Balancing is an art, and Ahalya S., a first generation jewellery designer, has mastered that act. Although she gives a nod to the centuries-old traditional Indian motifs, her jewels are ultra modern, elegant and austere, evoking understated luxury. The reticent Chennai-based artist, whose foray into the world of jewellery designing was accidental, creates poetry in gold… distinct yet minimal and unfussy. Ahalya operates from a spacious boutique where she welcomes clients who converse and collaborate with her in order to possess exclusive jewels. The bespoke service allows her customers to build a jewellery portfolio; wherein they re-strategise their existing jewellery to re-envision it in a manner that is ideal for them. “After all,” says Ahalya, “What you wear is who you are.”
Tell us how you embarked on the journey to becoming a jewellery designer.
Becoming a jewellery designer was accidental. I set up my first studio without having any formal introduction to the business of jewellery. Instead, the studio was born out of my love for jewellery and my desire to set up a business of my own. Serendipitously, I came across a few young and talented craftspeople, who were willing to work with me at the time, and from whom I learnt a great deal.
Since I wasn’t inheriting or joining a business with material available to me, I had to be creative in my use of resources. Fortunately, my natural aesthetic leans towards the minimal, and is more pared down than the traditional Indian jewellery aesthetic. Very early on, I realised that my strength was in creating jewellery that, rather than being an investment, was about making an impression. This idea continues to define my work even today.
Who were your early customers?
The majority of my clientele when I started out were professional women looking for jewellery they could wear daily. Many of these women already had a lot of jewellery, but were looking for socially relevant pieces that they couldn’t find in traditional stores.
I think my designs worked for them because they still looked precious while being more wearable than traditional Indian jewellery. This was a significant learning for me.
In the early years, I grew to be very conscious that jewellery is about presentation and experience. People don’t all buy jewellery for the same reasons. Some want to impress others, some want it for themselves, while others have sentimental reasons—so many different emotions propel jewellery buying. Often, the client herself cannot articulate what it is she’s looking for or why, so it becomes my job to find out.
You started Rasvihar in 2005-06, and then established an eponymous brand Ahalya Jewels. Has your design language changed since then?
Yes, it has become more refined. Most importantly, I have become more confident about my aesthetic. When someone wants a piece of jewellery that is simply not the kind of jewellery I design, I am very clear that it is not what I should do.
How do creations come to life at your studio?
At Ahalya, I don’t really work with concepts or collections. My studio is a place where I have various offerings that people can choose from for their bespoke pieces. This process offers me the scope to be more creative rather than expand on certain ideas or themes. Even as the brand has grown, we still have a limited inventory.
In my view, it is fortunate that I never learnt to use the computer or software, to design. I was trained in drawing, so drawing three-dimensionally and understanding scale, have come to me naturally. Going off scale in design can influence budgets as well as comfort of wear. It is important for a designer to understand construction and design together. I literally started my jewellery career at the workshop, watching designs come to life, and I have this experience to thank for my understanding of the craft.
Although your creations are inspired by Indian motifs – you effortlessly infuse a contemporary aesthetic into it. How do you achieve the balance?
I don’t really think too much when I design. It is an organic process that starts with visualising a piece of jewellery. The actual design is not an intentional process, but the aesthetic is very clear, and that guides everything I do.
My early understanding of my clients was that while they were modern working professionals, they didn’t want to drop the Indian aesthetic altogether. They were looking for design that reflected their roots. My clients wanted to dress well without necessarily dressing up. I think I found a niche—jewellery that looked distinctive but was crafted on a scale and in an aesthetic for everyday wear.
You have been working with gold and silver, oftentimes mixing the two in a piece. Is there a market for high-end silver jewellery here?
I don’t think there is a market for high-end silver jewellery yet, but yes, the gold and silver pieces at Ahalya are very well appreciated. Silver addresses the need for lightness and comfort of wear, while gold lends a feeling of luxury. The two colours also go together beautifully. Mixing of the two metals requires an extraordinarily skilled craftsperson, given that the two have different melting points. The important thing is to be conscious of how much of each metal to use. The balance of the two has to make sense aesthetically but also in order to have market value.
Are all your collections handcrafted?
All our jewellery is handcrafted—we do not use any technology. We use simple finishes – we brush the gold or give it a high polish for a rich colour. We occasionally use a wash that leaves the surface looking a little raw, or a mill pressing technique to lend pieces a special texture.
We would like to know about your design philosophy.
I believe that the value of a piece of jewellery goes far beyond its monetary cost, and is related to its functionality; how often it can be worn and how much joy it can bring the wearer. It’s an expression of who we are.
I think my design philosophy comes down to the fact that people are buying my jewellery for social value. Handcrafting is very expensive, and yet might not always work as an investment in the more traditional sense of the word.
Do you think bespoke jewellery is the new way of communicating with the client of today?
The business of jewellery is really of two sorts—retail and bespoke, or, in some cases, a combination of both. In retail, brands have to maximise the value of design. They cannot design a piece unless it can be sold at a certain value. Bespoke, on the other hand, is what one person wants. It is about customising a piece to one person’s need.
As a brand focused on bespoke pieces, our design is a little more random. Our limited inventory reflects our aesthetic and helps our clients find the kind of jewellery they are looking for.
I started out with bespoke simply because I never had the funds to venture into retail. A few years ago, I realised that this was such a blessing, because it allowed me to explore my creativity.
One of the things I like to do is to give my clients the space and time to walk around the studio and pick up things they like. This tells me about the aesthetic they lean towards within the gamut of what I do. Some clients come in with specifications of cost, which immediately lays boundaries to the possibilities. Some come with specific design ideas in mind. For others, the best way to begin the process is to lead with questions and to listen with great patience, not only to the things they are saying, but also to the things they may not be.
Any plans for expansion?
It is very satisfying and enjoyable to me to be able to cater to an individual’s need and create just what they want. The brand has grown purely through word of mouth, and it is very fulfilling to find clients who say they never really liked jewellery before they found pieces they loved at our studio.
At the time I started out, jewellery buying was such a transactional process. It was about hitting numbers on the calculator, measuring how much gold, how many diamonds, how much discount was to be offered.
What I have discovered, however, is that buying jewellery is a very emotional experience, whether it is a small monetary investment or a large one. My first studio, therefore, was novel because it became a place for conversations with my clients.
I have also started repurposing or refurnishing old jewellery—something one cannot do without access to a workshop. I felt comfortable venturing into this space, and since many of my clients already had a lot of jewellery, it made sense to do so. They saw value in making a piece of jewellery more wearable or usable, even if it was expensive to get it remade.
I’ve noticed that younger people these days don’t value jewellery as much as the older generations did. They have so many things to spend money on to show their social status. However, I believe that jewellery will never go out of fashion simply because it holds an emotional place in our lives. Its value is not so much monetary as it is sentimental.