MUMBAI - The diamond, first discovered some 3,000 years ago in the legendary Golconda mines, is set into the soul of India; and just as the earliest legends of the diamond are rooted in Indian history, so the story of the jewel is inextricably woven into the colourful fabric of Indian culture and tradition. To this day, jewels take pride of place in the rituals of the marriage ceremony, and beliefs about the amuletic properties and planetary connections of gemstones are, even in modern and super-rational India, alive, well and gathering momentum.
The noble art of the jeweller, so highly prized in Mughal times, with its own rich traditions, is flourishing again in India, most spectacularly in the gifted hands of the Mumbai-based Viren Bhagat. With his particular, perfectly poised blend of tradition, modernity and exquisite refinement, the designer-jeweller has elevated contemporary Indian jewellery to a new level of sophistication and has brought it to the international stage. He has become one of the world’s most sought-after individual jewellers, his name whispered among elite collectors and connoisseurs.
A PAIR OF RUBY AND DIAMOND EAR CLIPS BY BHAGAT.
A fourth-generation jeweller, Bhagat worked with his father in the family business, selling mostly traditional pieces in the old quarter of Mumbai. When he took over the business in 1991, alongside his two brothers, he knew he wanted to do things differently. Cultivated, well-travelled and urbane, Bhagat had a definite, singular artistic vision that would pay homage to Indian traditions, the conventions of Mughal design and ceremonial adornment, yet take them in a fresh modern direction.
ring by Bhagat.
Today, Bhagat jewels represent a sublime fusion of artistry and craftsmanship, old and new. They reverberate with the glory and grandeur of great Indian treasuries, the opulence of the Maharajahs, the poetry and harmony of Mughal art and the splendour of Islamic architecture, all spiced with the verve, luxury and modernity of Art Deco. Perhaps too, unconsciously and intuitively, Bhagat blends contrasting concepts inherent in Indian jewellery, the material and the immaterial, the role of the jewel both as store of wealth and a powerful, mystical talisman.
Bhagat’s stylistic signature is an ethereal, effortless lightness, an elegant serenity touched with both a princely hauteur and a hint of sensuality. This lightness comes from Bhagat’s striking use of specially-cut diamonds, often petal-shaped slivers, set with little or no metal. It is as if, says Bhagat, “the metal has evaporated,” so that they appear to be floating, shimmering with liquid light, like moonlight on water. The cut and shape of the gemstones themselves create the silhouette of the jewel, playing all the time with light, texture and translucencies. This play of light is seen to perfection in a pair of impossibly slender bangles, a Bhagat speciality, in which a hand-pierced openwork floral pattern casts a henna-like pattern on the skin. “With this effect of light and shadow, I wanted to add a new dimension to metal and gems,” he explains.
The bangles are embedded with rose diamonds, their fine edges rimmed in specially calibrated baguettes. They have, says Bhagat, taken six months to make, entirely by the same hand, as each of his creations bears the almost imperceptible idiosyncrasies of the individual artisan. His hallmark flat diamonds, minutely bevelled and mirror-like, are each painstakingly plotted and shaped, by dedicated, specialist diamond-cutters to fit Bhagat’s hand-sketched designs. Translating and refining the flat Polki pebble-like stones of traditional diamond-set jewels, these diamonds also recall the soft, limpid lustre of early Golconda stones.
old-mine Columbian emerald and
diamond ring by Bhagat.
Bhagat works in a limited palette, mainly diamonds, emeralds, rubies and pearls and the occasional spinel or sapphire. He searches, especially in Indian collections, for the most charismatic antique gemstones, Colombian emeralds (a Mughal obsession), natural, lustrous Basra pearls, Burma rubies, wine-coloured spinels (also beloved of Mughal emperors), and genuine Golconda diamonds. To create his signature play of light, Bhagat mixes different cuts of diamonds – flat cuts, rose cuts, beads and Art Deco-inspired baguettes – which he has used most recently to build the “pillars” supporting an exceptional old-mine circular emerald, the centrepiece of a cocktail ring with an architectural flavour, constructed so that from above only the emerald can be seen, a pool of intense heavenly green, held in place by shafts of diamond light.
Bhagat’s designs veer between courtly Indian ornament – the pairs of flat, slim bangles, or long, sensual tassels of diamond beads – and old-school Hollywood glamour, cluster earrings and cocktail rings, imbued with a strong European sensibility. Modernity and magnetism are all part of the mix: a pair of new hoop earrings, are, he explains, more tribal in inspiration; each a perfect, lyrical curve of stunning Burmese rubies, edged with a row of upstanding old, amuletic taweez-shaped diamonds, from an antique Indian jewel, and lined inside the curve with diamond beads. Subtly, seductively, ethnically Indian, with hints of the barbaric and ritualistic, tamed by Viren Bhagat’s unique brand of ravishing refinement, his jewels are touched with talismanic power; heavy with Indian tradition, light with the magic and majesty of a Bhagat creation.
Vivienne Becker is a jewellery historian and contributing editor for FT’s How to Spend It.
Lead image: Viren Bhagat in Mumbai, January 2015. Photography by Arjun Mark.