Eina Ahluwalia is not selling jewellery. She is taking a stand — bold and meaningful — with her intricately handcrafted work that is, without a doubt, enough to make heads turn and start a conversation.
In 2011, something extraordinary took place at the Lakmé Fashion Week in Mumbai as the Wedding Vows jewellery collection by Eina Ahluwalia opened with messages on domestic violence playing in the background. As the words from those messages faded away a model walked up to the front of the ramp and swiftly unsheathed a kirpan, (a symbolic weapon considered sacred in Sikh faith), from an intricately carved casing that hung around her neck. What followed was a jewellery line that made everyone sit up and take notice.
Motifs of swords, knives and trishuls were symbolic of a stand against domestic violence. In that moment, we knew Eina Ahluwalia wasn’t one for beating around the bush nor was she there to create jewellery which was aimed at only defining a woman’s sense of self. What she had in mind was a lot more powerful, to use her jewellery as a tool for self-expression. She wants her designs to not just tell stories, but to bear messages that need to be worn and spread, unshackled and unapologetic. The pieces from the Wedding Vows line were meant to remind women to vow to love, respect and protect themselves. “I want all mothers to gift their daughters some jewellery that stands for empowerment,” she says. The kirpan neckpiece later appeared in the 500 Art Necklaces published by Lark Book and was selected for Hot Under the Collar: A Survey of Contemporary Necklaces, an exhibition at the SNAG (Society of North American Goldsmiths) in 2012 from a list of 707 pieces from 311 artists representing 12 countries.
Some entrance, right? This incredible journey all began back in 2003 when she chose to let go of a soul-less, but high-flying corporate career to dabble in a creative process, even if it was a risk. “I did not want to work for 60 hours a week to stay ahead in the rat race, earn cars and houses, but have no life.” She wanted to travel, spend time with family and friends, and wake up late every morning. She rewired her life and began working with artisans in and around Kolkata to develop contemporary products using their traditional craft techniques. The Indian market at that time was inclined towards traditional gold jewellery and silver jewellery meant tribal.
She changed much of that.
In 2009, having been a jewellery designer for over six years, Eina started to question the motivations for doing it, the significance of what she created. Were her designs purely superficial? Fulfilling the desire of others for ornate themselves with pretty things seemed a bit hollow now. “My search for meaning in my work led me to the world of conceptual art jewellery,” says Eina. She knew she wanted to create jewellery where concept took precedence, which went beyond mere commerce. Her jewellery is an amalgamation of her explorations of life and trials at the workbench, materialised through Indian craftsmanship. From then on it became her expression, her language, her way to make a place for herself in the world.
After Wedding Vows, came the Containment series. The first piece she designed for the collection was a pendant in the shape of a small bottle made of buffalo horn with detailed silver work on it. “The theme stayed with me over the years, and the concept has grown with my understanding of and interactions in life,” stated Eina. She created an entire runway line in 2010 based on it using blown glass, sterling silver and semi-precious stones. “At the end of our search for that perfect relationship which represented true containment, we realise that it could and did exist only within ourselves.”
A year later, Eina explored the concept further and designed a series of neckpieces, in which containers were small amphoras hand-cut in semi-precious stones and set in sterling silver. “It can be worn round the neck, dangling near the heart as a reminder of our search for containment.” For her exhibition in 2012, the inspiration for which came from vessels, she collaborated with blown glass artist Srila Mookherjee. She showcased wearable vessels with messages and mementoes within. She is, at the end of the day, as you might have suspected, is inspired most by people, ordinary people who are capable of extraordinary empathy and courage. Each of her collections — Battlecry, Paradisiac, All We Need Is Love, Magniloquence — are reminders of strong unforgettable stories of life. The pieces from the Wordsmith line celebrate diversity through strong messages etched in different scripts: Roman, Devnagri, Arabic and Gurumukhi. Another lot are manifestations of the power of Durga, Shiva, Jesus and Allah.
For her, the creative process begins with angst and a lot of coffee.
“I have to reach inside myself and sift through a lot to find a story that needs to be shared,” the Kolkata-based designer says. The concept then passes through ‘meaning’ tests, by which she means that the story must hold true for a lot of people, one should be able to identify with it, it must be relevant and timeless and a story that everyone needs to be reminded of often. If it fulfils all those essentials, the concept is ready to be brought to life. “I do most of the designing on the computer with Photoshop, and sometimes make the first prototypes myself for the kaarigars to follow.”
Eina works with the traditional goldsmith community. She believes that quality and workmanship must always be of the highest possible standard, that a customer gets more than every paisa’s worth. The true value, however, of something created by one’s hands over a machine is something understood best by the craftsman who painstakingly puts in all those hours.
Eina works mostly with sterling silver with gold plating, and at times, when silver proves too soft for the crafting process she switches to brass. 18-carat gold is used for the occasional custom requests. Designs are also available in yellow gold, rose gold, black rhodium and silver plating. Whenever she gets the chance or when the design demands it, she combines metals with unsuspecting materials such as blown glass, ceramic, wood, bone, fabric, felt, resin, pigment, silicon, plastic and acrylic. The metals used come from Kolkata, all other materials she sources when she travels abroad.
Over the years, her jewellery has come to be known for fretwork, a traditional hand-cutting technique which is often mistaken for laser cut and yields a delicate lace-like design. Fretwork requires patience. And time. Both are in short supply today. “I fear that in a few decades, all jewellery will be assembly line production.” Traditional crafts and craftsmen, she believes, not only need to be preserved but valued. People don’t care, anymore, if their jewellery is handmade and unique or mass produced in the thousands by machines. They just want it quickly and cheap. This is counterproductive to craft, which is slow, tedious, meticulous and magical. Unless all these factors are recognised and paid for, our crafts will slip into oblivion, and the loss will be ours. “We will wear cloned jewellery, and go to museums to see the beautiful handmade pieces from the past,” she says. In an earnest attempt to keep alive skills that have been passed down generations, she refuses to give in to the temptation of mass produced, soul-less jewellery.
Her eponymous brand has a robust clientele that flock Nimai and Ensemble in Delhi, Minerali in Mumbai, Amethyst in Chennai, Taj Khazana in Delhi, Kolkata and Goa, and Solimar by Nitya in Dubai, as well as at einaahluwalia.com and perniaspopupshop.com, among other online portals to buy the jewellery. Her decision to create minimal, geometric silver jewellery seems to be paying off.
Eina has learnt on the job, trained in Florence, Chiang Mai and Amsterdam, and has picked up just as much working with traditional artisans as she creates jewellery for women who have are not ashamed and are unabashedly proud of being independent, free thinking and confident. These women put forward their thoughts, ideologies, even sense of humour. “Jewellery for her should be an extension of her personality instead of an adornment,” Eina believes.
As she works on her new collection, which is to be launched later this year, Eina tells us that she is also working on words. “I am building a series of words as jewellery that people would like to wear as reminders or markers of their personality and strength.”