Pieter Louis Erasmus talks about his St. Erasmus label, the signature elements of his line and the effect of Michelle Obama wearing one of his pieces...

Fine threads of gold and silver manipulated by the dexterous fingers of zari artisans in New Delhi... St. Erasmus, Pieter Louis Erasmus's range of fine costume jewellery, is a three-dimensional, opulent extravaganza of zari crochet weaving in and around pearls to create his signature style.

The inspiration behind the work comes from history... William Dalrymple's The White Moguls inspired his 2009 collection. Coincidentally, a certain necklace (now called the mobama necklace) from this collection was worn by Michelle Obama. “All my collections have a background in history,” says Pieter. “Costume jewellery started getting its own space in the western world in 1950-60; the lost period of true elegance. There is nothing glamorous anymore,” he adds ruefully.

How does one wear your jewellery? How is it accessorised?

One of my favourite South African designers, also a close friend, picked up a necklace at one of our stores and wore it with her jeans and t-shirt. That's exactly how it should be worn. It's high-end custom jewellery; it's glamorous and a collector's item. But you can't take it seriously. With precious metals, it's more about the material and not the style. But when you get to costume jewellery, you work with cheaper material and you can be over the top. You can't take it too seriously. You need to bring in the elegance in today's casual wear. The work needs its respect but it needn't be the focal point of one's appearance. I use a lot of zari work in my design. We cover shapes and bangles with crochet. I try and work closely with the women at our unit. Rather than teach them, I employ their techniques and what they know.  

How was it post-Erickson Beaman, a house that has designed for Dior, Chanel, Givenchy and Anna Sui? Given the competition with big names, how do you retain your sense of individuality?  

I had become very good friends with the owner at Erickson Beaman and a lot of people leave to set up their own jewellery companies. I knew how much it upset her. I didn't want to do the same thing, so I started by designing handbags. In hindsight, I kick myself because, although I set up my own jewellery line, I was very particular to ensure I had my own signature style. I use zari and crochet. Another feature of my designs is pearls. These three things give it a very three-dimensional St. Erasmus look. There are two levels to my work: the over-the-top neck pieces, which are very three-dimensional and signature St. Erasmus, and the necklaces and bangles, which are more the bread-and-butter range.  

Michelle Obama wore one of your pieces. The First Lady or the every day woman?    Well, it's a business; when you have a product to sell, you get in touch with the market, the buyers and you sell it the best you can. My products are not run-of-the-mill; you need to educate the public first. And with someone like Michelle Obama wearing it, people see it and they want it. We don't have to chase the press any more or the people. They come to us. She wore it and the business has trebled. It gives you a sense of validation; that the vision you had is real. You are a creative person and you make such things in your workshop and it's all very well and fabulous. However, sometimes you need that sense of validation from outside.  

You worked with Suneet Varma twice. How did you approach the process of integrating your work with another designer?

He's just fabulous. It's really easy to work with him because he knows exactly what he wants. He knows his product. The first time we had a meeting, he showed us his line and we got a sense of the colours and what to make. It was a couture show so we could experiment as much as we wanted. The second time, it was a wedding line, very traditional Indian wear. It was very specific but we could still use our style.

What have you planned for India?  

I don't want to flood the whole country with my jewellery (laughs). We want to open stores in Chennai. We supply to a boutique in the Jodhpur fort, a market not easily accessible to people. Not really on the shopping circuit and more for the filthy rich really (laughs). India is very exciting at the moment with so much opportunity. Every season we manage to add a shop. Even though we have been around for three years, it's only in the last year that our work has really matured. Before that it was more experimental; now it's about adaptability. We need to bring in more colours. In the international market, we have toned down the colour and made it more monotone, so it's easier to wear. In the U.K. the weather is grey, so grey and brown work much better. At the end of the day, I don't want to take over the world (smiles), but I'd like a strong business, keep my workers happy, and make sure work is consistent between the seasons and it's stable for both the people that I employ and me.  

How do you work out the fine line between experimental and wearable?

Check the balance sheets (laughs)! It's all economics. I don't want to stifle my creativity but, at the end of each season, I go through the sheet and see what sold well. So if a pendant style sells well in a season, we up the number for the next season and offer more styles. It's not about selling out. It's about giving people what they want. When one client told us that, instead of the chunky bangles, she'd like a set with a wide one, a narrow one and a wide one again. We premiered that in the Autumn-Winter collection last year. Hoop earrings is another example. Balance the sheets really.

In the vein of being experimental, two words: Lady Gaga. I'd love to design for her! Even though I am a bit old for pop music (laughs), she sings very well and is making big moves in the fashion world and the social statements with her costumes; the meat dress for example. From the press and financial point of view, she is out there. Like Madonna. In India I would love to design for Aishwarya Rai. Makes me quite jealous when I see the work of my contemporaries on her!  

February is spent in London, March in Paris and a project with Svarovski... is Pieter looking forward to spending more time in India? 

My studio is here and it's my baby. I have a flat in Delhi and I have a cat He's more like a teenage boy, and has me on my feet perpetually! 


Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012