— JASMEEN DUGAL
EXCLUSIVE! It's rare to be a family business and an instantly recognisable cult jewellery brand; Samir Andrea Kasliwal can lay claim to both. Founded in 1852, when the maharajah of Jaipur appointed the Kasliwal family crown jewellers, Gem Palace is steeped in heritage. A visit to the flagship is the stuff of memories — from block printed fabric lining the walls to showcases brimming with jewels. However, apart from the traditional pieces, there are clear signs of modernity, from the unexpected colour combinations to the psychedelic rings and Kamasutra pendants! This afternoon, the suave young man opened an ancient guestbook and pointed to a signature, referring to none other than Jackie Kennedy, one among a hundred celebrities, aristocrats and royalty who patronised the flagship — the enviable list includes Princess Diana, Prince Charles, Goldie Hawn, Sharon Stone and Mick Jagger! And when he showed me the vintage, jewelled chess set, the jaw-dropping huge rough emeralds; the multi- million dollar, layered diamond necklace; the emerald statement earrings with filigree work and twinkling diamonds at the back… it was like Alice falling down the fabled hole. I was awestruck! Amid camaraderie and conversation, Samir spoke to me about how his dual culture and legacy as ninth generation owner of Gem Palace shaped his appreciation of handcrafted jewellery and his cerebral approach to design.
You have been visiting the flagship as a child. What was your first impression of gemstones and jewels?
The earliest memories I can recall are the days when my mother used to take us to Jaipur during our school summer holidays. I remember being free to roam around in the workshop; those are the days where I began familiarising myself with different gemstones, without any kind of constraint. I was just a curious kid, fascinated by this intricate dazzling game of colours and sparkle.
With the legendary Gem Palace Jaipur having created heirlooms for Princess Diana, Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II, Lord Louis Mountbatten and Mick Jagger, to name a few, was it natural to be in the family business or did you have other aspirations?
I always knew I wanted to be a jeweller, and the reason is not just because of the family business I would have one day inherited from my father, but also because of the family tradition from my mother's side. Indeed, my grandfather from my mother's side was a jeweller in Italy, more precisely in Bologna, where I was born. This is the story of how my parents met; their fathers shared a business relationship and often visited each other. One day my Indian grandfather took his son Sanjay Kasliwal to Italy during a business trip and there he met a beautiful blonde lady with green eyes and Sicilian blood… this is how it all started.
You returned from Italy to take over the ancestral business. Tell us about your personal journey.
Even though I was born in Italy, I always knew I would have one day return to India and take care of Gem Palace, my family business. I studied Economics in my hometown Bologna, quite a predictable choice, and then moved to New York to graduate as a gemologist from GIA: Gemological Institute of America. Those were the years where I started taking a keen interest in jewellery. By the age of twenty-six, I moved full time to Jaipur and for five years I had the privilege to work every single day alongside my father, who instructed me about several aspects of the business right from dealing with clients at the showroom to the art of making the right bid at rough stones' auctions.
'He was an artist, not a jeweller', it's said about your father. What about you?
They were right; it makes me proud that people remember him this way. He was a great communicator; he was able to gather around himself, people from different backgrounds and parts of the globe; he connected people and helped them to discover India from his perspective. It is very hard to define myself, but according to what people say, I have inherited from my father, this passion for interacting with people and make them feel at home in India.
Gem Palace is niche i.e. exclusive, historic and with a strong brand identity. What are you doing to move your legacy forward?
I have always been aware and honoured of my legacy as the ninth generation owner of a family business that has dealt with exceptional personalities and celebrities since a hundred and sixty five years. I am convinced that my double-sided culture helps, as I have a broader vision which allows me to engage with people from different backgrounds. Every day I find myself meeting an extremely diverse client base, from fashion designers [I met Christian Louboutin just last week] to former bankers who quit their job and are backpacking in India… from Middle Eastern princesses to top models who visited India to shoot a cover with a world renowned photographer [Mario Testino brought Kendall Jenner to Gem Palace when they were shooting for Vogue India and this is the only place she visited in India other than the set!]. Finally, I believe the key is to put my face forward so that those who are loyal to our brand can identify with the person behind it. The human component is the base of our success and my father Sanjay Kasliwal was a master of this.
How do you remain loyal to your roots and retain the sanctity of design and hand-cut handcrafted jewellery without succumbing to commercialisation?
The fact that you can find me in the Jaipur flagship every day is emblematic of the vision I have for Gem Palace. Even though we have twenty- plus retail partners and proprietary boutiques in several countries — India, Japan, Turkey and United States — the Jaipur flagship, opened in 1852, has an unparalleled charm. I want to personally welcome each client and be the one to tell them about the story behind each piece of jewellery; clients seem to exceptionally appreciate this!! About the handcrafting process, of course we had to expand over the years even though our workshop above the flagship is still running. Nowadays we have three workshops — one in the original location and two in the outskirts of Jaipur. Everything is completely made in Jaipur. What is amazing is that many of the workers have been with us since generations as their fathers were goldsmiths or stone setters for Gem Palace. To sum up, we aim to continue expanding and our American branch 'Sanjay Kasliwal' is a key element in this strategy; however we want the Jaipur experience to give the feeling of uniqueness, always. You came all the way to Gem Palace, Jaipur from New Delhi and I wish to thank you with an experience that will turn into a memory you will always cherish.
Gem Palace is a treasure trove of million- dollar jewellery and the most extravagant gemstones I've ever seen! What, in your opinion, is true luxury jewellery?
I have a very strong opinion on this. True luxury is a piece of jewellery that I cannot repeat because of the rarity of the gemstones. True luxury is to decline our clients' requests because of the unavailability of the gemstones. I don't like to downgrade my work just to accommodate requests! Also, I love to think of jewellery this way — genuine gemstones are always different because of their qualities and flaws; there are no two gemstones that are identical and therefore each piece of jewellery is unique even though another one with the same design exists.
When designing jewellery… take us through your process, right from the initial sketches and the meetings with artisans and master craftsmen to the production. Is it an organic, close-knit process even today?
Definitely, it is. The beauty — and the nerve racking aspect about the Jaipur way of doing things — is the process and the people behind it. If I sit down and count how many people are involved in bringing a piece of jewellery to life, I can count up to thirty. It always takes longer than expected to complete a piece of jewellery as inconveniences happen often, but I still prefer the charm and unpredictability of humans as compared to the emotion-less interaction with machines. We try to reduce machine work to a minimum as innovation sometimes clashes with our credos. I could never envision my workshop packed with machines and few people here and there just to keep an eye on the machines working correctly!That said, the jewellery manufacturing process takes place in Jaipur and today I'm taking care of design. I paired up with my father for many years and he taught me a lot. I could not have imagined moving a single step in this business without his guidance and support. As we are a completely vertically integrated firm, it starts from buying rough material from different parts of the world, wherever the best quality gemstones are ethically mined. In the case of an exceptionally beautiful gemstone, the designing process begins with envisioning how to emphasise its beauty the most within a harmonious piece of jewellery. Sometimes, it works the other way around; we have a design in mind and we start going through the best gemstones available in our workshop.
I've observed that your collections use ancient techniques and are time and labour-intensive but the designs are contemporary and globally relevant. Please tell us about your aesthetic.
Tradition and age-old craft are at the core-base of all our products. Over the centuries we have meticulously selected the best artisans who then became master craftsmen of their particular skill. Some families of craftsmen i.e. goldsmiths, enamellers and stone cutters have been working with us for generations, passing their knowledge and skill set down from father to son, each adding something of their own to the process. There is a responsibility as a jeweller to allow them to evolve their craft; without their skills, Gem Palace as we know it today, would not exist. Furthermore, as much as we strive to innovate, we also work on collections that are traditional in essence, such as our Raj collection that consists of Kundan and Meena Kari.The baseline is that there are pieces that are timeless and are as wearable today as they were a hundred years ago. However, my sense of aesthetic is also strongly influenced by other eras. Indeed, I'm very fond of what came out of the Art Deco period when European aesthetic blended with Indian jewellery. I personally feel that some of the most fantastic pieces worldwide were created during this period owing to inter- cultural exchange. However, I'd rather not pinpoint a specific style. I think it's important for jewellery designers to develop and maintain their own style to be competitive in the market, especially today where there are more and more players.
Your display cases have $200 charms and million- dollar pieces like the ancient ruby- studded headpiece that, when reversed, has rose-cut diamonds. What is the ideology?
The idea is that the back side of a piece should be as detailed as the front. It is something that only the person who is wearing the piece of jewellery can see. Today, few things are kept secret; everything is out there. This way, the person wearing our jewellery is aware of something that others do not know. Those details are exclusively for her, not for anybody else.
What are the newer requirements from your clients to be in sync with today's lifestyle?
As a designer, and also as owner of a nine-generation family business, it is my duty to continually readapt our selection to meet the market's demands. I would not define it as a challenge as I consider it to be part of the business, however I have noticed a dramatic change in the purchasing habits of collectors — and also occasional customer — from different parts of the world. Europe used to be a big market for us, France in particular. In the last decade, the scenario has changed as Europeans are keen on minimalistic design. The Middle East and Asian clientele, however, is keen on bold pieces with major gemstones in the design. I believe China is where we should look at next. The cross culture request I hear more and more is to create a piece of jewellery that someone can wear every day. Throughout the years, one of the claims I have heard from clients is that they have amazing pieces of jewellery which sadly they do not wear as often as they wish they could because they have a specific gemstones combination which makes them hard to match with ensembles. I believe jewellery is intended to be for people to wear it, not to be kept in a vault.
Ideally who are the customers for, say, the 'naughty necklace' you told me about i.e. diamond and gemstone necklace with a pendant that opens to display a handpainted scene from Kama Sutra? Or, the 'nugget necklace' with large rubies on a thick strand of diamonds?
Possibly American clients, who account for more than half of our business today. Americans love to dive into other cultures and are keen on choosing a design which is emblematic of the place they visit. Or Middle Eastern collectors, who have an unparalleled purchasing power and a taste for crazy designs.
With a strong global presence since decades… what do you envision for the future?
The idea is to preserve our identity and to keep our Indian heritage as our core value, which ultimately reflects in the jewellery we make. This sense of history has immense value; it offers a creative path, not constraint. In terms of retail expansion, we are satisfied with our presence in New York which goes under the name of my father 'Sanjay Kasliwal' and showcases jewellery exclusively designed for the U.S. market. I would definitely like to expand our presence in the there however I do not have a specific location in mind.
Personally speaking, what jewellery do you wear?
Something a little extravagant; don't forget I am an Indian at the end of the day! When in Europe, I wear our signature elephants cufflinks in a coloured gemstone such as amethyst or aquamarine with rubies for the eyes. While I'm attending functions or parties in India, however, I'm happy to wear a set of Nehru jacket buttons crafted with sixty-carat rose cut diamonds arranged in a floral design, an all-time Gem Palace favorite!!
Despite living, breathing and being around the most precious gemstones since his childhood, Samir Andrea Kasliwal hasn't lost his sparkling enthusiasm for the subject. I'm so tempted to stay a little longer and learn more, but I'm halfway out the door due to time constraint and a flight back to Delhi. "Come and visit again," he says cheerfully, "we have only scratched the surface; it's just the beginning of the stories I can share with you." I feel humbled.