J.Balamurali shares the secret of making beads from seeds

Inside a simple two-storey house in Tiruchi a woman holds between pliers a grain of paddy that will soon join others that tightly encircle the black seed of an Indian soap nut tree. She is one of the 30 women in Jungle Jewels who grade, drill, assemble and add the finishing touches to a variety of seeds and plant parts that constitute a range of handcrafted jewellery. Meet J. Balamurali, the man behind this creation of botanical beads from seeds that were otherwise just biomass in the herb conservation park he owns.

An automobile engineer-turned-rural activist, J. Balamurali grew up watching his father Jagannathan working to improve the health of villagers in and around Viduthalaipuram near Tiruchi. Most of the seeds that go into Jungle Jewels come from the herb park they set up in the late 1980s to research and educate people about medicinal plants, their properties and their uses. “We found that Tiruchi District alone had once been home to 1647 medicinal plants,” says Balamurali, “and we wanted to source each one of those plants and conserve them for local use at our park.” Today, the park, which has been declared an approved field laboratory by many local colleges, houses about 900 medicinal herbs in a variety of forms.

“Four years ago a man from North India came to Tiruchi to sell potpourri and that's when it struck me that the seeds being thrown out at the farm could be recycled into something saleable,” he says. He, along with his friend K. Kesavaraj, approached the man to train 20 women working on the farm in potpourri making. They collected from the farm seeds, bark pieces, wood shavings, flower petals and leaves for the training, which began in June 2008.

“Unfortunately, on the last day of the programme, my friend Kesavaraj drowned in the Cauvery and that threw us all off track, because he was the one who was handling all the back-end works of our project,” says Balamurali. Two months after the incident the trained women wanted him to restart the project on his own, he says.

Recalling what sparked the idea behind Jungle Jewels, Balamurali says he noticed some women arranging seeds and grains of paddy like ear studs during the training. “I was really inspired by the idea of making jewellery with seeds and decided to find out if it already existed in the market.” His search revealed it to be an unexplored territory.

“To assess the demand for such jewellery, we initially made only a few and sold them at handicraft exhibitions in Chennai, Bombay and Delhi,” he says. Encouraged by the huge response they received, he launched Jungle Jewels as a formal brand in 2010 and has since then regularly sold the ornaments at metros across the country. Tiruchi wasn't his focus city, he says, because there weren't many takers for the products. He felt the customers' tastes here were very different from what he could offer.

Balamurali describes the materials they use in their jewellery. “The Indian soap nut (Sapindus), Indian Shot (Canna indica), Yanai Kundumani (Adenathera pavonina) and Rice Beads (Job's Tears) are the four most commonly used seeds in our jewellery.” Some pieces use coconut shells, Chennapattinam wood, ceramic beads and artificial white stones for embellishment, he adds. Their team is also engaged in identifying newer seed varieties that they could use.

Once the seeds are procured, they are graded for quality and, depending upon the design, they are either manually or mechanically drilled, assembled and packaged by different teams. Balamurali, who thinks that women are more suited for handicraft, says his staff now holds a 20 per cent stake in Jungle Jewels, which is a huge incentive for them.

To further build their confidence, he recently sent a few senior members to an international craft exchange programme in Delhi that enabled them to come up with their own designs. Under the label, there are hair bands, bracelets, fridge magnets, religious gifts, key chains, bookmarks and car jewels apart from the more conventional earrings, studs, necklaces and chains. “At present we have around 200-300 different models, which we want to increase to 500,” says Balamurali. Their products are priced between Rs. 10 and 700.

Jungle Jewels products are frequently displayed at Chennai, Hyderabad, Bombay, Delhi, Jaipur, Pondicherry and exported to Malaysia, Singapore and Australia. There is an increasing demand for natural concepts around the world, Balamurali feels. They have now tied up with a French national to jointly sell their products in France.

He refuses to give out corporate franchisees, Balamurali says. Instead, he is building a network of 1000 individual franchisees who can sell a variety of eco-products such as jewels, gift items, skin care products, and natural food supplements. “I want to give our products to only those who would respect the intense labour and love for craft that has gone into each piece,” he declares.