I have been visiting Sabyasachi Mukherjee’s workshop ever since he started out with a small unit on Hazra Road. Then he moved his workshop to Topsia and it kept getting bigger and bigger, adding floors and even whole buildings. With separate floors dedicated to various stages of the design process, it has always been fascinating for me to see rooms full of men and women busy sketching or embroidering, weaving, dyeing or stitching. On my most recent trip to the workshop, however, I saw a whole new dimension added to it. A sprawling jewellery unit that looks like a bank vault, with a separate team working dedicatedly. And Sabya was talking diamonds and rubies and emeralds instead of silhouettes and embroideries. The king of couture is on his way to becoming a top jeweller, aiming to “build the best jewellery brand in the country”. Hours before the launch of Sabyasachi Couture Jewellery Autumn-Winter 2017 on Instagram, the star designer excitedly took me through the various looks. And then we sat down for a t2 chat on how he’s going to rewind his life by 15 years and start the journey all over again. Trust Sabya!
The Bridal Collection
This is our signature Sabyasachi bridal look, which is a nath, a choker, a mathapatti, a haathphool, a pair of jhumkas or a chaandbali… this is the look that girls getting married all over the country want to wear now. And this is the look that the whole copy market is copying. This is the celebrated house look of the company, so this is what we are doing. This is in gold, jadau and coloured stones like emeralds, sapphires, rubies and lots of old pearls. We are working with a special kind of polki called Irani polki, it is a little heavier and thicker and a little difficult to get.
Tell us about the germ of the idea of your jewellery line…
I don’t give my mother credit for too many things, but this I’ll give full credit to her! Because my mother wore great jewellery… my mother’s father, my grandfather, was very shaukeen, he used to get jewellery made from all the Bengali jewellers from old Calcutta. And I was one of his favourite grandchildren, so he used to show me all these things, and so I have grown up seeing beautiful jewellery. I was always fascinated by the engineering of jewellery… I have always been a bit of a scientist, and I was always very inquisitive, so jewellery always fascinated me.
I remember I actually used to sell jewellery from the Calcutta pavements, that is how I met Bipasha (Basu) and Koena (Mitra). I remember my most expensive piece was made of wood and shell and it sold for Rs 200, so I made a princely sum of money. I remember selling jewellery out of tiffin boxes. The passion never left me… I started reading up about jewellery… I think my office has more jewellery books than textile books. I read up about jewellery from all over the world, I travelled all over the world to see jewellery, whether it was an Afghani collection in V&A, or a Harry Winston exhibition, or old jewellers in Florence. I actually specifically go for jewellery trips because amar khub jewelleryr shauk, bhalo laage.
Then I did a small collaboration with Gaja in Calcutta. Then I was introduced to Kishandas (Kishandas & Co Jewellers) and I made my foray into jewellery but I was still very unsatisfied because the kind of jewellery I wanted to make and the freedom with which I wanted to make it was still not there. Because of the kind of person I am, it’s better for me to work on my own rather than with co-partners.
The Irani Collection
The Irani collection is jadau in very pale colours like pale pink, pale yellow, off-white. This is for women who want to wear Indian with a slight European touch, a Persian touch.
I will give you an example, if I had an investor in my brand, I would have never been able to build my Delhi and Bombay stores on the scale I have built them; no investor will put in that kind of money. You know, I think I am the Sanjay Leela Bhansali of fashion… that is why he started producing his own films, because the scale and the passion and the dedication with which he wants to make films, nobody wants to put in that kind of money. Amar modhye oi problem ta achhe, aami jai kori I want to do it well, like we are spending an insane amount of money now on Instagram. The kind of production we are doing is almost like film quality production. My thing is that if I want to do something — barring one or two things that I am embarrassed about in my career — whether I have done Asian Paints, or Pottery Barn, or Louis Vuitton or Forevermark, I have done it to the best of my ability. In jewellery my biggest problem was that I was feeling stifled that I was not being able to do it on the scale, the lavishness, and the exuberance with which I normally do everything else.
So how did you conceive your first jewellery collection?
I thought if I do diamonds I would probably do the best diamonds in the country. Not only am I working with the best karigars in the country, I am also working with some of the big players in the world. Of course then there is (the collaboration with) Forevermark, so slowly my diamond reputation was growing. I don’t think a jeweller today can call himself a jewellery house without doing diamonds, jadau and gold in India because these are the three big pillars of the jewellery industry. I want to have the bandwidth to be the first Indian jeweller to specialise in all three. It’s a tough call but we are working very hard; I am very proud of the jewellery that we have done.
My diamond jewellery can rival anybody else’s in the world… the quality, the finish and the procurement. The procurement is very important. The jadau is superlative, because we are working with pieces that people don’t wear any more. So they are all traditional. We are doing pieces like the Lahori chaandbali, Amritsari tika… some things come from the Chettinad region, some from Chennai, Maharashtra, Bikaner, Jodhpur, we have a lot of filigree from Bengal… so you know the jewellery will also not get easily copied, we are working in rotation with karigars from all over the country.
I eventually want to create a renaissance of jewellery in Bengal. Bengal is one of the unsung heroes of jewellery, that has been taken over by Rajasthan because everyone is wearing jadau now. But the really really fine craftsmanship is only done in Bengal. And nobody can do jewellery like the Bengali karigars can. So I think it is time a Bengali jeweller became a big name on the national map. What I have done with clothes I want to do with jewellery and it’s the same principle.
So you want to reach with jewellery where you’ve reached with clothes?!
Hundred per cent. Because I was very depressed the last two-three years, because what happens is, when you reach the pinnacle of a certain industry, nothing really challenges you anymore. It’s a matter of time before you start feeling frustrated. With jewellery I think it will be the same battle all over again, so I have rewound my life almost 15 years. Of course I have come with a lot more money and knowledge and experience, and market respect now, but the journey will be more or less the same. It’s all about starting all over again, so I am feeling very excited. I have promised myself I will build the best jewellery brand in the country. Give me five years (smiles).
This collection looks vast…
I have been working on it for quite some time, because the research has been going on for a long time. Jewellery, if you work with a lot of karigars across the country, doesn’t take much time to put together, what takes time is the research. So this is like 15 years of research that has gone into producing it.
The problem that is happening with jewellers now is that a lot of people come with a lot of domain knowledge. They know the price of a stone, the cut of a stone... but do they come with aesthetic knowledge? That’s very questionable. That’s why when I look at 90 per cent of the jewellery in this country, and I am not being arrogant here, I find rubbish. They have a lot of know-how but that does not mean they have a lot of aesthetic value. Let’s use Anamika (Khanna) as an example, not the most trained designer in the country, but definitely one of the very best. Sometimes when you don’t have excessive training, aesthetically you can challenge yourself because you are not bound by too much knowledge. Since most of the jewellers know a lot about material, it has become more about the material and not about the workmanship or the aesthetic. That is a gap that we want to fill. Now designing is going to become far more important than what you’re putting in. If you have great design and great raw material then you become a great jeweller.
The older generation bought jewellery for the investment value, and thought what would I get in return when I sell the jewellery. The younger generations don’t look at jewellery like that, they look at jewellery like how the Europeans and Americans would look at jewellery. If it looks good then they buy it, so first is the consumption and then the investment. In India it was first investment then consumption.
Heritage Gold is a lot of gold and jadau jewellery set in gold from all over India. So we have jewellery inspired by Lahore and Amritsar, Pune and Maharashtra, South India and Kerala and jewellery that is inspired by Bengal. The common denominator in all this is that it is all set in 22-carat gold. Bengal will be pure gold and filigree, South Indian will be done with rubies and emeralds, Maharashtrian will be done in emeralds and pearls, North Indian with uncut diamonds set in gold. And we have used pokhraj (yellow sapphire), rubies, emeralds, tourmaline, then Keshi pearls or Basra pearls. It is all heritage because all the styles we are bringing back are from jewellery people used to wear in the 1940s, 50s and 60s… Partition and pre-Partition.
When it comes to jewellery buying, the credibility of the jewellery house is most important. You will be a newcomer in the industry. How will you deal with that?
It’s not that we have just started doing jewellery… we have been doing it for the last six-seven years. Secondly, this is one of the most credible houses in the country when it comes to bridals because people have an incredible trust in us. We are going to be very transparent with our customers… there’s going to be a buy-back policy… there’s going to be GIS certificate for all the diamond jewellery, the gold is all hallmarked and then you are buying it from the house of Sabyasachi, so how bad can it get? (Smiles) For us, credibility is very important. And our jewellery is fixed price.
India is a very value-conscious country and you have to see that people’s consumption has moved on from buying material goods to buying experiences. People would happily buy a holiday rather than jewellery. So you get the customer back by a) giving them excellence in design, b) quality, c) trust and d) a price that is unmatchable. We will tick all the right boxes in the four categories.
We are going to start a full wedding set, comprising a necklace, earrings and a tika at Rs 11,49,000. It will be an uncut diamond set. Our objective is to give people the best value.
My idea of fine diamonds always came from 1920s black-and-white cinema. We have done these old-style diamond jewellery which is very classic with probably the best quality diamonds. So we have rings that are over 17 carat, there is a necklace I am very proud of, which is completely made of Golconda diamonds, we celebrate art deco, art nouveau…. The diamonds are very old heritage, very old school, which maybe you can pair with an organza or a chiffon sari, and you’ll go to see a polo match.
When I see diamond jewellery I think of classic beauties like a Nargis or a Madhubala or a Suchitra Sen, or a Devika Rani… very beautiful and elegant. And the kind of diamond jewellery that we have put together I think it’s great for women to wear them with elegant saris. I love women who wear diamond with elegant saris, it’s a very classic pairing. If you wear diamond with intricate designs then wear simple saris. In my campaign I have paired the Golconda diamond necklace, which has a shocking price tag, with a simple Rs 800 Kota sari. And that’s how diamonds should be worn… it should be a little matter-of-fact… just a nice watch, a Chanel lipstick, a No. 5 perfume, a cotton sari and you’re done, you can go to any party.
In clothes you come up with a new collection and look every year. How do you think it will be possible to keep doing that with jewellery?
No, you see, even in clothes I don’t come up with a new look any more… we only improve on the look. You have to decide very early in your life whether you want to be called a fashion designer or someone who does classic clothing. So we do classic clothing. And when it comes to jewellery, I think it is completely wrong to make jewellery fashionable, because when people are spending so much on it, they should be able to wear it again and again and again and again. So the concept of reinventing jewellery is a complete no-no for me, I would keep it completely classic.
For your clothes you have always had very strong muses… do you have any muse for your jewellery?
Many… they are endless (smiles). For exuberant tribal jewellery it has always been Frida Kahlo, for beautiful diamond jewellery any yesteryear actress who used to wear their diamonds very beautifully, also royalty from Vienna used to wear very beautiful diamond jewellery.
For gold, you name any South Indian actress, from Rekha to Sridevi to Vyjayanthimala, all of them used to wear gold jewellery very beautifully. So there are many muses. I like women who enjoy their jewellery. For me the mid-path doesn’t work, either you wear very tiny stylish jewellery or you wear a lot of jewellery.
One of my favourite films on jewellery has been Satyajit Ray’s Monihar, like she comes back from the dead to reclaim her jewellery, it chronicles the kind of unhealthy obsession with gold that people have in this country. Though I think I myself am a bit obsessed with jewellery… old Indian art, antique textiles, old embroidery and old jewellery, these are my obsessions (smiles)!
I have been a part of Sabya’s campaign shoots over the years and they have only gotten bigger and grander each time. This time the shoot took place in Jaipur as Sabya’s vision was about royalty and subtle opulence. This shoot is his ode to Bengali beauties of the past who have epitomised sophistication and elegance — it’s about the woman who could wear a Chanderi sari with her pearls and lacquered nails, be effortlessly chic while at the races or sipping tea at Flurys.
The shoot had about 100 people working round the clock for five days, which included models, film and photography crew. The air was filled with excitement at the product line that Sabya was launching and the girls ‘oohed’ and ‘aahed’ all day long.
Sabya has the art of rendering an emotion that connects with his audience beautifully through the visuals he creates, transporting them to a time and place that is reminiscent of glory and grandeur. That is what this campaign was about. It felt good to be back on a set after almost three years. My brief from Sabya was to emulate Gayatri Devi, whose style and elegance I greatly admire, and I had fun pretending to be a queen for a couple of days!
I shot for the fine diamond jewellery and each piece was simply exquisite and belonged to a bygone era, yet moulded for the modern woman. Sabya has designed the jewellery for the Sabya woman — one who likes a little piece of history, and then passes it along to her future. She who aspires for the Sabya sari or to be a Sabya bride, and then her daughter too. Sabya’s jewellery, like his clothes, are an heirloom.
There’s not much I want to comment about our relationship except that it goes back to the beginnings of our careers and we continue to be a part of each other’s lives. And we share and can talk for hours about our love for Coco Chanel.
Smita Roy Chowdhury