Wear a Jeweled Motif pendant, and you could be telling a story of six continents. Traveling all around the globe in the true spirit of today’s “think local, act global” mantra, Usha Shankar personally handpicks gemstones, gets them set to designs from craftsmen in India, and makes her exclusive jewelry available to a worldwide audience.
However, the penchant for acquiring exquisite pieces of priceless rock is not all that sprang the idea for an unusual line of jewelry. Jeweled Motif is also an attempt at recreating India’s resplendent past.
The semi-precious stones embedded in the Taj Mahal’s main mausoleum; the Timur ruby, the second largest ruby in the world at 283 carats and once the pride of Shah Jahan’s peacock throne; a magnificent bejeweled dagger, with a belt inlaid with diamonds, a gold sheath decorated with large diamonds, and rubies attached to massive tassels of large pearls, from the father of Maharaja Dhuleep Singh’s court, are all gone today—either lost to invaders or the British colonial plunder.
“This story touches me to the point that I believe there is a past in India that can come onto the international scene again,” says San Francisco Bay Area resident Shankar. Jeweled Motif tries to bring alive this bejeweled past of India by working with gemstones that once only adorned people and objects of royal bearing. Diamonds; opals; pink, white, blue, star sapphires; rubies; emeralds; tourmalines are some of the naturally occurring stones that Shankar’s company acquires and sets to styles, in an attempt to provide for the women of today, “an aura of luxury and style, a stamp of class and a stamp of culture.”
On a more practical level, Jeweled Motif targets those seeking change from traditional Indian gold jewelry. While every Indian woman traditionally gives her daughter gold jewelry during her wedding, it can rarely be worn with anything other than a silk saree.
In keeping with today’s changing woman and her style, Shankar feels that there is a niche market for jewelry that conveys warmth and elegance, whether it is worn with a dress, with a skirt, a salwar suit, or even on a simple t-shirt.
The Jeweled Motif line includes more than 100 pieces with colored gems, pearls, brighter golds and lustrous enamels. The jewelry is created with a nature theme in mind, including fruits, birds, dragonflies, butterflies, bumblebees, and insects. Pieces include the princess cut diamond butterfly, pave diamonds in their luscious green foliage, the exotic peacock bracelet, highly stylized tennis bracelets, and the diamond tree among others.
If you are thinking that costume jewelry can fulfill your need for something simple and elegant, here’s why you might want to give Shankar’s line a closer look: For one, how would you like to be wearing a pendant that is set with collector-quality, naturally occurring gemstones from around the world? Nobody takes gems from outside India, gets them made in India, and brings them back, explains Shankar with pride.
Rubies from Madagascar, diamonds from South Africa, American turquoise, Mexican fire opals, all make the voyage thousands of miles to India where they get set to design by skilled craftsmen—karigars—who may specialize in either one or all of the skills required to create the finished products that adorn the necks of teenage girls, socialites, film stars, and the like, in another corner of the world.
Another element of appeal in the Jeweled Motif line is that enameling is an art not available to the West. The technique, which is implemented with a fine paintbrush, is thousands of years old; enameled jewelry was patronized by 16th and 17th century Mughal emperors who helped spread its adoption throughout the subcontinent and promoted enameling technique through trade with European jewelers. The people of many civilizations have recognized the beauty and utility of enameling.
Finally, and quite importantly, stresses Shankar, her jewelry brings the advantage of unique designs at a low cost. “To the American woman, who can reach any heights she chooses, and who can get whatever she wants, this is an opportunity at style that has never been offered to her at this price by the American retailer,” says Shankar.
A probable reason why the average American can’t afford jewelry could simply be because her retailer makes her think that it is so. Shankar projects that American jewelers like Joe Escobar, or even Macy’s, typically tag their items at a 400 percent mark-up. The unreasonably high mark-up is evident when the same item, that seemed unaffordable yesterday, now becomes available at an affordable 50 percent off during Thanksgiving, Christmas, or a seasonal sale. This is what, explains Shankar, makes Jeweled Motif so appealing.
Shankar’s business model is entirely Web-based, a prudent approach in the light of figures indicating that online jewelry sales in Q2 of 2002 touched a staggering $300 million. No overheads, no air-conditioned office, no employee payroll, allow Jeweled Motif to offer customers almost cost-to-cost prices—beginning at $400 and going up to $6,000 or $7,000, there could be something for everyone. And as an added attraction to the melting pot that is America, Jeweled Motif offers the choice of three sizes, small, medium, and large, with the option of being worn on a velvet chord, gold chain or leather chord.
For those shopping at jewelry shows, like the upcoming one at Tucson, Shankar believes in a non-traditional approach. What could be more drab than jewelry neatly arranged on shelves in glass cases? “It should be a shopping experience,” she says. Bamboo displays, silk cloth, a little stream with pebbles, are all novel ways that Shankar employs to bring out the beauty and exclusivity of her designs.
Shankar started on her venture five years ago when she realized that she could do something with her design background (from 15 years in the garment industry where she worked with a well-known designer) and passion for gemstones. “Indian jewelers are not in competition with American jewelers at all. … You won’t find an American going to an Indian store to buy jewelry—it is not style.” Shankar saw this as a niche market where she could contribute positively. A small portion of the proceeds from Jeweled Motif sales is sent to charities that that take care of the karigar families and their needs from time to time.
“I am fueled by the fact that I love these gems, and I now want to reach the condition where I bring acclaim to India’s styling. Who said we can’t compete with American jewelers?”
Each piece, including the chain (which can be machine made), is made entirely by hand, and takes 140-150 days from design to finished piece. Shankar creates her own designs, putting into them not only her passion and knowledge of gemstones, but also a keen sense of proportion, which she says is crucial to the overall effect of the piece. The sequence doesn’t necessarily go from design to acquisition of gems to setting. “I keep on designing and keep on acquiring,” she says, implying that these are two parallel processes.
Once the gemstones have been purchased, they are sent for certification. Diamonds are certified out of South Africa and all other gemstones are certified in India. Often, if a gemstone doesn’t appear satisfactory for a design, the design is dropped and Shankar just hangs on to the gemstone (until another perfect design comes to mind for it). Enameling, however, poses comparatively fewer challenges because Shankar primarily chooses to work with three colors—black which people wear throughout the year, and red and green for Christmas.
All karigars that Shankar works with, are already employed by a jeweler or a jewelry company. Karigars are chosen based on their specialized style of setting. Some karigars do gemstone work. Some others won’t do enameling. While enamel work is done mainly in Orissa, Calcutta, and Jaipur, superb diamond setting is done in Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay. Thus, often, a single finished product is the combined effort of several karigars. The result is jewelry with quality finish that appeals to an international market, says Shankar.
As she delicately displays one pendant after another and describes every fine detail, Shankar sounds like a proud mother speaking of her child. “Each piece is bound to spark off a conversation when you walk into the room,” she says as she holds a pendant—two little birds set in diamonds in perfect proportion—to the light. She confesses that Jeweled Motif is not just a commercial venture to her anymore. “It has become a craze to bring the best out of India.”
Shankar admits that she is tremendously moved by the fact that the person who finally wears her jewelry has no inkling of the karigar who toiled over it, or the journey the gemstones made to his little workshop. She believes that her pieces are traveling continents that finally find a home in somebody’s neck. “That is a story … I am just the instrument.”
Shankar’s Web site www.jeweledmotif.com will be up and open to admirers and shoppers alike, on Nov. 1. Complete with shopping cart, the ability to get different views of the jewelry from different angles, and a bridal registry, it is a full-fledged entry into the world of online jewelry shopping. And if you still can’t decide whether a black or white blouse will set you apart with your chosen pendant, how about using the Web site’s special feature to help you with that?