By Sonya Rehman
Designing jewelry for a little over two decades, Puja Bhargava Kamath’s pieces are a glorious balance of understated design and traditional aesthetic, with a strong emphasis on craftsmanship.
Having steadily made a name for herself in jewelry design through her label, Lai, the New Delhi native (currently residing in California), works with master craftsmen in Jaipur, a city known for its indigenous crafts and techniques that have been passed down from generation to generation.
From pieces influenced by Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, pre-partition coin jewelry accessories, to exquisite Mughal-inspired enamel jewelry, traditional candy-colored wooden pieces (made with organic dyes) and more, Kamath’s designs aren’t just beautiful, but are also focused on comfort.
While small fashion and lifestyle start-ups continue to proliferate the cut-throat e-commerce arena, inimitable designs and products which appeal on a consistent, long-term basis is rather challenging.
However for the award-winning designer’s label, Lai seems to have found its sweet spot, nine years since its launch in 2011.
In this interview, I speak with Kamath about her first commercial project for a leading fashion house in India, which eventually led her to launching her own label, including Lai’s design process and more.
SR: What inspired you choose a career in jewelry design?
PK: I grew up in a pretty creative household. Both my parents are creative in their own ways and growing up there was always some DIY project going on at home. I was academically inclined and everyone, myself included, thought I’d go on to be a doctor.
However, in 12th grade, I realized that getting into a medical college was more of an academic ‘I can do it’ goal than one that would set me on course to a profession I’d love. I had friends who had design and architectural interests and the National Institute of Fashion Technology, NIFT, [in New Delhi], was getting attention at that time (the mid-90s) as a highly sought-after design college. I remember my first visit to the campus in a leafy South Delhi neighborhood and instantly falling in love and connecting with that space. I sat for the NIFT entrance exam, got through, and chose to study Accessory Design.
However, jewelry designing was a later development. After graduating from NIFT, I decided to explore different sectors that interested me and not get tied down to just one. So I took the freelance route and picked up projects across different sectors; jewelry, crafts, interiors, and leather goods. During this time, I also took courses in Gemology from the International Gemological Institute (IGI), New Delhi, and Art Appreciation from the National Museum, New Delhi.
After almost a decade of providing design services to a number of leading national and international jewelry houses and working with craft clusters across India, I decided to venture into producing my own designs. This was a decision born out of a realization that silver jewelry was one category where my three big passions converged – working with crafts and traditional skills, jewelry, and history.
I love jewelry, especially silver. However, most jewelry available at that time was really uninspiring and staid. I wanted to create jewelry that was contemporary – not in a stark, clinical way, but in a way that celebrated Indian minimalism, was wearable, relatable, and affordable. The kind of jewelry that I would personally want to wear. Our designs continue to be very personal and come from a place of my preferences and influences at any given point.
SR: Your first jewelry line was with Fabindia! What was that experience like?
PK: Around 2009, I had a serendipitous meeting with the then Head of Product Development at Fabindia. She had seen a lot of work in regional jewelry in my portfolio – I had worked with various silver-smithing craft clusters across India like Srinagar (Kashmir), Hupri, and Nasik (Maharashtra) and Hajo (Assam), etc. by then. She persuaded me to design and produce jewelry collections for them since they were looking to add jewelry as a new category.
The whole experience of working with Fabindia was fabulous! Back then, Fabindia was a more curated, elevated experience with a clear point of view. They did not want to just curate and source from the market but were looking for thematic, story-rich collections, around Indian crafts and design motifs.
That brief was very much up my alley and despite not having any production experience, I took it up as a challenge and it proved to be a turning point in my career. It set me on a journey, from being a freelancer/consultant to being an entrepreneur. It also gave me a lot of confidence, a few years later, to start my own brand, Lai, since the product/idea had already been tested and validated. It was an easy decision.
SR: At what point did you realize you wanted to launch your own line of jewelry?
PK: After the first collection for Fabindia in early 2009, I went on to do multiple collections in quick succession for them. In any new collection, we typically sampled around 20 designs out of which Fabindia would place an order on 50% – 70% of the designs. This meant that in every collection there were 6-10 designs that were not released to the market. Not to say that these designs were any lesser than the ones that got selected, a merchandiser/buyer will always edit and curate depending on the price point and gaps in their current assortment.
Coincidentally, around that time, organizations like Dastkar and Crafts Council of India, who had till then only allocated space in their extremely popular crafts fair to artisans, started allowing craft-entrepreneurs, like myself, to take part. I was approached by Dastkar because they were starting a ‘Designers’ Corner’ in their bi-annual Nature Bazaar show. I had no prior retail experience, no idea how to set up a booth, no props, nothing. But I knew a few fellow craft-entrepreneurs, who had signed up, and it sounded like a fun adventure with like-minded souls! I rushed to put in production some new ideas plus the never-released samples that we had done for Fabindia.
It was a 10-day event and we were pretty much sold out in the first few days. Just talking to the customers and seeing them connect to the work was such a rush. This became our first-ever direct retail experience in November 2009. As a brand, Lai did not exist till 2011. In the first few craft fairs, I was exhibiting under my name. It was only after doing multiple such shows that I felt the need to have a proper brand name and identity. We also created a Facebook page to keep in touch with the clients we were meeting in different cities during the fairs, so it all tied in beautifully.
SR: Who are the craftspeople behind your designs in India? Also, what does your design process entail?
PK: All of our silver jewelry is made in Jaipur. Jaipur has an unparalleled legacy as a jewelry-making and stone cutter center – a legacy that goes back more than 300 years. We work with a family-run workshop that has a team of specialized artisans, enamelers, and stone cutters. A lot of the craftsmen are Bengali (from East of India), where there is an almost sacred bond to working with metals, especially gold and silver. It’s pretty amazing to see the pride and reverence they have for their craft.
Though not averse to new technology, our commitment and focus are on preserving time-honored traditional jewelry-making techniques that have remained unchanged for hundreds of years as well as to promote the rich cultural and artistic legacy of our land, that goes beyond the current mass-market sensibilities.
To best render the design story we have in mind, we employ different jewelry-making techniques like rava work (granulation), jali (fretwork), meenakari (enameling), and so on, thereby ensuring continuity of old skills.
As for the design process, every collection starts with a theme, an inspiration or a story which usually is a place that I’m fascinated with at that point or have traveled to, a particular culture/period and its aesthetics, Indian motifs and art forms or craft skills that I love. I spend considerable time soaking in all kinds of information about the theme I’m working on. The research, the curation of ideas, and sketching out the collection is by far my most favorite part of the job! At the core of every collection are definite characteristics, motifs, and craftsmanship that encompass the spirit of its inspiration.
SR: You met the incredible Iris Apfel in New York, in 2019, and she also bought one of your bangles!
PK: Getting to meet Iris was an incredible experience, indeed! Having watched her documentary a few years back to meeting and talking with her in person was surreal. She tuned out to be as amazing as she comes across on-screen and in the press. She had stopped by at our booth at the NY NOW show in New York. Seeing (on social media) that she continues to wear the wooden lacquer bangle she picked up from us just makes me super happy.
SR: Given that you’re currently based in the US, do you design your pieces keeping your South Asian customer base in mind or the US market?
PK: As of now, the customer I design for, in my head, is a curious, well-traveled, cosmopolitan, urban Indian woman. But because our designs, whilst culturally nuanced, are pretty pared down and contemporary, I do believe they can be worn by anyone, anywhere in the world.
That said, the US is a more trend-driven market than India, and women in the US have a very different equation with jewelry unlike India, so I’m aware that if I stick to our current design idiom, we’ll be looking at a very niche market here versus if I were to take a more US-centric, trend-driven approach. Like I stated before, our designs really do come from a very personal place, it’s all about what my current influences are at any given point and what is it that I’m excited enough about that I would want to share with our clients.
I am a product of a very contemporary landscape (I grew up and have till date lived in big, cosmopolitan cities; Delhi, Bangalore, and the San Francisco Bay Area) and while I love things traditional and rich in history, at the end of the day they have to compliment my very urban lifestyle. I love the look of big chunky tribal jewelry but I need something lighter, streamlined, and fuss-free for actual wear.
I long perceived this gap in the market and I was very clear from the beginning that the jewelry that we do should neither be ethnic, tribal, vintage, heavy nor ultra-modern and minimalist (which would just take away the cultural identity that we so love to work with). I looked for a coming together of the two in a harmonious and classic fashion, etched out with a contemporary viewpoint. Not museum copies, not cheap me-toos but something fresh, something current, something clearly and proudly from India – that which the world could adopt.
SR: Are age-old jewelry techniques at risk of dying out in India?
PK: Sadly, yes. A whole lot of them, actually. While the demand for ethnic jewelry is still very strong in India and will remain so, sadly today, the craft of jewelry-making, despite all its popularity and inherent beauty, has been largely dumbed down to making a quick, convenient, and unimaginative version of itself – producing cheaper and fast-selling items. This satisfied the price-sensitive mass markets and tourists but did little to further the craft, preserve its traditions, or allow the artisans to earn sustainable incomes.
As we grow and realize the impact of our work, or that impact that we could make, increasingly for me, one big temptation to grow Lai, both in the US and India, is to be able to create opportunities and a sustainable source of revenue for our artisan partners so that they don’t have to leave their crafts in pursuit of adequate income elsewhere.
SR: Do you have any new collections in the pipeline?
PK: Oh yes! Not one, but two. There is never a dull moment in our studio! These are actually collections we had planned for 2020 but then decided to not launch any new collection this year, as the pandemic unfolded. Tempting people and asking them to buy more jewelry in these times felt a little insincere and unnecessary. However there are bills to be paid, so we decided instead to take all of our sold-out bestsellers into production again. That way we had work to give to the artisans and enough stock on the website for those who still wanted to shop for themselves or to gift.