Year-End Special: Shine on, you crazy diamond
From childhood memories to separation and modern love, the story of a piece of jewellery outshines everything else
Bhag Malhotra’s story of Partition, or batwara as she calls it, is centred on a single object—a beautiful maang tikka passed down from her grandmother to her mother and her. The jewel, with a ruby flower at the centre, is a piece of the past. The other gems in this elaborate headpiece, peculiar to the region, are all from the Northwest Frontier Province (now in Pakistan), the family’s erstwhile home. This jewel is one of her few connections with an imaginary homeland; it is an artefact, a memory and a story that has in turn been passed down by Malhotra to her daughter and her granddaughter.
Azra Haq’s black velvet pouch is no ordinary jewellery case. For her, what lies within is not just a necklace and a matching pair of pearl earrings—it is a symbol of her childhood across the border. Her upbringing in Jalandhar was one of privilege, laden with old-world charm. With the onset of the Partition violence, her family had to leave home almost overnight and move to Lahore. All young Azra carried with her were those Basra pearl earrings and the necklace, a gift from a maharaja and a symbol of a life she had left behind forever.
These stories are part of Aanchal Malhotra’s Remnants Of A Separation (HarperCollins), a moving collection of Partition narratives told through specific objects. Both these stories describe the emotional resonance of jewellery and make us ask what exactly constitutes preciousness.
Across the world, whenever women have fled persecution and war, leaving their familiar worlds behind, they have carried their jewellery with them. Stitched into their underskirts and petticoats, hidden in the lining of their luggage, these jewels are both artefacts of a past left behind and an assurance for the future. And this is perhaps why jewellery also finds a place in literature as an artefact of magic and power as well as a symbol of a particular human condition or frailty.
Perhaps the most famous piece of jewellery in literature is The Lord Of The Rings all-powerful One Ring, the central object around which the plot turned, and an instrument of a terrible and dark power. Rabindranath Tagore, in his haunting short story Monihara (The Lost Jewels), describes a woman’s obsession with her jewels at the cost of all else. A similar tale of passion and possessiveness is outlined in Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay’s novel Goynar Baksho (The Jewellery Box), where the ghost of an elderly widow refuses to pass on into the next world owing to her attachment to her earthly jewellery box. The ornaments in these stories have a value that is far greater than their actual physical worth because for these daughters, wives and mothers, their jewellery was the only asset they could lay claim to.
It is the storytelling aspect that draws designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee to the craft of jewellery. In fact, Mukherjee started his career in 1996-97, by selling costume jewellery. Although he focused on fashion thereafter, his interest in jewellery stayed—a passion he believes he has inherited from his grandfather. “My grandfather was what you would call a shaukeen (enthusiast). He would buy jewellery from different parts of the country, sometimes from Europe, for my grandmother and daughters, all of which has been passed down generations," says Mukherjee. He narrates the story of a family jewel—diamonds and emeralds set in platinum and crafted in the art deco style—as one of the only heirloom he desired.
Apart from the aesthetic beauty and the family association embodied in a jewel, Mukherjee dwells on the history of the object, how it was made, and the level of skill that it represents. “It was made by a British-era company called Hamilton and Co., which in itself is historic. Bengali karigars (artisans) were famous for their workmanship. It was how the British operated; to find the best in India and start trading with them. That’s how Hamilton and Co. was born. They were the benchmark of craftsmanship and their quality was up there with a Cartier or Tiffany," says Mukherjee. He believes that at this time jewellery was treated as art. “Every time people bought or made jewellery, they took pride in telling its story." Mukherjee believes that even today, jewellery is a conversation point, and while the fashion might be more mainstream, jewellery is always more personalized. His love for jewellery translates into an extraordinary knack. “I can tell a woman’s personality from the kind of bangles she’s wearing on her wrist."
This personal note also feeds into the craft of mainstream jewellery houses like Kolkata-based Senco Gold and Diamonds, which is over 75 years old. “Many of our clients want to hold on to the pieces of jewellery they have had in their families for years and want these mended a little (if there is a break in it) and polished so they look as good as new. But there are others who want to keep up with the times and want the old pieces of jewellery remodelled. So, we have a granddaughter seeking to preserve the old memories of her grandmother and (who) will not brook any attempts to change the old pieces of jewellery. At the same time, we have a grandson who wants an old piece of jewellery melded with a modern design for his wife. Old jewellery is not just ornamental but carries the blessings of our ancestors," says Suvankar Sen, executive director, Senco Gold and Diamonds.
The company considers the craftsmanship of its karigars as one of the brand’s biggest strengths. Some of these karigars have been with the company for more than half a century and across generations, with a father handing down his skill to his son. “This means that they have the know-how to replicate old designs and visit specific clients’ houses to note down finer nuances to fix or adapt them to a newer set," says Sen.
For Zameer Kasam, a third-generation jeweller based in New York, every piece that he makes is a personal memento. Growing up, a lot of his time was spent looking out from behind the counter of his parents’ jewellery store in Vancouver, as people walked in and bought pieces to celebrate special occasions. As a student at the Harvard Business School, he had a stint with De Beers group and understood various aspects of the jewellery business, including the enduring appeal of diamonds. When he finally set up Zameer Kassam Fine Jewelry in New York in 2011, it was a studio with a focus on storytelling, and, surprisingly, love stories told by men. “I wanted to give men a chance to really share how they felt about the woman they loved and enabled them to be their most romantic selves," he says.
The clients are led through a three-step process “that typically takes three-six weeks depending on how complicated the design is", to arrive at their special ring or piece of jewellery. The company works with diamonds, sapphires, rubies and emeralds only, and the client is first given a brief tutorial to understand the gemstones. This is followed by the “discovery step", which involves Kassam or a team member taking out his clients (often flying across the world to meet and talk to them) for a meal or drinks, listening to the couple’s love story and understanding the moments, emotions or qualities that can be manifested in the design of the rings. The conversations are really pivotal to the process and draw on “the first moment when they knew" or “the landscape of the Hamptons where they vacationed and fell in love", which are then embedded into the ring. This is followed by the third stage, where Kassam’s team gives his clients design options based on their conversation and budget.
One ring Kassam designed recently was for his clients Aasif and Shefali. A prominent diamond in the centre was held together by prongs that followed the contours of the roof of Shefali’s family home in Atlanta, “Because I want her to have a part of her childhood home always with her," Aasif told Kassam. The inside of the band has hand-carving resembling a beaded necklace that Shefali’s father gave her just before his death; “Her father was the most important person in her life," Aasif had told them. On one side of the ring, there is an engraving of a night-flowering jasmine, the flower Shefali gets her name from. And finally, in the centre of the flower, there’s a yin and yang, as a representation of Shefali and her counterpart. “A piece of jewellery lasts forever. It is the perfect artefact to hold the stories of people’s lives and loves. Imagine this ring being passed down generations. At some point in time a granddaughter would be wearing it and having the love story of her grandparents in her ring and on her person," says Kassam.
And just like good stories old or new, this ring of modern love and Bhag Malhotra’s old maang tikka have the same immeasurable value.