Exit through the museum gift shop, suggests Anita Ratnam

Watch | Anita Ratnam’s visual tour of 40 years of collecting wearable art

‘Collecting statement pieces that celebrate a country, individual design and local craftsmanship is a 40-year obsession and the museum is my jeweller of choice’

June 10, 2023 07:50 pm | Updated June 12, 2023 11:41 am IST

My children and friends know that I must make that mandatory stop at the museum shop if I am travelling abroad. There is a deep local engagement you find at a museum store and, on returning home, the joy in placing each piece of contemporary jewellery purchased in narrative context.

Anita Ratnam

Anita Ratnam | Photo Credit: G. Venket Ram

Jewellery has played an important role in museum shops across the world, be it on site or online, showcasing unusual materials and techniques and a wide price range.

Indian Museum Special

Indian Museum Special

An emerald-green bracelet, which was part of the Nefertiti exhibition, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

An emerald-green bracelet, which was part of the Nefertiti exhibition, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. | Photo Credit: Johan Sathya Das Jai

I began my collection 40 years ago, in New York, courtesy the iconic Festival of India. At that point, the costume exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was directed and curated by Diana Vreeland, the then priestess of American fashion. She told designer Diane von Furstenberg to collaborate with jewellers and embroiderers in India and to create these beautiful pieces of zardosi jewellery. Four decades later, that necklace hasn’t tarnished a bit and continues to get compliments. It developed in me a love for travel and collecting pieces that would either remind me of a visit or an experience. And it was such an easy thing to do.

A beautiful necklace from the zardosi jewellery collection by designer Diane von Furstenberg.

A beautiful necklace from the zardosi jewellery collection by designer Diane von Furstenberg. | Photo Credit: Johan Sathya Das Jai

A feather-light necklace made of rubber and wire from a museum in Venice. 

A feather-light necklace made of rubber and wire from a museum in Venice.  | Photo Credit: Johan Sathya Das Jai

I have hundreds of carefully selected pieces today in different materials, sometimes paper and rubber. There is a bracelet and necklace from Florence, for instance, where the construction is mesh and the beads inside move with your hands. Another statement piece, a bright orange fabric necklace, was discovered in Cape Town, South Africa, fashioned from the distinctive South African printed cotton fabric called Shweshwe. Three were purchased instantly, to share with friends, the ones bold enough to wear them.

The bright orange Shweshwe fabric necklace from Cape Town.

The bright orange Shweshwe fabric necklace from Cape Town. | Photo Credit: Johan Sathya Das Jai

From Bali, Indonesia, there are necklaces that are just fabric wrapped around stone beads. There is a striking ring from the Volcano Museum in Reykjavik, a beautiful piece of active volcanic stone set in silver. They are all simple and great to travel with.

During the pandemic, I introduced an annual designer sale at my Chennai home, featuring 100 pieces from designers around the world, and this includes costume jewellery. The idea of pre-loved has become so acceptable now that when I let go of some beloved museum pieces, I know I am urging people to support craft and individual design.

Anita Ratnam with a few of her museum shop finds.

Anita Ratnam with a few of her museum shop finds. | Photo Credit: Johan Sathya Das Jai

A fabric necklace created by an indigenous Australian artist — from the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney.

A fabric necklace created by an indigenous Australian artist — from the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney. | Photo Credit: Johan Sathya Das Jai

With the rise of private museums, I hope museums in India will see shops that display bracelets and brooches and necklaces alongside labels that describe who made them and their place within the history of design. We have the most unusual materials and crafts as well as heritage to showcase in this country.

The writer is a dancer, cultural entrepreneur and social artivist.

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