x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

The jeweller to India's rich and famous

How India's rich and famous can't get enough of the innovative creations produced by the lawyer-turned-jeweller Bina Goenka.

An earring designed by Bina Goenka. Courtesy Bina Goenka
An earring designed by Bina Goenka. Courtesy Bina Goenka

Think of Indian jewellery and two things come instantly to mind: shop window after glowing shop window, dripping with filigreed yellow-gold bridal sets and rows and rows of bangles; and the glorious pearls, emeralds and diamonds of the Mughal dynasty, worn by maharajas and gifted to royal families. Of course, as with the textiles and art of this huge, diverse country, there are myriad styles and techniques but one thing that is hard to find is contemporary fine jewellery.

That goes some way to explain the popularity of the lawyer-turned-jeweller Bina Goenka among the country's great and good. As an untrained jeweller, she came to design with a fresh eye unencumbered by tradition although still informed by the vernacular styles she had grown up with. She also comes from a rather well-known real estate family, which means she is more than acquainted with the levels of luxury and quality required by India's richest and most glamorous.

"They are a very elite set of people," she says, describing her fan base of industrialists and Bollywood stars. "I would not want to say they are rich or this or that because just having money cannot give you anything; you have to have an innate sense of style. I've had clients who've come from the farthest regions of India; in the five years since I've had my store at the Grand Hyatt Mumbai, literally whoever has heard about it comes to me here. Now obviously whenever we have customers who call up, we can send pieces to them."

To talk money comes easily to this savvy businesswoman, and she is upfront about the price of her pieces. "We started making bigger pieces of jewellery such as wedding necklaces, because that's what you require in India," she says. "Now we only make pieces that cost Dh90,000 to Dh600,000 or Dh1,200,000. We never make simple pieces, we never make ordinary pieces, because it will not sell. We're also targeting under Dh6,000 for a segment of people because the brand is a bit intimidating. It's not a cheap offering but it's scaled down."

Yet to dismiss this as merely a pricey brand for a rich elite, and to label Goenka just a clever marketeer would be to grossly underrate the work she is producing. It is unlike anything else on the market. Using the exquisite raw materials for which India is so famous, she makes fantastical pieces that combine many of the motifs and designs of her country's past with the modern sensibility that declares no design is impossible, no gem too large or bright, no collar too dramatic. Rubies and emeralds shine from organically flowering blooms pavéd with diamonds, voluptuous blobs of yellow gold cluster on a wrist, and ropes of different-sized pearls twist elaborately down a back.

It's not the sensible, safe stuff you might expect of someone from a corporate background but Goenka says that, in her youth, she didn't even realise that design was a possibility for her.

"I was a creative person, yes. If I did anything it was creatively but I didn't realise that was showing an interest in design. When you're young you don't, you just know you want to do it in a particular manner. And the whole scenario 25 years ago is very different from what it is today."

She discovered her talent in that time-honoured way of making pieces for family and friends and finding eager customers among their number. Growing up in Mumbai - not a classic jewellery destination - she found herself the designated gold buyer and impressed the jewellers with her knowledge and designs.

"The jewellers realised it at that time," she says. "I used to go and buy jewellery from them [for myself] and I used to tell them: 'Please put this here, that there,' you know, so I would make my own bespoke piece. Then, back home, people started appreciating what I was making for myself; I started collecting other people's jewellery. It would look ordinary and you could lift the design without changing very much of it. I started doing some pieces of jewellery for certain friends and that's how it began."

Beautiful designs are all very well, of course, but if the craftsmen are unable to execute them properly then there's a problem. Goenka realised that the local jewellers she was using were not up to the job. At that point she started her own atelier, making small pieces costing no more than Dh6,000. Soon she was selling locally in a high-end store and exporting to New York.

Six years later, she officially launched Bina Goenka, and her company is now a well-oiled machine with innovation at its heart.

"We are here always, every day, innovating something or other that is different to what we were doing before," she says. "What I was doing five years back is applicable today but the customer needs something new. Most of the customers buy 10, 12, 14 pieces each; you can't give them the same thing."

With customer devotion like that, she can leave nothing to chance with the manufacture. "I have my own production unit in the jewellery district of Mumbai, and I've been training workers for 15 years now," she says. "It's one of my passions, to train workers, ordinary workers, into skilled labour. It may take three to four years, because the man is not able to produce very much in the beginning, when he's just learning but then he's a very versatile craftsman."

Versatile is a word that could just as easily apply to Goenka, who plans to expand into the UK and the Middle East because while her workshop is run to tight guidelines, with the highest-quality workmanship, her design process is utterly instinctive.

Her creations, which are often limited to editions of between five and eight, are what she calls "forward, flamboyant, very with-the-times and very individualistic in its own way. Literally, I might not have met the woman I designed it for sometimes and yet she would say: 'This is exactly what I am looking for.'"

Nothing is off-limits as inspiration. "You catch the piece in your mind and complete the piece in your mind and put the piece down on paper. So what creates the design in my mind? Just flashes of images and nature," she says. "You scribble down your thought and then you take it forward."

Scribble and take it forward: that is a philosophy we could all learn from.