In India, gold jewelry has long been used to celebrate marriage and childbirth or presented as gifts during religious festivals. Ornate bridal pieces still are popular in the northern part of the country, while pieces in 22-karat yellow gold are favored in the south.
But change is in the air, partly as a result of shifting societal norms and the expansion of women’s roles in the workplace as well as the rising price of gold here and recent changes in the consumer tax on luxuries.
Jewelry created from unusual materials and in contemporary designs or sometimes inspired by traditional ethnic jewelry is becoming increasingly popular, with Eina Ahluwalia, a Kolkata-based jeweler, among those leading the way.
“A few decades ago, the primary jewelry buyer used to be the man, whether father or husband,” Ms. Ahluwalia said. “Whereas now, especially in the non-gold market, it’s mostly women buying jewelry for themselves, without waiting for an occasion, purely for their own joy and satisfaction.”
Many women are no longer stuck in a what Indians call a Sass-Bua relationship, in which a mother-in-law controls a daughter-in-law’s spending, a staple story line of many Indian soap operas. “More women are earning their own money, and spending it on themselves,” Ms. Ahluwalia said. “Self-gratification no longer carries the guilt it did even just a generation ago.”
Ms. Ahluwalia, who describes herself as India’s first conceptual jewelry artist, studied with the pioneering conceptual jeweler Ruudt Peters in the Netherlands in 2010, and says the contemporary jewelry designs created by Dutch designers in the 1970s continue to inspire her.
“In 2003, when I began making jewelry, I found the customers very excited and enthusiastic about finding jewelry that looked so different than what they were used to,” she said. But when a collection using concrete didn’t sell well, she began to work with gold-plated silver cut into elaborate fretwork designs.
Today, Ms. Ahluwalia’s creations blend social activism, art, design and fashion — partly trying to counter what she calls the patriarchal associations of traditional Indian jewelry.
For example, her 2011 Wedding Vows collection took a stand against domestic violence by using renderings of kirpans, the knives that are an important symbol of her Sikh identity, in necklaces and other pieces. The words “Love, Respect, Protect” were worked in gold into chandelier earrings and layered necklaces.
That collection, she said, continues to be among her most successful, with its slogan “Accessorize the Warrior Within” resonating among customers.
Like recent industry trends among Western jewelers, Ms. Ahluwalia said her designs were inspired by traditional and personal narratives, like her Wordsmith collection that displayed the names for God in Urdu, Arabic and Hindi.
“We aren’t selling jewelry,” she said, “we’re creating totems and carriers of messages and stories in physical form that can be carried close to the body, and worn as constant personal reminders.”
Ms. Ahluwalia’s prices start at about $80 for a pair of shell-shaped earrings and rise to about $400 for elaborate pieces. “At first there was a cap to how much customers would spend in terms of price per piece,” she said. But, “over the years, the Indian market is exposed to so much more, and the customer base has significantly widened.”
Suhani Pittie, a Pune-based designer who works in the gold-plated silver known as vermeil, agrees that the market has changed.
“The contemporary non-fine jewelry landscape has undergone a tremendous metamorphosis over the years,” she said in an email. “When we first began in 2004, there were only three players in the market. Jewelry was then divided into two categories only: fine and costume. There was no middle route for those interested in purchasing a product purely for the love of design.”
Today, unorthodox materials like concrete, wood, leather and found objects are used by many of the 60 designers whose work is showcased alongside Ms. Ahluwalia’s at Nimai, a concept jewelry store opened in Delhi by Pooja Roy Yadav in 2013.
“Our designers use concrete, discarded watch parts, miniature paintings, nuts, bolts and almost anything to create jewelry not as an alternative to gold but as a piece of wearable art,” Ms. Yadav said.
One of those designers, Anupama Sukh Lalvani, uses steel for her En Inde creations.
“I’m a trained architect and steel was a natural choice of material for me,” she said by email. “Steel is used for its strength and mirrorlike shine (to ward off evil). The tag line of the company is #findyoursteel.”
According to a strategic market research report by Euromonitor, the Indian costume jewelry sector is expected to show twice as much growth this year as fine jewelry, primarily because of what it calls the growing consumer preference for lightweight jewelry that can be worn every day.
Along with changes in design and materials, contemporary jewelry designers also have embraced new ways of marketing and selling their creations.
For example, Swarovski recently collaborated with 11 Indian fashion and jewelry designers, including Ms. Ahluwalia. “It has introduced our brand to a much wider base of Swarovski customers who may not have known us and our work before,” the designer said. “Also, it has given our customers something new to be excited about since we don’t actually use a lot of stones.”
Ms. Ahluwalia will not reveal her annual sales but, she said, 75 percent of them occur online, primarily to Indian buyers. Her brand also has more than 21,000 followers on Instagram. “Social media has been an invaluable tool to share these stories,” she said, “which would be near impossible in traditional retail formats, and very expensive and impersonal through conventional advertising and marketing.”
Traditionally, the Indian wedding has been the primary reason for gold jewelry purchases, with everyone from the bride to guests wearing as much as they own or borrow. Now designers, including Ms. Ahluwalia and Ms. Pittie, are creating collections suitable for bridal wear. As Ms. Yadav said, “The modern Indian urban bride wants to have fun and her choices in jewelry reflects that. They are choosing fun experimental contemporary jewelry over heavily ornamented bling.
“They want jewelry that doesn’t sit in their lockers post-marriage, but costume jewelry that they can wear more often.”
Other Indian designers experimenting along the same lines include:
ABSYNTHE DESIGN The business, founded by Abhishek Basak in 2010 after he decided to leave a stressful job, sells old watch parts and silver that have been turned into unusual jewelry for men and women, as well as luxury writing instruments and gadgets.
“My mother had a small mechanical watch gifted to her by my grandfather when she was young,” Mr. Basak said of his inspiration. “The watch no longer worked, but being a very sentimental object it was kept carefully in a drawer. I made her a pendant, and she wore her father’s gift again after 30-odd years.”
As for the market, he said: “Today, consumers are ready to experiment. They are ready to cut across cultures, tribes and traditions to try new things. Social media, the ease of accessing information and increase of global exposure has brought about this terrific shift in consumer attitude.”
DVIBHUMI The company name is adapted from the Sanskrit words dve, meaning two, and bhumi, meaning earth. Vyshnavi N. Doss, who started Dvibhumi in 2014 after a decade spent in advertising, said, “It represents a stream of ideas flowing from my two worlds: India, where I grew up, and Southeast Asia, where I live, work and travel.”
The brand, based in Singapore, combines tribal influences and Asia-inspired geometry with an industrial design sensibility.
Asked in an email how easy it has been to gain attention in a traditional gold market, Ms. Doss said Indian buyers “are more likely to value jewelry as a product of an artist’s imagination rather than one of skill, high intrinsic value or labor-intensive processes. I find this gradual riddance of restrictions both necessary and encouraging because it broadens the canvas for experimentation and appreciation.”
STUDIO METALLURGY Advaeita Mathur started the company in 2015, and it has become known for a quirky use of upcycled materials and its industrial aesthetic. Strips of nickel-plated brass twisted into sculptural shapes as oversize earrings have been a best seller.
Ms. Mathur said her customers were “attuned to a design sensibility that blends the contemporary and traditional together.”
“If one wants to mint money,” she said, “traditional jewelry is still the way to go. Having said this, there are increasingly more contemporary brands coming up, and people are enthusiastic in trying out nonprecious jewelry.”