Luxury has many definitions. Allow me to submit one more: provenance. The word comes from a French root which means origin or source; the history of ownership of an object. Before Takashi Murakami stamped his exuberant multicoloured monogram all over Louis Vuitton bags; before Gianni Versace was murdered outside his mansion in Miami; and before Miuccia Prada bought and sold Jil Sander, luxury wasn’t so much about brand names as much as it was about provenance: where stuff came from, who made them and how they were made. Haute couture, variously interpreted as made-to-measure or “high sewing”, was, at its inception nothing more than custom tailoring.
Custom-made: Bespoke was de rigueur before the age of brands, now it’s a luxury. Athar Hussain / Reuters
In our grandparents’ generation in India, customization and provenance were taken for granted. Even today, in many traditional homes, particularly in small but rich towns such as Coimbatore, Chandigarh and Udaipur, jewellery is custom-made to exacting specifications, both gemological and astrological. The jeweller comes home and waits till the mistress of the house is finished with her chores and ready to talk gems. She comes out to the veranda, wiping her hands on her sari pallu. Chaach (spiced buttermilk) is offered and pleasantries exchanged. Necklace lengths are discussed, designs analysed and discarded, the mango motif is traced on a piece of paper and updated to suit the fashionable daughter-in-law’s tastes. Not so ornate, the lady of the house might say. Maybe with platinum and gold, the jeweller might venture. It is all the rage in Dubai. How about a pearl-drop in the centre? It would cool her fiery temper. Perhaps a ruby instead, the jeweller might suggest. Madam wanted a grandchild, didn’t she? A blood-red 2-carat ruby would enhance ardour and fertility. And so it went, this discussion. Usually, the jeweller would bring his tools and make the necklace in front of the customer to make sure that the gold was of the highest quality and not mixed with copper.
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My mother-in-law had my mangalsutra or wedding chain made at her home in this fashion to make sure of its provenance. It wasn’t the mixing of copper that she was worried about, she said. It was that the jeweller might melt old jewellery sold by some poor woman in distress and use this “distress gold” to make that most auspicious of symbols: the marriage chain. She worried about intangibles such as bad energy and a poor woman’s tears being passed on through the jewellery to me. A karmic spin on the proverbial blood diamond.
In the old days, provenance was taken to its logical, psychological and even supernatural conclusion. After the jeweller custom-made the piece, it would be placed at the altar for a few days to see if the omens were good. If something auspicious happened, if the piece made the wearer feel good, it was accepted and paid for. If instead, something bad happened, the piece was returned to the jeweller who took it back, no questions asked.
Today, most of us don’t have the time for such attention to detail and quality of ingredients. We leave it to the big brands. The reason Hermès can charge what it does for a Birkin bag is because we assume that numerous artisans are obsessing over minute details such as suppleness of leather and type of stitch. What your grandmother and mine did for us out of love, these brands do for a price.
Last month, I paid a ridiculous amount of money for an Hermès clutch. I am not apologizing for this purchase—well, maybe a little. I know I can feed a village for that money, but hey, it took me years to work up the cash and work out the guilt; and it isn’t illegal. But here’s the thing: The only reason I bought this Hermès bag is for its brand name—does that make me a phoney? I know nothing about its making, have little or no appreciation for its details, can barely pronounce the name, and have no cultural connection to this French fashion house that is less than 200 years old.
Indian textiles and jewellery, however, are part of my 5,000-year-old heritage and have a great cultural resonance in my psyche.
Then why am I fascinated by the European brands? Is it because I have lost the patience and the skill to be a true connoisseur so I’d rather hide behind a brand name?
Our mothers knew their textiles and jewellery. They understood quality, customization and finish in a way that is not Western but instinctively and appropriately Indian. My mother, for instance, understood and accepted the imperfections that come from the warp and weft of a fine Kanjeevaram silk. Yet, at the same time, she could finger the texture and spot a fake from the real. She knew price-points but also provenance. If you tell women like my mother that they were connoisseurs of Indian luxury, they would laugh. “Not like you fancy young people with your sunglasses and your high heels,” they might say self-deprecatingly. But go into a jewellery store in Dariba Kalan with them, or a sari shop in Chennai, and these same women will transform into buyers for Bergdorf Goodman or Harrods: bargaining hard, expecting the highest quality for their money and honing in on the best.
Luxury is provenance; the ability to recognize not just who you are but also where you came from culturally. Luxury is a celebration of this provenance; not an imitation of a culture that is not yours.
If you have Rs50,000 to spend, are you going to buy a Marni or a custom-made Paithani? In your answer lies the future of the Indian craft tradition.
Shoba Narayan wishes she hadn’t bought the Hermès. Write to her at email@example.com