India is recognised as the world’s biggest and best diamond and gem-cutting centre. The country’s prowess is unsurpassed not just in gem-cutting, but also in creating exceptional jewellery – be it handmade or machine made. Indian manufacturers have some of the most technologically advanced set-ups to create the finest of designer collections. Sadly, the industry has not done enough to promote its skills and strengths worldwide.
To gain global supremacy in the field of jewellery, the industry needs to introspect on factors such as design, legacy of artistry, welfare of artisans, and strong branding narratives, which together can empower the Make In India brand. Experts suggest we move up the value chain by selling narratives woven around our precious heritage of jewellery-making crafts. They also hammer home the point that collectively we need to stop selling jewellery as a commodity, arguing that by charging a smaller premium we aren’t doing justice to artisans. Have we done enough to raise our global standing in jewellery-making? Can India justify or seek a price premium for its collections?
We spoke to industry experts who shared their views on how India can further use its ability to achieve global synonymity with luxury jewellery, and narrow the gap between being perceived as a low-cost manufacturing centre versus the rightful, spiritual home for high-quality jewellery.
India’s jewellery-making and gem-cutting skills date back several centuries, and our industry is the torchbearer of these ancient crafts and rich heritage. Master craftsmen and skilled artisans have always been the backbone of this sector, who have handed down skills from one generation to the next to create pieces that are unparalleled in beauty and intricacy.
Today, India’s jewellery manufacturers cater to several international brands and their artistry is not just restricted to making handcrafted jewellery. India-made jewellery fills showrooms around the world (last year we exported gems and jewellery worth nearly $36 billion), so what steps can the industry take to generate more awareness about our manufacturing strengths?
Barring a handful of jewellery retail brands that have made a mark internationally, India is not the first name that comes to mind when one thinks of designer jewellery.
Given the vast repertoire of crafts, a question comes to mind: What Switzerland is to luxury watches, why can’t India be to jewellery? Even with the tremendous potential to be counted as one of the luxury jewellery-makers of the world, sadly India has not been able to leverage its prolific history of fine jewellery craftsmanship.
It’s not as though individual designers and manufacturers are not doing enough – they are attaining global recognition by creating a variety of contemporary and handcrafted lines. But there’s a huge scope in boosting Indian exports and becoming global leaders in all aspects of jewellery making — especially handcrafted jewels. One needs to share and publicise stories of India’s skills in gem-cutting and jewellery making.
India is known for its fine enamelling work – be it Benarasi or Jaipur meena work; detailed filigree and naqashi work; the magnificent temple and jadtar jewellery; the glass and gold fusion depicted in Thewa; bidri and dokra jewellery … the list is endless. So, weaving tales around artisans and their artistry is an important step in promoting Made In India. Also, the collective resolve to recognise, retain and empower our supremely talented artisans will help add value to the home-grown ‘gurukuls’ that have been passing on knowledge of jewellery crafts from one generation to the next for centuries.
Promote Hand Craftsmanship
Why Indian jewellery has not been leveraged globally is a complex issue, and has as much to do with tradition, attitudes, expertise, design, quality, and messaging, according to Dr. Usha Balakrishnan, a renowned jewellery historian.
India has leveraged her expertise in the gem-cutting segment at the global level. But perhaps design and quality and messaging are the most important factors to consider.
Design: Where are the designers? Indian manufacturers (with exceptions, of course) do not recognise the importance of design. We have design schools that do not really teach design in the global sense; a single short course is considered enough to design great jewellery; anyone who can draw considers themselves great designers; manufacturers are not willing to invest in professional designers and most importantly, designers only design on paper (often drawing inspiration from catalogues) – they do not know materials at all. In fact, our karigars have traditionally been great designers — perhaps it is time to leverage that and draw our design talent from among our karigars.
Quality: There is no hallmarking (uniformly implemented), quality is a huge issue.
Messaging: We are not doing enough to get the messaging across on the global level – to the jewellery buying customer – about India, about Indian jewellery, Indian aesthetics, Indian hand craftsmanship, Indian design, etc.
Another point to be noted is that all brands leave the actual “maker” out of the value chain. This is sad and also, as I see it, the tendency to protect your ‘karigar’ — holding them shackled to a particular brand is at the heart of this. We know the names of hundreds of brands/retailers in India, but not a single artisan.
We do indeed have a huge domestic market and most manufacturers are content with the volumes that our market generates. But sadly, we are losing out at the global level because of that. I think the two can co-exist.
We need to contemporise jewellery designs, sell the story of India, and revive hand craftsmanship (that itself is a big selling point – as people are looking at the sustainable model nowadays). Machine-made has its own place, but the value-add lies only in hand craftsmanship and we are totally ignoring this.
Stress On Our Manufacturing Strengths
Milan Chokshi, convener, Promotions & Marketing, GJEPC, explains that for centuries, India has been renowned for its coloured gemstone industry in Jaipur, and it is one of the leading exporters of gold and studded jewellery. He adds that India is ideally placed to produce jewellery for brands, to create brands and to supply gems to manufacturers all over the world. “I am certain that every jewel bought anywhere in the world passes through Indian hands. There’s possibly no other luxury product in the world in which India has such dominance. We are, of course, unable to claim a lot of the value addition (it lies in retail) – but that’s the direction we are headed into as an industry. Today India is the world leader in cut & polished diamonds with 14 out of 15 diamonds set in jewellery worldwide, processed in India.
“India has the best access to gems, gem-cutting skills, artists, craftsmen and a legacy of being a producer and consumer of jewels. And because there is a while before automation takes over – the industry is also a very important employer. This momentum fits right into the Make in India story.”
Protecting Crafts & Skills Can Provide a Scaffold to Build Global Brands
Rudrajit Bose, Asst. Director Design & Professor, Global Design & Lifestyle Accessories (L.S.A), United World Institute of Design and Partner – Atelier Anonyme Design says that there are no easy answers to why India has not been able to leverage itself globally. Its roots can be traced to a multitude of factors from our relative poverty in the last century, the lack of an adequate industrial/technological base, an incoherent policy vision towards the gems and jewellery industry, and an industry more focussed towards sustaining its manufacturing position in the value chain than migrating upwards collectively.
All of this has led to the lack of proper corporate structures and environments that attract the scale of investments needed to achieve global leverage.
The critical question now is whether we will be able to blend emerging technologies, consumer preferences and paradigms with our traditional Indian artistry to arrest the steady erosion of market share, margins, human capital and craftsmen. This requires hybrid models of education, knowledge transfer and business that exist at the intersections of traditional disciplines of design, economics, socio-cultural trends and crafts. It also means a customer-centric design and manufacturing model that expands the traditional product categories to define the gems and jewellery industry today.
We must have courage to make long-term investments in ourselves and take the risks required to leverage Indian artistry at a global level.
In my opinion, the “Business as usual model” that leaves the artisans out of the value chain is ultimately self-defeating. It depends on the limited reach and access to capital that artisans have to create an exploitative global model. This has resulted in a steady erosion of the highly skilled craftsmen (some studies peg it at 30-40% over the last three decades) from nearly every area of the gems and jewellery manufacturing pipeline. This enormous loss is now being felt across the chain.
In the future, the unique gems and jewellery craft skills of India, if nurtured and protected, can provide both a critical comparative advantage and a scaffold to build global brands and migrate up value chains. It is critical therefore to enhance the economic viability, social respect of artisans and their equitable integration into value chains. Sustainability is the future, which in this case integrates survival of crafts with economic and career prospects, technology and environmentally sound practices.
I would also like to point out that this cannot be done by the industry alone and needs long-term policy initiatives and support from the government.
Manufacturing thrust for the domestic market makes sense as it’s a vast, diverse market. With protectionism growing worldwide, having a robust domestic demand provides both a vital springboard of growth for the industry and a safety net.
However, global concepts are fast gaining traction in the domestic market particularly with the new generations that are born in this century both in urban centres and the rural heartland. On the other hand, traditional concepts and their unique stories have the potential to gain viable footholds in global markets if we can adapt them to modern consumer sensibilities and preferences. These synergies will only accelerate in the post-Covid world, providing future directions and engines of growth for the industry.
In the times to come, I anticipate increasing overlaps and intersections between traditional skills and crafts and concepts with global appeal by leveraging emerging technologies. The thrust has to be multidimensional in appeal for both local and global markets, and encompass all stakeholders from the Government, industry, artisans, craftspersons, designers and ultimately, consumers.
India can seek a price premium if it can promote and nurture the people and find investments it needs to build the narrative of its unique culture, civilization and jewellery-making heritage. It can also seek a premium if its jewellery making moves in step with emerging consumer preferences and the deepening human interface with technology.
Today the core ideas of luxury are undergoing an extraordinary transformation. We inhabit a world in a world where consumers are increasingly demanding that the products they consume are multidimensional, tech-enabled, imbued with social innovation and responsibility. We cannot continue to operate strategies based on definitions and practices of the last century, if we want to evolve paradigms for our future in this one. To understand and leverage our strengths to achieve synonymity with luxury jewellery, we have to understand what that term means to the consumers of tomorrow. We have to protect our craft and artisanal base, attract the best talent, increase education and awareness, and most of all, be willing to invest both capital and will for the same.
Go Global, But Stay Local
Hemant Shah, founder, Altacraftist, opines that the future of jewellery relies on retaining the essence of handcrafted jewellery. Ancient and localised jewellery crafts like dokra, thewa, tarkashi have been employed for some years now in a series of ongoing efforts to explore global and local markets.
We must promote a local and authentic traditional jewellery craft, but with a touch of global appeal. This, in turn, creates numerous niche opportunities to market products abroad, and there is a huge future in that. Although balancing the act is difficult, it is worth a try to sustain local, indigenous culture, and operate in a market that has no competition. It’s up to us how we make use of traditional crafts and make them into modern presentable jewellery for millennials.
Encouraging heritage crafts gives fillip to these labour-intensive art forms, and boost the regional economy by generating employment and attracting fresh talent.
However, before promoting a craft, one must develop designs to test out their feasibility and quality. Train local craftsmen to think out of the box and help them create new products, without compromising on the methodology so as to retain the essence of the original art form.
Reference designs of the bygone era to create a hybrid product, by keeping the craft component traditional, and playing with contemporary forms to cater to the needs of that market, which you may want to enter.
I harp on the word ‘craft globalisation’ – it is an incentive to use local expertise as a competitive advantage. So, if you create dokra jewellery, you get a competitive advantage since no one has yet stepped into that space. You get access to larger markets by creating niche operations – a space which nobody is going into and you can command a premium and not haggle on price points.
Sell Jewellery like It’s a Piece of Art
Can India justify or seek a price premium for its collections? Yes, of course, it can. But barring a handful of brands that have made a mark internationally, Indian jewellery is not perceived as a premium product, not yet, comments Arun Dhadda, Managing Director, Gem Plaza.
How do we narrow the gap between being perceived as mass versus premium jewellery manufacturers? The fault lines are clear — we have not moved up the value chain; however, big or small a company, I believe branding is an important cog in the wheel to change the awareness drastically.
Jewellery cannot be sold as a product, instead it should be viewed as a luxury keepsake, a piece of adornment that’s a family heirloom.
We Indians don’t sell jewellery like a piece of art; instead, it is sold as a commodity by giving break-ups for labour charges, gold cost per gram, and so on. When buying a painting, does one ask for the cost of paints and canvas? No. You pay for the artistry and the skill of the artist.
We should charge a premium for handcrafted jewels — and more importantly pass on the benefit to artisans as well. If we don’t charge a premium for the matchless artistry and skills of a master gem-cutter or enameller, how can we sustain ourselves and our artisans? They are the real artists who help us realise our dreams.
We are already witnessing gradual attrition of karigars, who are moving away from the industry, and with the pandemic, the situation has only worsened with them relocating to their villages.
I do charge a premium from my customers and ensure that a certain percentage is passed on to our artisans. That’s the reason our rate of attrition is minimal in the company. We take utmost care of their needs.
I have often noticed that when we are exhibiting at international fairs, many buyers come to the Indian Pavilion only to source cheaper goods. Fortunately, the perception is slowly changing as some brands, including ours, refuse to budge on price. We explain to them about the level of painstaking artistry that goes into making each piece. Once the narrative is presented, they do get impressed, but collectively we need to take pride in our heritage, artistry and give due respect to artisans. Without them the entire industry will collapse. It is a challenge we need to address urgently.
Moving With The Times
Shishir Nivatia, owner, Sunjewels Pvt. Ltd., says, “Labels such as Made in Italy or the US are perceived globally to have a high fashion value. Unfortunately, we have not yet reached there. In order to promote India, we need unusual products in keeping with the times. The West has been far more accurate and limited itself to simpler designs; they are reliable and deliver on time as promised. They have a good interface with artists. Manufacturers here have to be more professional with customers from abroad and communicate swiftly and deliver on time.”
Brands, big or small, are not built in a day
Samarth Kasliwal, Partner, Gem Palace, notes,Indian jewellery is all about the most intricate and painstaking designs. Every piece is an art and a posse of skillful people are required to create it.
Brands, whether they are big or small, are not built in a day. Each jewellery company, in order to stand apart, has to pay utmost attention to quality of work, and figure out what are their unique design sensibilities. For us, infusing ancient craftsmanship in newer formats with a touch of global aesthetics, works.
In general, all of us jewellers play a big role in conceptualising designs, but it is our artisans, who play an equally big role in offering suggestions and improvisations and bringing to life our concepts — and the ultimate result is two-fold creative expression and satisfaction is achieved by both the artisan and the artist.
The artisans of Gem Palace come from a traditional background as strong as ours. They push us to utilise their potential that will make them proud of their creations. They are part of our family and we share a strong bond with them. It is a symbiotic relationship.
Whether a sale happens or not, we are proud to take most of our customers on a tour of our workshop, introduce them to our karigars and acknowledge their work. They are the unsung heroes, but are an important part of the jewellery industry’s ecosystem. For them, too, it is a privilege to interact with customers – it’s their moment. In turn, the customer, too, is fascinated by the stories and processes of how a precious piece comes to life.
A Heritage of Rich Crafts
We cannot undermine the wealth of talent that we have. Globally, many arts and crafts such as madhubani paintings, blue pottery, yoga or haute couture among others have gained acceptance. Many international brands, too, outsource certain aspects or components in the production chain from India. Some foreign designers get their pieces designed and manufactured in India only – and barring a few, no one acknowledges that it is made here.
It takes years of practice and life-long devotion to achieve mastery over a particular craft. Many skilled artisans are not paid enough or are not given due recognition. Going ahead, craft skills that were passed on for generations may face a hurdle as the younger generation doesn’t find the work lucrative.
India’s master enameller and winner of the President’s award in 2011, Assat Kamal, master enameller, Jaipur, apprenticed under his late fatherMunnalal Meenakar (also a recipient of the President’s award in 1975) when he was only 10. “I consider myself an artist and have been in the field for three decades now. You need a lot of patience to master the craft, and patience is one virtue that is lacking in today’s generation,” notes Kamal.
Kamal, who works for international jewellery designers and private clients in India, believes that learning an art form is akin to worship. In order to push exports, he believes that artists need patronage and recognition. “If the Mughal enamelling art needs to survive, we must catch students while they are young — perhaps teach them meena work in the 7th or the 8th class. I would be happy even if 3 or 4 students take this art forward. If you don’t propagate Indian arts, or tell stories of the intricacies that are involved in making a piece of jewellery, how will we build a brand for ourselves?”
Patience is key, agrees head pearl stringer at Moksh, Sunny Jairam Borle, who has been in this field for over two decades. He learnt the skill from his uncle in Zaveri Bazaar, Mumbai, and is a second-generation artisan. “It took me almost five years to master the art by constantly practising it. One needs application of mind for stringing every piece of jewellery. It is a tedious job considering how tiny the pearls and the drill holes are. Sometimes, it takes me months to string, especially if it is a detailed jewellery piece.”
Prithvi Raj Kumawat, master gem-carver from Jaipur, is a national award winner, and is proficient in emerald and ruby carvings. He started learning carving on wood and sandalwood since the age of 10. In 2008, he moved to gem carving, and it took him two years to master the art since the medium was different. “I work from international clients and expatriates, but not much work comes my way from the domestic industry.” Today, he also conducts classes on gem carving as he wants to pass on the skills to the younger generation.
The Gem and Jewellery Skill Council of India (GJSCI) was established in 2012 to enhance and upgrade skills in the gem and jewellery sector. Sanjay Kothari, Chairman, GJSCI, comments, “We have been promoting the near-dying crafts like Thewa, Tarakasi, Gajra, Bidri, Hupari Payal and Lac, which were exhibited and promoted at the IIJS Signature and the IIJS Premiere, organised by the Gem & Jewellery Export Promotion Council (GJEPC). The artisans practicing this unique art form were given an exposure to meet various local and international industry partners. ‘Anant The Design Contest’ was held on a pan-India level to promote these arts by employing innovative ways to create jewellery creations. GJSCI wants to promote these arts at an international level with the support of the Ministry of Skill Development & Entrepreneurship, and create a market for it on a global level. The lives of several artisans who had been neglected by modernisation would now see a brighter future for these art forms.”
Rajeev Garg, Executive Director & CEO, GJSCI, added that theGJSCI is in the process of creating qualification packs (teaching material) to preserve these languishing heritage jewellery art forms so that they are not lost forever. GJSCI, through its India Jewellery Excellence Symposium (IJES), a unique platform for promoting jewellery-making, would be promoting these art forms to help them revive and flourish.