Luxury

Viren Bhagat: Jewellery’s quiet superstar

Viren Bhagat

Viren Bhagat  

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Meet the designer who listens to trance, has left the ‘Maharaja baggage’ behind, is inspired by Art Deco and Mumbai’s fisherwomen, and is ranked among the design elite

Viren Bhagat’s creations can sit comfortably in the company of both modern designs and royal jewels. In 2014, the Mumbai-based jewellery designer’s jali bangles were among several cutting-edge objects mentioned in the Wallpaper* Design Awards list. Hailed for their use of material, the diamond bangles interpreted Mughal lattice screen motif using platinum, but with an industrial feel.

More recently, in June, three of his jewels, including a highly-architectural diamond and emerald bead brooch inspired by the Mughal flowerpot motif, sold for two to three times their estimates at Christie’s Maharajas & Mughal Magnificence auction in New York. They were showcased alongside yesteryear objects such as jighas (turban ornaments), swords and the ‘Nizam of Hyderabad necklace’ — all from the (ruling family of Qatar’s) Al Thani collection. “Most Indians carry the Maharaja baggage. I can relate to it, but it is also important to move forward,” says Viren, 62. “My endeavour is to present jewellery in today’s context by creating pieces that are modern and India-inspired at the same time.”

The diamond-and-emerald bead brooch inspired by the Mughal flowerpot motif

The diamond-and-emerald bead brooch inspired by the Mughal flowerpot motif   | Photo Credit: Courtesy Christie's

 

Living by his rules

With an almost scholarly appearance (he is said to resemble his late father, Vajubhai Bhagat, an artist and lecturer at Sir JJ School of Art), the fourth-generation jeweller is fastidious — both in his work and his appearance (his crisp white shirt cuffs and collars just so). He also insists on keeping a low profile, which is one of the reasons why, outside of a small circle of high jewellery connoisseurs, he is virtually unknown. He is, however, generous with his time when it comes to sharing his passion. In the last few weeks alone, he has addressed crowds at Saffronart’s biennial jewellery conference, Mapping a Legacy of Indian Jewels, and the AD Design Show.

Everyday inspirations
  • Viren draws to scale and his inspirations range from Mughal miniatures to Art Deco, textiles, and everyday life. Peek at his Instagram, and odes to the geometry of Spain’s Alhambra palace share space with Japanese signage. “On my morning run, I come across fisherwomen heading to the Sassoon Docks. It is amazing to see the way they dress, the jewellery they wear. That’s inspiring, too,” says the designer, who works with historic gems and a limited palette of diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, spinels and natural pearls.

Having carved a contemporary identity for Indian jewellery, the ‘gem whisperer’ (as he calls himself on Instagram) is regarded in the league of French luxury house Cartier and American jeweller, Joel Arthur Rosenthal (who, incidentally, is a close friend). His creations find a place in museums and private collections. But he follows his own rules: he never takes commissions, never repeats his designs, and creates only 60 pieces a year. “The passion to create something new drives me to work every day. I make jewellery to please myself,” says Viren, who will be showcasing some of them next March, at TEFAF Maastricht in Netherlands, considered the foremost fair for fine art, antiques and design.

An early start

Born into a family that’s been in the jewellery business for over a century, he was drawn to the craft at the young age of 11. He would observe his father and uncles interact with gemstone dealers and spend hours watching the setters and polishers at the workshop of his family’s department store, Bhagat Brothers. “They taught me how to judge the colour, clarity and origin of the stones,” he shares. Once the family business folded up, Viren, along with his brothers, Bharat and Rajan, opened a jewellery atelier in 1991. His sons, Varun and Jay, have also joined the business. “Sometimes, it takes six months to make a ring because of the time we spend on every detail. The younger generation doesn’t have this kind of patience but, thankfully, my boys share my vision and passion,” he adds.

A necklace with Burmese cabochon rubies and diamonds

A necklace with Burmese cabochon rubies and diamonds  

Viren is open about the role his father played in shaping his design aesthetics, his sense of proportion and his interest in drawing. “He taught Akbar Padamsee and Tyeb Mehta, among other artists. On Sunday mornings, they’d visit him [at our house on Marine Drive] and argue about art for hours. Listening to them, I felt like picking up the pencil and I realised that I could draw, too,” he says. But he does not often speak about the other man who also encouraged him to embark on his journey — Italian jewellery designer, Gianni Bulgari.

While on a holiday in Europe in the late 1980s, Viren had visited the Bulgari store in Rome. “I gasped at what I saw on display. It was a defining moment in my life,” he recalls. On returning to Mumbai, he sent a collection of his drawings to Bulgari by post. “Six months later, I got a reply saying he liked them and I could visit him in Europe.” But Viren’s hopes of working with Bulgari were dashed when the designer said he couldn’t employ the young man for just a couple of years and teach him his secrets, only to have him return to India. But, as Viren later told Vanity Fair, Bulgari also told him, “I can see that you’re talented and I’m sure that you’ll be successful wherever you go.” This stamp of approval, he says, “inspired me”.

A Colombian emerald-diamond-and-natural-pearl brooch

A Colombian emerald-diamond-and-natural-pearl brooch  

Future challenges

Viren’s design process begins every morning, drawing on white A5 paper with pencils that he sharpens to a point himself — “because my drawings are so precise” — while listening to trance music “to cut off all disturbances”. “I pick a gemstone from the collection acquired on my travels and see if it matches the design [he once spent 10 years collecting 24 Burmese cabochon rubies for a necklace]. If not, I place the stone in front of me and create a design inspired by it.” Most of the time, however, when he buys a stone, he knows what he will make with it.

At his workshop, the design dictates the cutting of gemstones. Closely supervising his craftsmen for three decades now, he has developed a strong relationship with them. “They turn my flat, one-dimensional paper designs into three-dimensional jewels. We work with a shared passion and, over the years, I’ve come to a level with them that there’s telepathy,” he says. However, he admits there will be challenges, going ahead, “It is becoming tough to find the next generation of craftsmen. They don’t wish to sit on a bench and work with their hands because of the technology available. I believe my sons will face this challenge even more in the future,” he concludes.

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Printable version | Dec 15, 2019 8:21:17 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/luxury/viren-bhagat-jewellerys-quiet-superstar/article29797674.ece

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