Vishal Kothari: The Gifted Iconoclast

An avant-garde artist always conveys an expression of revolt and non-conformity in his creations. And for a person whose formative years were heavily influenced by rock musicians like Pink Floyd, Jim Morrison, and Led Zeppelin, VISHAL KOTHARI, Founder & Creative Designer, VAK, believes in breaking down the shackles of conventionalism.   

Unravelling can be a very disruptive process because breaking the mould is generally undesirable. But disruptions allow you to think freely, without rules and norms…  

And his creative work clearly reflects this philosophy – in his bejewelled pieces diamonds appear to float in mid-air, forms chart out a bohemian course, and gems of unusual shapes seem to be suspended on a canvas of minimal metal to highlight the seductive beauty of the stones. Amidst all the chaos, the artist creates an order which has its own unique and whimsical lexicon. Each and every piece bears a surprise element that elevates its narrative and construction.  

A new kind of chutzpah exhibits the power of his radical thinking. Vishal’s distinctive work underlines his individualistic streak. Meet the maverick designer.

VISHAL KOTHARI

A graduate in Gemmology and a third-gen jeweller handling family business… What was the turning point for you to move on to designing?  

I was born and brought up in Bombay or what is Mumbai today. I am largely self-taught as a creator though I come from a family of jewellery creators who have been in the business for three generations. My father and grandfather have been highly revered in the jewellery business. When I joined my father, I felt a sense of continuity but also a lock down. I had my own ideas, and a very strong design aesthetic.  

So I undid everything – the factory, the office, the design ethos. I unlearned everything that is quintessentially “of the trade”. This was after two decades in it. So in that sense you could say, I am a first.  A rebel! I wanted to be a sculptor or a couturier or a musician. My expression as a jewellery creator today is an amalgam of all this. 

You are a self-taught jewellery designer, and an iconic artist at that! Tell us about your designing journey.  

VAK was established in 2015 in Mumbai. I believe in slow luxury. I create high artisanal handcrafted jewellery, with rare gemstones handpicked by me. I create only 100-120 pieces a year. Each piece is one of a kind and created by my artisans in my atelier in Mumbai. With my slow production and global commitments, I didn’t have the creative bandwidth to go beyond one-on-one commitments. I wanted to be small.  

Last year, I decided it was about time to open my own gallery. My flagship store opened in December 2020 at the iconic Royal Opera House in Mumbai. It is such a privilege to be housed in such an iconic monument. Like everything I do, it is small like a jewel box; but enthralling, I hope. 

Do you work around a stone for your theme? 

I have my own design ethos. My work is a form of self-expression and I create from deep-rooted emotions from within. The inspiration could be nature, architecture, little things around me that make me smile. I do work with important and rare stones such as Colombian emeralds, Burmese rubies, and spinels; and often, the brilliance of a gemstone inspires me to create an expression around it. Gemstones are like living beings – intelligent and emotional. The process of creation is so organic… much like breathing for me. I see and I begin sketching. I often dream of it, and wake up in the middle of the night. It’s an obsession… madness!                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

If one were to compare a jewellery designer to an artist (painter), how would you describe your evolution? Nature inspires you, and your earlier pieces were classic. So, is it right to say that Vishal Kothari has moved from classicism (beautiful proportions, perfection, restrained artistry that is timeless) to an abstract artist?  

I like to think I am a creator. To be able to create is very humbling. It’s been a wonderful ride.  

VAK classics quintessentially use vintage diamond cuts like rose cuts and portrait cuts unabashedly with rare coloured gemstones to create bold pieces. I have a sculptural vision to breathe life into motifs inspired by nature and architecture in my pieces. I like to think my pieces bring great energy. I feel it as I create it. It is so positive.  

From quintessential VAK pieces today, you will see metaphoric visions like ‘The Tree of Life’ or florets and vines which show my reverence for Mother Nature and its abundance. Nature is a recurring leitmotif in the construction, expression and touch and feel of my pieces. A piece can depict the magic of the earth laughing in flowers. 

Experimenting with maverick metallurgy to give it a very organic, sculptural look is a VAK signature and I use materials like coloured rhodium on a base of gold to make the pieces blend in with nature. 

Tell us more about your collaboration with Gemfields’ Walk for Giants. 

Gemfields Mozambique Ruby ring featuring non-treated rubies totalling 5.8 carats, a centre rose-cut oval diamond of 2.05 carats, two rose-cut diamonds weighing 0.38 carat, and 24 full-cut diamonds weighing 0.49 carat. Estimate price: $39,000

In 2020, Gemfields approached us to tie up with them. Today, I am proud to say VAK supports the Walk for Giants. It’s my way of giving back. I created a Mozambican Ruby Ring exclusively for them to create awareness for the conservation efforts to protect elephants and their endangered African habitat.  In a yin-yang design, symbolic of interdependence in the natural world, the piece shares concern for the cause. The Mozambique non-heated rubies are a metaphor of the blood of elephants lost to poachers. The rubies have been created in a way that they evolve from an actual elephant’s head to their tusks. The centre rose-cut diamonds are symbolic of the elephant’s eye. We hope efforts like this will help create awareness. 

How do you weave stories around each piece? 

Every piece I create has a story, a moment. I am inspired by the Art Nouveau movement in particular, and have a fascination for colour stones such as Burmese spinels and rubies, Colombian and Zambian emeralds, multi-hued sapphires and tourmalines.  

As for spinels, yes I use them a lot. They are the most underrated stone. A dark horse, you could say. 

I often start with a design in my head and it evolves into its own being.  The ideation process goes through days, often months. Then it almost creates itself.  My design vocabulary draws from art, sculpture, nature and motifs in architecture. I am very inspired by the architecture from my city – Mumbai – so there are Gothic, Victorian, Indo-Saracenic and at times Art Deco influences in my work. Recently, the baroque edifice and interiors of The Royal Opera House in Mumbai inspired me. I created a line of jewellery based on this. I see jewellery as self-expression, not adornment. 

What is it that sets you apart from others?  

That wouldn’t be fair for me to answer. I like to think of myself as a humble creator. The privilege to be allowed to create is a blessing.  

How often did you discard your designs? Are there any ‘oh-no’ moments?  

You always create. Then reject. Create again. And perhaps reject. The process is quite complex and emotional until that ‘Aha’ moment.    

If you were not a jewellery designer, what would you be?  

A musician. Bands like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin and musicians like Dylan and Jim Morrison have really impacted me personally and, I think, my work. They were pioneers, risk-takers, rebels and originals. I have a strong artisanal bent and find art everywhere. 

Of all your jewellery collections, which piece do you think every woman should possess and why? 

A personal favourite is portrait-cut diamonds. You can have a tennis bracelet or ropes and ropes of it on your necklace. It is effortlessly chic. I also encourage women to wear lots of colour stones. Look beyond diamonds – emeralds, rubies, spinels have incredible energy.  

Do you think India, especially today, is ready to buy designer jewellery and not bother about intrinsic value of the piece? 

In India, we need to create a demand for contemporary creators of jewellery, much like art. Patronage of contemporary art is critical to any culture and its future. Customers need to support new talent and appreciate the artistry and design vocabulary. India has had a history of patronage from the Maharajas. We need new Maharajas now. That is when the arts will flourish.  

Do you design for self-purchasers? What is the profile of your regular consumer? 

When I first began VAK, I sold largely one-on-one to a discreet and private clientele. A quiet buzz had spread about my work largely through word of mouth. I was lucky to have caught the eye of auction houses such as Sotheby’s, Phillips and Saffronart early in my career and that set the ball rolling. That brought in an international and discerning audience. Soon a few discreet galleries in Europe, the US and the Middle East began to keep my pieces and the awareness spread organically, albeit with a niche clientele. Just as I have always wanted. I was also invited to design shows such as PAD, Ataya Abu Dhabi, and DJWE Doha among others.  

My clientele includes important private collectors, art collectors and Royal families across the world. We believe in slow luxury. And this has worked for us. My jewellery has always found art patrons. My client is sensitive to art, sculpture and design. They have a highly evolved aesthetic and look at jewellery as a creation, an expression of an artist, not in size, weight and price.  She wears jewellery to express herself.  One piece is often enough. I believe art always finds its taker. 

I therefore can only make very few pieces. I like to think my pieces are intelligent; they are always thinking. A critic in Europe called my pieces maverick. I like that word. I guess my pieces are artisanal and have a strong architectural bent with a lot of maverick. 

What is your de-stressing mantra?  

Meditation, music and long silences… that would be my mantra. 

Do you like the work of any other jewellery designer other than your own?  

I admire Alfred Philippe the designer for Trifari, a costume jewellery brand in the 1930s. He was a true original and master craftsman. Early Trifari Jewellery is a collectible and his pieces are very rare to find. He also designed for Cartier and Van Cleef and Arpels. The Tutti Frutti design is attributed to him.    

Why haven’t we produced more jewellery artists from a land that has a rich jewellery history dating back 5000 years? Your observation.   

India has an incredible heritage of jewellery and has always inspired creators across the world. I admire artists like A.V. Shinde. Sometimes there is a thin line between being commercial and being a true artist. We have the resources to create a business. But art must come from the heart. 

Phillips New York 2019. An 18-karat white and yellow gold signed Ruby, Diamond and Gold Ring by VAK. The floral ring is articulated with a 2.89-carat hexagonal-shaped diamond, fancy-shaped cabochon rubies totalling 6.52 carats, and round brilliant-cut diamonds weighing 0.46 carat.  Sold for: US$27,500 
Phillips Hong Kong 2019. The 18-karat white gold ring centres on a 3.08 carat oval rose-cut diamond, and 3.10 carats of rose-cut and brilliant-cut diamonds. Sold for HK$ 225,000. 
Sotheby’s Hong Kong 2020.The diamond pendant earrings ‘Chrysanthemums in Summer’ are realised in 18-karat white gold. Each earring is designed as a chrysanthemum with rose-cut diamond petals and leaves, decorated with brilliant-cut diamonds; vines are detachable, with an additional post and hinged back fitting, signed VAK. Estimate: HK$220,000 – 280,000.
Spring Flowers & Spring Leaf bracelet stack from the V line from VAK. Price on request. 
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