Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Sabyasachi Mukherjee says breaking into the jewellery industry was a challenge but that it helps to be obstinate, following his high jewellery presentation in Delhi

When Sabyasachi Mukherjee sets the stage, nobody dares step out of line. Not the 250-odd guests attending his high jewellery showcase at The Oberoi, Delhi, in ‘strictly black’, not the sommelier instructed to pour superb Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and not celebrity wedding designer Devika Narain, who hand-picked the reddest apples for his 24 ft table laden with stunning antiques and nibbles like caviar, chocolate cake and cranberry chicken liver pate. “I call his tables giant black holes because they take so much,” she laughs when we exchange notes a few days later.

Devika Narain used gloriosa with tiny red apples and pomegranate on branches around the faux taxidermy panther and leopard

Devika Narain used gloriosa with tiny red apples and pomegranate on branches around the faux taxidermy panther and leopard
| Photo Credit:
Sabyasachi/Naina.co

The maximalist designer known for his single-minded focus on building a brand timed his first high jewellery show in the country as a fitting end to a year that saw many highs, including the launch of his emporium near Horniman Circle in Mumbai, and his Animal Ball presentation at London’s Lancaster House. Among the creations that impressed at the latter was a necklace featuring a 109.95-carat Zambian emerald and a pair of shola masks fashioned for King Charles III and Queen Camilla. Clearly, with the backing of Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail Ltd — ABFRL now holds a 51% stake in Sabyasachi Calcutta — longevity is the ultimate goal. Sabyasachi Calcutta posted a turnover of ₹229.42 crore in FY22, which rose to ₹343.86 crore in FY23 (ABFRL’s annual report). The cultural phenomenon that is the Sabyasachi bride continues but following the recent collaboration with eyewear company Morgenthal Frederics, one expects announcements in categories like cosmetics and interiors soon.

Devika Narain

Devika Narain
| Photo Credit:
Stories by Joseph Radhik

Meanwhile, Sabyasachi, 49, wears his role of jewellery disrupter with ease. He gave the country its first branded mangalsutra (approximately ₹1.5-2 lakh) soon after entering the jewellery industry in 2017. Today, his deconstructed maharani necklaces featuring hand-printed velvet ties, the ‘Calcutta meets Byzantine meets Broadway’ spirit and his passion to revive North Calcutta goldsmithing are backed by well-satisfied clients. At The Oberoi last week, some of these industry notables were in attendance as 24 heady looks were showcased with titles like the Kannauj Suite, the Gayatri Suite, the Alipore Necklace and the Naidu Choker.

The last, a tribute to the elegant Leela Naidu, featured an assortment of 92 carats of pigeon blood Burmese rubies, assembled with rose cut and brilliant cut diamonds. It was worn exceptionally well by Sheetal Mallar, who was joined by other successful models from decades ago. There were nods to Old Hyderabad, the bylanes of Calcutta, Sabyasachi’s ‘forever muse’ Frida Kahlo and a favourite activity back in the day — Sunday thrifting at Sudder Street. “I just felt like a million bucks,” shares Sapna Kumar. The stunning model, a jewellery designer herself, had paired the Maharani Necklace, an assortment of uncut diamonds, sapphires, tourmalines and pearls, with jeans and a pashmina turban. “Sabya just knows his clothes, his jewels and his models,” she adds, referencing the “casual nonchalance of his entire look”. We ask Sabyasachi Mukherjee about his ‘modern heirloom’ branding, his A/W 2023 collection and about breaking into the heavily guarded jewellery industry in India.

Sabyasachi Mukherjee at the opening of his store in New York City

Sabyasachi Mukherjee at the opening of his store in New York City
| Photo Credit:
Getty Images

Almost seven years later, what have been the challenges for Sabyasachi, the jewellery disruptor?
I won’t lie, it’s been one of the toughest rides of my career. The gatekeepers of the jewellery industry in India are not the most welcoming to outsiders. And this is an industry that has been heavily guarded across generations. I am a middle class designer in India and my first decade of breaking into couture gave me all the training I needed to battle it out in jewellery. But the reason I am who I am today is because I am obstinate and refuse to back down. I knew I wanted to preserve and bring back the finest of India’s jewellery craftsmanship; it was being diluted for far too long. And I did, and am fortunate because we have received an overwhelming response not just in India, but across the globe—be it at Bergdorf Goodman in New York, in Dubai where we’re the only Indian jeweller between Mikimoto and Graff at Bayt Damas, or with my first international High Jewellery showcase at London’s iconic Lancaster House.  

On Indrani Dasgupta, the Calcutta Rose Suite, with rare sherbet-toned tourmalines and 60 carats of old mine cut diamonds

On Indrani Dasgupta, the Calcutta Rose Suite, with rare sherbet-toned tourmalines and 60 carats of old mine cut diamonds
| Photo Credit:
Sabyasachi/Naina.co

Your design experiments include pairing palm-fringed champa with Georgian motifs. Any hidden details for the wearer alone?
The secret to truly enjoying my jewellery is to turn it over. The back of the jewellery is intricately crafted, usually with Bengal Filigree work that is a legacy craft, and they’re studded with diamonds. We add hand-engraved details and tropical motifs. I spend days designing the backs of my jewellery. It’s what makes me smile.

How has your experience as a colorist influenced this journey? 
My work as a colourist defines my design gaze. It’s why I didn’t think twice about breaking the hierarchy of gemstones that has been created globally. My jewellery isn’t just made with diamonds, emeralds, rubies, pearls and sapphires. I use them all of course, but it’s the spectrum of coloured and organic gemstones that I love. The corals, turquoises, tourmalines, rubellites, morganites, apatites, onyxs, amethysts, pyrites, tanzanites and so on.

Sapna Kumar in deconstructed jadau with the velvet sash

Sapna Kumar in deconstructed jadau with the velvet sash
| Photo Credit:
Sabyasachi/Naina.co

““My favourite look was The Maharani Necklace worn by Sapna. It’s now a brand classic, the deconstructed jadau with the velvet sash. But it was the pashmina turban with jeans that made it for me. A sort of bohemian-royal, this clash of sensibilities, cultures and traditions is how I understand my aesthetic.””Sabyasachi Mukherjee

It was refreshing to see your jewellery not in the usual wedding lexicon but paired with evening dresses, even a pair of jeans.
People today want to buy less but buy better. Modern investment is based in wearability, fine craftsmanship, a unique design proposition and frequency of use. Today’s closets are fluid and varied—be it your bridal lehenga, your grandmother’s sari, staples such as jeans and a white shirt or even the classic black dress. The jewellery and clothes I make are not meant to be worn once and locked away in a vault. As precious and special as they may be, they’re also versatile. I wanted to present my jewellery with my evolving collection of eveningwear in the way we dress for occasions or bring glamour to the everyday. Part of the showcase was dressed in pieces from my A/W 2023 campaign, and the rest are completely new silhouettes and craft techniques that made their debut at the show. Whether we are creating our tweeds in-house with silk floss, beads and pearls or sourcing the most beautiful artisanal textiles from across the world, our Calcutta atelier has become the melting point where the best of the world is amalgamated with the best of India. We are in constant innovation.

There is a nod to royalty but also emphasis on the ‘modern heirloom’. 
There is a nod to royalty, to artists, to women from across the ages, to Calcutta, to classic mythologies from various histories and geographies. I’ve always been a bit of a cultural magpie; I think we all are today. It’s impossible not to be, given our exposure, our travels and our experiences. For me, the melding of aesthetics, styles and eras is at the core of how I imagine, dream and create. My jewellery comes together with the most precious of gemstones, gold and the rarest of heritage crafts. My clothing comes together with legacy crafts and the finest of textiles. These are pieces that are made to stand the test of time, while being both wearable and precious—that for me makes them ‘modern heirlooms’. A true celebration of who we were and are today.  

Lakshmi Menon wearing the Kannauj Suite

Lakshmi Menon wearing the Kannauj Suite
| Photo Credit:
Sabyasachi/Naina.co

Of your workforce of over 1000 and about 3000 karigars, how many are involved in jewellery? Could you expand on the reverse migration of Bengal’s jewellery master craftspeople thanks to brand Sabyasachi?
Currently all our jewellery that includes the High, Fine and Heritage collections are conceptualised and made within the brand’s Jewellery Atelier. Apart from a team of highly trained gemologists and technical designers, Sabyasachi’s Jewellery Atelier employs about 50 in-house artisans and master craftspeople including goldsmiths, hand-setters, engravers, Meenakaars (enamellers) and Patwas (hand stringers) specialised in legacy craftsmanship and techniques. Most of them had moved away from Bengal and are now back. We also work with various artisan communities from West Bengal, Rajasthan and pockets in Southern India as part of the brand’s commitment to reviving endangered heritage jewellery crafts such as Partaj (engraving), Chitai (embossing), Nakashi (repousse), Meenakari (enamelling), Pohai (stringing) and inlay work.

Are you personally involved in sourcing some of your exclusive gemstones?
I’m a bit like a farm to table chef when I create jewellery or clothing or handbags and belts, for that matter. My process is material-led. I have an expert team of gemologists, who track and trace the most precious and sometimes even mundane but spectacular of stones. I love travelling with them and discovering the stones together. I need to handpick my stones personally. It’s the only way I know how to make jewellery.

Sabyasachi’s imagery for his campaigns

‘…the girl at the races in a starched sari and hat, with smudged lipstick, chewing gum, steady stare (for the Calcutta Sling); Ms Bose with her hairspray and rendezvous with the colony post box…’
I’ve always been more an observer than a participant. The women I’ve grown up with, the men I’ve met along the way, the people and places I’ve spent time with or around—all of this makes me who I am, and my brand who it is.

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