On one of her trips to the bylanes of Charminar in Hyderabad, designer Swapna Mehta came across an old woman selling off precious jewels from what seemed to be a collection of family heirlooms. Mehta quickly bought them off her. This soon became a habit. Her passion and respect for traditional jewellery and craftsmanship complemented her eye for beautiful and artistic pieces from different parts of India and abroad.
“I didn’t like much of what I got in stores, so I started taking apart a lot of the pieces and redoing them. When I saw this old lady and her collection, I experimented by fusing one piece with another disparate one,” says Mehta, explaining how her curatorial eye led to her latest line, Earth Princess. It was introduced by Bungalow 8, a chic concept store in Mumbai last month.
Right from how she sources the material she works with, to contacting Maithili Ahluwalia, the founder-director of Bungalow 8 (by sending pictures via Facebook), Mehta’s approach to Earth Princess is organic.
“When Swapna first approached us, we didn’t even stock jewellery,” says Ahluwalia who admits to have grown up looking at fine jewellery through a conventional prism. “Swapna’s work reminded me of my own relationship with jewellers and with my grandmother, who like a true Kutchi used to, in her own way, recycle our family jewellery,” adds Ahluwalia.
But the similarity between Mehta’s work and conventional fine jewellery ends there and something more luxurious emerges.
Take for example, the nath (elaborate nosering) cluster. Add various types of naths and weave them together as the centre of a long neckpiece, in traditional jadau (jewellery prevalent in Gujarat and Rajasthan since the time of the Mughals) filigree style. Or a piece for which Mehta and the karigars or artisans at her Hyderabad workshop incorporated Kutchi hand ornaments onto an oddiyanam (a traditional South Indian belt-like ornament). The seamless incorporation of differing workmanship makes Mehta’s pieces stylistically intriguing.
“The collection is about ensuring that old pieces are used in a modern way. It’s about telling people this: if you have beautiful, old fine jewellery, wear it, and not just at weddings. Style them with your ordinary clothes,” says Mehta.
And by virtue of each such element being complemented, offset, or melded with another equally exquisite piece with the full weight of its own history, a distinct edginess comes through in the full piece. The jewellery begs to be worn with everyday clothes—from a plain black shirt, to a muted anti-fit khadi top.
Each piece in the Earth Princess line is unique as there are only so many pieces Mehta can make from her eclectic archive of 20 years. And, almost none is left from the 80 pieces in the introductory show at Bungalow 8 last month.
“Swapna is a collector of beauty,” says Ahluwalia. “I was initially hesitant about taking this up for Bungalow 8 due to concerns like resale value, especially because the price points are definitely of luxury. But, at the show, not one person asked about such things.”
Despite reminiscing about how Indian families have for generations repurposed their jewellery, Ahluwalia distinguishes Mehta’s work from that notion and from do-it-yourself terms like upcycling. “Repertoire is what makes Swapna’s pieces unique,” Ahluwalia says. “The archive she has compiled over two decades of scourging through markets and collections in various parts of the world isn’t available to most of us.”
“There has been a change in what people place a premium on. It’s not just a new Chanel bag people want anymore—that is available at any of Chanel’s airport stores, anywhere in the world. Instead they look for that one old Chanel bag, from a particular point in history, which speaks of its own time, how its leather was crafted, of the very weight of history it carries with it—while still being something they can use every day,” adds Ahluwalia.
The pieces in Mehta’s limited Earth Princess collection are meant for just this type of person.