By Puja Bhargava Kamath
It all started when Fabindia came out with a jewellery range in 2009-10. They knew me as someone who had worked in the jewellery and craft sector, and wanted me to design a collection for their silver jewellery line. While talking to their product head, I realised mere sketches weren’t enough – they needed me to supply the entire finished product to them. That’s how I got into jewellery production.
And now, next month, I will be presenting for the first time at one of the world’s largest trade shows in New York, as part of a small group of artisanal designers specially handpicked for the event from around the world.
It wasn’t the plan, of course. Born in Delhi, I had completed my schooling at DPS Mathura Road and then headed to National Institute of Fashion Technology to major in accessories. I had planned to travel around India researching leather crafts – an excuse, really, to step out of the urban landscape and bask in the cool, unpolluted breeze of inner, innocent India for long stretches of time.
My engineer father, homemaker mother – a national sportswoman in her time – and elder sister were all from the corporate mould. A creative career without a monthly paycheck sounded dubious to them but they were sporting enough to let me explore my own path.
I began taking part in Dastkar events – you know, those bi-annual craft fairs where artisans from all over India display their wares, and where young designers and entrepreneurs like myself can also express our talents. It did pretty well, and soon I realised I had to become selective about where I invested my time and energy.
I zoomed in on silver jewellery that I could make from Jaipur. Not only was it close to home, it is an incredible hub of old techniques and a great place to source gems. There are pockets around Jaipur that offer different kinds of enamelling and other techniques; it’s really a one-stop shop for a jewellery designer.
Then I got married and moved to Bengaluru with my husband. I named my jewellery label Lai, which is Sanskrit for ‘the beloved one’, and old French for a kind of poem that deals with adventure and romance – for me, Lai meant both things! My silver jewellery has an Indian soul but appeals to global citizens.
I started a Facebook page for my baubles, and soon orders began pouring in from friends around India. It didn’t look professional to tell them, “We don’t deliver to Chandigarh,” so I began delivering to Chandigarh, and Delhi, and Mumbai, and everywhere else. One thing led to another and I was in business.
Four years ago, my husband, who works in IT, got a transfer and we moved to Bay Area, California. By then I was already retailing from some of India’s top multi-designer stores so I had to travel back and forth from US to India for my jewellery production and sales work. Gradually, our American friends began showing interest in my designs, and I decided to set up an e-store to cater to a global audience.
There is of course a sea of difference in the way the two countries receive new designers. The US is a more mature market, and designer startups like mine are a dime a dozen. It’s very difficult to get through to a merchandiser at a store such as Barneys or Anthropologie, for instance. And once you do, it is near impossible to make yourself heard and seen above the din of designers who write to them from around the world. I’m sure they get about a hundred pitches a day.
Also, production and branding expectations are very high, and unless you have your act together in terms of product finishing and professional services, you won’t get very far. It’s very challenging for a bootstrapped label to make their presence felt.
In that sense, it’s easier in India. I was able to approach designer stores in just a single call and magazine editors are only too happy to feature new designers who do good work. Most stores go by a commission system, which is both good and bad for the designer. It’s good because it’s easier to find an outlet, but the flipside is that the cost of the inventory is yours and the store doesn’t have much incentive to push your product above others. Even so, I’d say doing business in India as a jewellery designer is much easier than in the US. There’s a massive difference in scale.
At the moment, I’m gearing up for the NY Now 2017 trade show this August. About 2500 exhibitors are expected to show up. I was one of just 20 design entrepreneurs picked by ByHand Consulting for a curated segment called ‘Innovation Showcase’. Being shortlisted by them means a lot; it validates my work and gives me the opportunity to interact with other such designers working with craft communities around the world.
I’m very excited; there’s this whole adrenaline rush. My husband says I’ve become a workaholic. But it doesn’t feel like work when you’re building a dream.