The jewelry is beautifully laid out on Neelam Bhalla’s dining table. The late morning sun enhances the vivid blues and greens in the pendants and picks out the delicate filigree of the 23-karat gold that is worked into them. Each piece is a work of art and one can only imagine the time and effort put into crafting them to such perfection. Bhalla brings out more—necklaces, pendants, rings, and earrings and we are dazzled.
“Just imagine, this was almost a lost art,” she remarks running her hand over the display with pride. “Thewa (which means ‘setting’) is unique and I have not seen anything like it before.”
Bhalla is right. When a friend and I went over to her house in San Mateo to do this story we were expecting something more run-of-the-mill, a sort of variation of the famous Rajasthani meenakari-jewelry that embeds precious stones in a setting of lac and enamel. So we were unprepared for what we saw. Thewa jewelry is made with colored, molten glass as a background. The glass is treated to create a mirrored effect. Into this is fused fine, stylized patterns made of 23-karat gold. The result is a translucent piece that reflects the light and creates a stunning, three-dimensional effect.
When Bhalla first saw a Thewa pendant around the neck of a party guest, she was enchanted. She was told that it had been bought at a Delhi boutique. On a visit to India, she shopped at the boutique and ended up buying all the Thewa pieces on display. Back in the U.S. she received so many compliments on her jewelry that she decided to contact the manufacturer Roopa Vohra with the intention of asking her if she needed a distributor in the U.S. It was not easy tracking Vohra down, but the two finally made contact last year. The two women instantly took to each other and a partnership was forged with Bhalla becoming the sole distributor of Thewa jewelry in the West Coast. In the process she also learned a lot about the history of this unique art.
“Thewa work is 400 years old and was originally done by craftsmen from a tribe in Rajasthan exclusively for royalty, more specifically the Mughal rulers,” explains Bhalla. “When the Mughal dynasty declined and as royal patronage fell, Thewa artisans lost their livelihood. The tribe kept the jewelry-making process a secret and went back to their nomadic lifestyle.”
Decades later, in the mid 90s, Roopa Vohra, a student of glass making came across pictures of Thewa jewelry and an antique Thewa pankhi (fan) in a book published by the National Museum of India. She was intrigued by the use of color and the precise craftsmanship. She decided to locate the tribe in an attempt to revive the art and learn the techniques herself. Her quest took her to Rajasthan—to the villages of Bumer and Chitor where the artisans lived. Though apprehensive at first, the artisans soon realized that Vohra was interested in making a financial commitment to their art. First she was sworn into the tribe as an honorary member and then was allowed to learn the art of Thewa from the master craftsmen. Today, Vohra and her artisans work together out of a studio in Mumbai. Her handmade paandans, jewelry, and sindoor cases are sold internationally.
Thewa jewelry has also made its way into the collections of such famous Bollywood names as Jaya Bachchan, Pinki Roshan (Hrithik’s mom), Rani Mukherji, and Shobha De. Here in California, Hollywood stars like Uma Thurman have been seen sporting Thewa pendants. Vohra even has an elaborately designed “Dashavatara” in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
In her own way, Bhalla is equally committed to reviving the art of Thewa. She says she did not go into the distributorship for profit but for the sheer pleasure of being able to handle the exquisite pieces of jewelry. Holding up a necklace of pearls with an emerald green pendant she enthuses, “The pieces literally sell themselves. They are affordable and beautiful and go well with both western and ethnic clothes.” The price range is between $150 and $2,000. Over the holidays, Bhalla was able to sell almost all her stock through private exhibitions and sales. She plans a trip to India in February to pick up her new collection.
Along with her husband Navi, Kenya-born Bhalla is a principal of the Mailboxes Etc. area franchise for San Mateo County. The couple has repeatedly won awards for best Domestic Franchisee of the Year from their company. Bhalla herself has been honored with a “Making Business Easier” award from her company. She is firmly committed to bettering her community and has supported many social causes.
The Thewa distributorship is thriving, slowly but surely. “I receive calls from other people who want to sell the jewelry but I am very picky,” Bhalla declares. “If the person is doing it just for making money, I am not interested in dealing with them. They should believe in what we are doing.” In India, she continues, profits from sales go towards bettering the living conditions of the artisans who make the beautiful jewelry. She plans to use her considerable marketing skills to make Thewa a household name among jewelry lovers in California.
As we sip tea in Bhalla’s artifact-filled living room she sums it up with a smile, “It is a good feeling to know that what you’re selling is beautiful and, will keep some working folks back home real happy.”
For more information contact Bhalla at (650) 341-0681 or e-mail at [email protected] www.thewa.com.