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Waris Singh Ahluwalia: Traditional Jewelry Turned On Its Head




Paris, France

"I fell into jewelry by accident, the universe opened a door and I walked through it," says Waris Singh Ahluwalia, who recently celebrated the fifth anniversary of his jewelry design business, House of Waris.

Waris, 35, a Sikh-American, was born in Amritsar, the spiritual center of the Sikhs, but his family moved to the New York City borough of Brooklyn when he was 5. "My father wanted an adventure," he remembers.

As a young adult, Waris pursued a variety of professional experiences, ranging from founding and playing in a band called the Savage Skulls to publishing and information technology. He was even declined a job as sales assistant at a Gap clothing store.

Since then he has acted in several films, including "The Darjeeling Limited" and "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou," both directed by his friend Wes Anderson, and Spike Lee's "Inside Man."

But fate had other things in mind for him, he believes. His life turned around in 2003 when he decided to create rings for himself. He designed a gentleman's knuckle-duster: two rows each encrusted with forty diamonds, worn over three fingers. He then made it with the help of a friend who worked in the diamond district in New York.

Not long after, the minimalist yet flashy finger apparel was spotted by a saleswoman when he was browsing in the upmarket boutique Maxfield in Los Angeles. She called in a buyer, who placed an order instantly, and the ring sold out at the shop in a few days. So began a somewhat unexpected career.

With no training but lots of enthusiasm, Waris began designing jewelry and taking his projects to traditional artisans around the globe, thereby learning the trade. His aim was to create jewelry that was both modern and ancient. Five years later, his fine jewelry is sold at Colette in Paris, Barneys New York and Dover Street Market in London, among other shops.

"I like to work with traditional jewelry and turn it on its head," he said.

He now spends most of the year traveling and studying the works of craftsmen, ranging from the oldest goldsmiths in Italy to New York's last hand-engraver - "engravers today have all switched to laser," he said - to jewelry makers in Jaipur, India, who specialize in traditional Mughal jewelry. They still use ancient techniques, like the luxurious kundan method, using paper-thin sheets of gold folded in on themselves and amalgamated. The material is so malleable that it allows for any kind of gem to be inserted.

"I like the idea of continuing craftsmanship, of preserving it not as a relic but as a living tradition," Waris said. For example, "customary jewelry work in India has not changed in hundreds of years," he said. "They still use a sort of yo-yo system to punch holes. They use a rope, a wooden handle and a metal bar, and they push down the bar and the rope makes it come back up."

"Of course, we have a modern tool called a drill," he said with a smile, "but this way I feel there is a story in each element I use, in each piece. It is a story I write with every craftsman."

"Jewelry," he added "is an incredibly intimate thing. I like to know where everything comes from. I even know the guy who makes our boxes. He is in New Delhi."

For the same reason, Waris stopped production in New York, where he is based, "because it felt too impersonal." He travels between India and Italy to work with craftsmen and refuses to send pictures of his pieces to boutiques. He prefers to make his presentations in person.

Like his debut knuckle-duster, his pieces mix ancient techniques with contemporary references. He has designed guitar-shaped lapel pins in enamel and silver inspired, he said, by the 1970s rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd and produced in collaboration with the fashion brand A.P.C.

"People often describe my work as East meets West, but I feel it is more past meets future," Waris said. "Yes, I am inspired by India in the sense that it is a land of ancient kingdoms, but what mostly inspires me is love and history - neither of which I understand."

His collection Omnia Vincit Amor, or Love Conquers All, he said, was inspired by a ceramic bird that he discovered on the wall of a Belle Époque hotel in Paris. "It reminded me of the enamel work they do in India," he continued, referring to the ancient craft of meenakaari, the Mughal art of enameling fine motifs on gold.

It made him think of nightingales, the songbirds that inspired so many Persian and Indian love songs. From that inspiration he went on to design a collection of bird pendants, earrings, chains and pins, in ceramic and silver or 24-carat gold. He started by drawing and handcrafting a model of five different birds, and watched over artisans baking and polishing each piece.

"I am determined to find the best craftsmen worldwide," he said. "When people look at my work, the issue of identity always comes into question. But identity is a complex thing; I don't relate my jewelry, or myself, so much to one country, but to several cities where I feel at home."


[Courtesy: New York Times]

March 21, 2011

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