang, showing me the chunky silver piece carved with a dragon-like mythological animal, Makra. “It’s probably from Himachal. The Makra belongs to the mythological text from that state,” he adds. Tarang sports about nine bracelets every day, each with a meaning and a personal story. They have become a marker of his identity.

The sleeves of his white, buttoned shirt are rolled up, displaying the bracelets, and he wears his hair long, covering the neck. “I like skulls,” he says, showing me a bracelet with a skull design that is a gift from Akanksha. He is constantly gesturing—every time he mentioned earrings, his hands would move to his ears. He scrolls through his phone to show me his rough sketches of jewellery, adding, “I am inspired by nature.”

Today Amrapali Jewels, which showcases products starting from 5,000 and running into lakhs of rupees, has 13 stores in India, three in London, UK, and Dubai, with stockist partners in the US and Sri Lanka. They have two sub-brands, Tribe Amrapali and Legend Amrapali.

It was in 2013 that Tribe Amrapali , their affordable brand, began retailing silver and fashion jewellery with tribal motifs for as little as 500. It now has 11 stores across India, with one store in Dubai too. In 2021, they launched Legend Amrapali to retail premium, modern and minimalistic pieces. A simple bracelet can cost 15,000. Some pieces from the Legend collection, mainly available online, are also available at select stores of Amrapali Jewels.

Their workforce now comprises about 1,400, including about 1,200 karigars (craftspeople). Five years ago, they opened the Amrapali museum, which showcases about 800 pieces. Another 2,300 are in storage. In January, they hope to launch The Adornment Of Gods, a book by Devdutt Pattanaik based on the museum collection.

THE BACKSTORY
Jewellery, art and design were an intrinsic part of Tarang’s growing-up years. Gifts of jewellery were cherished on birthdays and anniversaries, house party guest lists would have jewellers, and family vacations would ensure exposure to architecture or art somehow connected to jewellery. “For instance, if we visited the Victoria Terminus in Bombay (now Mumbai), my sister and I would be told why it was designed that way or what the design motifs represent.” Subconsciously, he absorbed it all. “I never thought I would do something else as a profession.”

Tarang returned to Jaipur in the mid-aughts, after completing his gemology course and gaining some experience at the Amrapali booth at Selfridges. He had learnt computer-aided designing and manual designing in London but needed training in karigari. This time, he moved to Mumbai to learn benchwork, a term akin to office work for karigars. This is the city where he met Akanksha; they married in 2008 and have two children, aged three and seven.

Akanksha, a second-generation jeweller herself, joined Amrapali, taking charge of marketing. She created a Facebook page for the brand in August 2009, and they began receiving more queries. Sensing a business opportunity, she launched the e-commerce arm, despite her husband’s apprehensions. About the same time, she noticed a gap in the affordable space for tribal jewellery. This led to the launch of Tribe Amrapali.

I ask about how his father and uncle (Ajmera) started the first Amrapali shop in 1978. “My father and uncle started with 400 in their pocket in those days,” responds Tarang. “It’s a family business and we don’t follow the startup model of annual valuations.”

Instead, he shares these numbers to convey growth: Compared to FY 2019-20 (a pre-covid benchmark year), the growth in 2022-23 has been 30-35%. They hope to close 2022-23 at about 280-300 crore in revenue “if the season goes well, and the Ukraine war and international disturbances remain under control”. The bulk of the revenue comes from their stores, with the online business contributing 10-12%.

Their focus now is on expanding the presence of Tribe Amrapali, which he says embodies their core design ethos while offering competitive prices. For, Tarang says, these are difficult times. “In the recent past, many white label orders have moved from China to India. We will also be able to sustain this growth if we, in India, change our mentality and give our best to the quality of workmanship and consistent delivery dates.”

SHORTAGE OF CRAFTSPEOPLE
One of their toughest challenges, like other large jewellery businesses, was the exodus of karigars from Jaipur during the early months of the pandemic. The bulk of their craftspeople were Bengalis; they went back to their home towns and didn’t return.

“We realised that over these years, none of us (jewellers) gave a damn about teaching a local craftsman to improve his craft and we had to do something about it,” rues Tarang. Now, he says, his father “is trying to understand how to empower local craftsmen and bring them closer to Jaipur. He is trying to get special permissions for buses for them,” says Tarang. For the city is a jewellery hub.

Tarang feels his father and Ajmera completed the circle of their quest—finding jewellery with historical significance—by opening the museum five years ago. It serves as an archive on Indian jewellery design. They are also training karigars so they can further polish their craft.

Luke Burgis may have described it as an example of fulfilling deep desires that add enduring value.

QUICK TAKE
How do you unwind?
I work out every day.

What is your favourite workout?
Swimming. It helps me de-stress.

What is most important to you?
Spending time with my children.

 

 

 

 

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