Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Contemporary Jewelry

A stunning Art Deco set executed in present day Jaipur. Part of the elegant design emerges from the sophisticated juxtaposition of the baguette and rose-cut diamonds set in 18K gold and shimmering in the torque and its accompanying bracelet.Jewellery, with its wealth of meaning and symbol, has long been the unspoken language of the Indian people, equally dear to the hearts of those who wear diamonds as those who wear beads. Today it is acquiring a new vocabulary, a new dimension. In a country where many simultaneous levels co-exist, the bullock cart with the modem, the tug of tradition remains strong, articulated at its most powerful during the wedding season. The wedding, of whichever community, region or economic level, continues to demand an age-old repertoire with its set pieces, most likely drawing on local jewellery skills known to a family for generations.

But and especially in the big cities there is a ground shift as new impulses attract the jewellery wearer to fresh areas. There are many reasons for this. Some of them have to do with the changing social fabric, whether we think of the gradual break-up of old family systems, the increased visibility of middle-class Indian women or the change in their costume from sari to skirt. Some reasons stem from a greater awareness of the global village, indeed, from globalisation with all that it has come to mean in economic and cultural terms.

This bracelet has an intriguing asymmetrical shape, reminiscent of the Art Deco pieces of the 1920s. Square-cut rubies and round-cut diamonds on 18K gold accentuate the sinous curves of this jewel.
History has shown, however, that Indians as a people are open to assimilation, with an uncanny capacity to absorb and interiplise outside influences and transcreate them into a new and uniquely Indian expression. Before Shah Jehan ascended the Mughal throne, he saw portraits of James I of England in sweeping hats which featured jeweled aigrettes designed by Arnold Lulls, the 17th century Dutch designer. It was the inspiration he needed to commission the jeweled kalgi or turban feather in a distinctly Indian idiom, a favorite theme to this day. In similar vein, young designers today are adapting and innovating to create a new expression in jewellery.

From the late 19th century, Maharajas and their retinues began leisured excursions to Europe, carrying unused gemstones to set in the jewellery they would commission from the great houses of Paris. The designs travelled back, leading to the development of new styles, such as the Victorian with its ornate florals and leaves, its delicate designs elaborately expressed. Names like Cartier, Boucheron and Chaumet set the style for Indian royal jewellery and began a kind of exchange in designs, materials and techniques. 

The Art Deco movement of the 20th century borrowed heavily from exotic Oriental jewellery, especially Indian; in turn, the boldness of its designs, its angular symmetry and (paradoxically) the voluptuous elongated curves of some of its themes were eagerly adopted in India. As jewellery openly acknowledged its Western antecedents, the use of gemstones and the way they were cut and set changed. Lighter pieces, with bezelled stones in claw settings, became fashionable, an alternative to heavier traditional sets, yet still compatible with the flow and the drape of the sari.

Necklace And Earring - A floral extravaganza in true Victorian style; note the delicate use of small gems, which creates an almost ethereal effect. Slowly but surely, jewellery is evolving from its earlier concepts, from an investment and a language of symbols to a statement of its wearer's needs and her personal style. Those needs come from the demands of everyday life: functional jewellery that can be worn at the workplace, or is more appropriate for the western-style garments that she is likely to wear. It is part of her own perceptions about herself and her aspirations rather than an external social identifier of her roles as wife and mother.

Even in this changing scenario, there are constants where the emotional bonding is so strong, the inherited connotations so resonant, that design experimentation would not be acceptable; rather, jewellery goes through a process of re-styling. This is seen in the tali or mangalsutra, for example, often adapted for lighter, easier wear; or the usage, by men and women, of significant gemstones for luck and prosperity. Thus development is taking place along many levels to open up new avenues.

"To me, jewellery is more about collectibles and less about a set that you wear once and put away in the locker."

Gold Necklace Contemporary Jewelry
In our admiration for jewellery as an art, we forget that it is, after all, also a business, providing employment to a labour force of two million skilled workers in the country. The export of gems and jewellery is the single largest foreign exchange earner in India, accounting for some 17% of total exports. The gamut covers cut and polished diamonds, coloured gemstones and pearls, gold and silver jewellery, as also fashion and costume jewellery. It is a vast machine whose thrust needs constant fuelling with new talent and new ideas to sustain its presence on the international scene. 

One of the most high-profile areas is that of design. It is an area where India has made a distinct mark thanks to institutes like NIFT (the National Institute for Fashion Technology) and others around the country. Such institutes provide the pool of vibrant young ideas from students who break barriers to create designs acclaimed all over the world. Many designs have won awards; and since they are not consciously "Indian", have found international acceptance.

The necklace is made of hinged units which can be unfastened to incorporate new units for a different look. It is a different language these young designers speak. Acutely conscious of the weight of heritage, they are aware of the twin demands of tradition and modernity. They are highly sensitive to the marketplace, whether in India or elsewhere, because they work closely with jewellers and retailers.

Vocabularies and needs differ from region to region; this, too, has to be taken into account. The ability to forecast and set design trends has to be balanced with the business and financial implications of such movements. They also work closely with the craftsmen; it is a two-way exchange where age-old techniques are adapted to new forms, and new skills are absorbed by the craftsmen, a platform for further innovation. Often, designers operate at two levels, one geared to the conservative buyer for whom jewellery retains its old value system, its significance of giving and taking, from which flow aspects like preferred materials (gold and diamonds, for example) and traditional designs. 

The second is that of the niches now being explored, many of them emerging from modern, big city lifestyles, such as the increase in the number of occasions when jewellery is gifted. Such niches may offer the opportunity to give expression to their inherent creativity in terms of abstract concepts and patterning.

Even at the first level of tradition, changes are taking place with the incorporation of new elements or a modification of material. These are design inputs often custom-tailored for a single buyer but which spark off a general interest. There is a greater use of materials like white gold or pink gold; there is gold that is rhodium-plated, even copper-plated, to give a variety of' lustrous shades while still retaining the value of the metal. Young designers put forward the ensemble concept; an assembly of three necklaces of varying lengths, say, that can be worn together for grand occasions like weddings to look like a single large necklace of traditional appearance, or worn separately as smaller pieces. 

Detachable elements add versatility and change the look and colour of jewellery through interlocking devices that are delicately built ill. Thus, hinged sections can be removed or added to change the length of a necklace; pendants double up as brooches; different pendants can be fitted on to a necklace to change its appearance and colour accentuation. Such innovations have been warmly welcomed; though, as most observers remark, they are not replacements for the standard repertoire but additions to it.

Earrings - This lush display seems to show, in black, white and gold, control over form and exquisite setting.Again, there is a new trend towards branded jewellery which overrides regional variations. Over and above its design strengths, it is also a quality assurance to buyers, part of the increasing standardization and hallmarking coming into the industry. But in the end, it is design and innovation that will differentiate in a competitive environment.

All these movements, the steady demand for traditional sets, the new ideas now expressed, draw heavily on the skills of the sonar and his craftsmen while encouraging him to develop new ones. The impetus of both domestic and foreign markets have spurred the next generation to return to an occupation once seen as unviable; indeed, in Kolkata, a master goldsmith trains young workers in the craft; whereas in places like Jaipur, a major jewellery centre, those skills are kept alive by an unceasing flow of buyers. 

Many agencies have worked together to sustain jewellery as a vibrant field both artistically and commercially; the jewellery industry, the Government, design schools as well as the burgeoning area of fashion. Above all, it is the contribution of the sheer excellence of the unknown, unseen artist whose perfection has been honed over centuries.

Writer – AshaRani Mathur
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