Agraduate gemologist, Mumbai-based Vishal Kothari spent two decades in his family’s jewellery manufacturing company. Somewhere along the way, Vishal felt the need to break away from his family business and create jewellery that he could resonate with. To realise his vision and artistic hunger, he began his eponymous jewellery brand, V.A.K Fine Jewels. Highly inspired by museums, he weaves beautiful stories around India’s rich heritage and culture through his one-of-a-kind pieces that are handcrafted painstakingly with the choicest of gemstones. He designs not more than 120 pieces a year, some of which garner hefty sums at prestigious auction houses across the world. Vishal however didn’t always wanted to be a jewellery designer. “I wanted to be a sculptor. Or a couturier. Or a musician,” he says. However, crafting jewellery came to him naturally. “I guess I was born with it. But I was never really excited about it. I didn’t want to be in the jewellery “trade” as I saw it, and disliked how jewellery in India was treated as a commodity and a mere business. It’s when I discovered that I could be an artist that things got exciting. I had an urge to become a creator,” he adds.
This urge to become a creator is what made him steer clear from manufacturing jewellery for the masses. He wants to create meaningful pieces that stand the test of time and this is evident in all of his works. “When I joined my father I felt a sense of continuity but also a lock down. Jewellery was appreciated for its intrinsic value alone, not its design and aesthetic value. I had my own ideas. And a very strong design aesthetic. So I undid everything – the factory, the office, the design ethos. So in that sense you could say I am a first. A rebel. A newbie,” he opines.
For Vishal, music and architecture have been a huge inspiration. Bands like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin and musicians like Dylan and Jim Morrison have really impacted him personally and his work. “They were pioneers, risk-takers, rebels and originals. I have a strong artisanal bent and find art everywhere. Most recently the baroque edifice and interiors of The Royal Opera House in Mumbai have inspired me. I am creating a line of jewellery based on this. I see jewellery as self-expression. Not merely adornment,” he says. His label’s spirit as he explains is India modern meets rock n roll. “A critic in Europe called my pieces maverick. I like that word. I guess my pieces are artisanal and have a strong architectural bent,” he adds. Vishal’s jewellery is a smorgasbord of wearable artworks crafted using a smattering of rose cuts and portrait cuts (which he uses a lot) both of which are ancient Indian cuts. He only uses non-treated, rare, gemstones and a lot of coloured gemstones like spinels, emeralds and coloured sapphires. A design first emerges in his mind and it evolves into its own being. The ideation process of a piece goes through days, often months. Vishal is a firm believer of slow luxury – high artisanal, handcrafted jewellery with rare gemstones handpicked by him. “My design vocabulary is global; it draws from art, sculpture, nature and motifs in architecture. I am very inspired by the architecture of my city – Mumbai – Gothic, Victorian, Indo-Saracenic and at times Art Deco influences my work,” he quips.
I didn’t want to be in the jewellery “trade” as I saw it, and disliked how jewellery in India was treated as a commodity and a mere business. It’s when I discovered that I could be an artist that things got exciting. I had an urge to become a creator
Much like his jewellery, his clients too have an artistic predisposition. “My clients are sensitive to art, sculpture and design. They have a highly evolved aesthetic and look at jewellery as a creation, an expression of an artist, not in size, weight and price. She wears jewellery to express herself. One piece is often enough. My clients know they aren’t just buying a piece of art but are also investing in the same.”
His pieces have this distinct quality about them, born out of sheer manufacturing prowess. Gemstones are celebrated and their beauty is kept intact. Not doing too much while infusing soul into every element in a piece takes a lot of skill. The gemstones in his jewellery shine from all possible angles and very little metal is used. “I use minimal metal to highlight the boldness of the gemstones – they almost float. A lot of R&D goes into my work. I also hire the best of artisans and train them extensively. Often a piece takes 3-6 months to make, with me controlling every step of the manufacturing. I have a zero-error tolerance. I therefore can only make 100-120 pieces a year. Each piece is one-of-a-kind, designed by me and created by my artisans in my atelier in Mumbai. I like to think my pieces are intelligent. They are always thinking.” Vishal has a soft spot for spinels from Burmese mines. “They are always non-treated and come in beautiful hues like pigeon blood, pink, purple and blue. Spinel is a very sophisticated and underrated stone with a historical love affair with India,” he adds.
My design vocabulary is global; it draws from art, sculpture, nature and motifs in architecture. I am very inspired by the architecture of my city – Mumbai – Gothic, Victorian, Indo- Saracenic and at times Art Deco influences my work
Vishal participates in a lot of boutique shows world over – but we don’t see his work displayed for the Indian audiences much. We asked him if he believes that his jewellery doesn’t have a market in India and he says, “With my slow production and global commitments, I didn’t have the creative bandwidth. My pieces found their way into auctions at Sotheby’s, Phillips and Saffronart early in the day. I began retailing out of select boutiques across Europe, America and my pieces are sold largely by word of mouth. I am privileged to have a global clientele through my presence across shows and stores in Europe and the U.S. I also found patronage in royal families from the Middle East.” Vishal is now doing shows in India as well, like the recent one he did with Saffronart at their gallery in New Delhi. He has just opened his flagship store at The Royal Opera House in Mumbai. “It is such a privilege to be housed in such an iconic building. Like everything I do, it is niche and enthralling, I hope.”
High jewellery with rare stones and savoir faire will always stand the test of time, even in a tepid economic climate believes Vishal. “High jewellery in fact becomes more relevant during market fluctuations, as people may buy less but will buy quality, as there is a serious investment and long-term value. Personally that is what I have noticed with VAK.” Vishal has an exciting auction season ahead of him along with design shows in Europe, the U.S. and the Middle East. “The next one is PAD Paris. I hope my flagship store in Mumbai will open doors to a sophisticated Indian clientele hungry for artisanal jewellery.I also sit on the committee of the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts and have been invited to talk at a couple of museums about my creative practice.”
Vishal looks for inspiration in buildings and nature across the world. Older towns of Europe, palaces and museums across the world and of course Mumbai, his city, are a constant source of inspiration. Of course, Pink Floyd, Salavdor Dali and Jim Morrison’s book of poems influence his works. What does the maverick designer do when he is not designing? “I am a museum and music junkie. But my mind is always drawing.”
I use minimal metal to highlight the boldness of the gemstones – they almost float. A lot of R&D goes into my work. I also hire the best of artisans and train them extensively. Often a piece takes 3-6 months to make, with me controlling every step of the manufacturing. I have a zero-error tolerance