A chat with Puja Bhargava Kamath- designer of stunning silver jewellery, and curator of the Indian Jewellery Project
The first thing we noticed about Puja Bhargava Kamath’s wonderful Lai range was just how wearable her jewellery is. The gorgeous filigree, the bright stones, the slight touch of whimsy- all come together to make a piece of wearable art that won’t be out of place in your average workday. Her Mukta Carita collection updates your grandmother’s pearls into classic workwear that will look just as good at a party, her gorgeous Mehndi line is full of fanciful curlicues, and yet manages the kind of restraint that can be juxtaposed with a black T-shirt and jeans, while the Moroccan-inspired Marrakesh collection updates ancient patterns into thoroughly modern and instantly classic earrings for a night about town. We spoke to her earlier this year about her designs and inspirations, and came back immensely impressed with the effort it takes to be an entrepreneur with devoted customers across the globe. Here’s what she had to tell us.
On deciding to become a jewellery designer
I graduated in accessory design from NIFT a few years ago. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do next and began freelancing across different media for a while. I worked with some of the leading precious jewellery brands like CKC (Bangalore), Shrenuj (Mumbai), Hazoorilal (Delhi) and even L’azurde (UAE). Some of my favourite projects during these days were design interventions in the craft sector where I’d visit a community and help bring their traditional designs to the market with commercial inputs. While performing one of these design interventions I ended up interacting with the people at Fab India’s home decor business. At this stage Fab India was only an entrant in the jewellery space. I was lucky to work with the head of this fledgling business who had a fantastic vision for her business, and encouraged me to work with her as a freelancer.
In 2009 I was designing jewellery and getting it produced in Jaipur for Fab India, and by 2011 I was ready to set off on my own with Lai.
While I had experience in handling all aspects of jewellery design, the intricacies of running a business have been a learning curve over the last four years. I now work to a schedule, ensuring I release at least four new collections every year. I have also learnt to better manage productions and inventories. It has helped that my mother has agreed to pitch in as an India Manager from Delhi, making it easier for me to manage supply chains in different parts of the world. My husband helps out with the photography and gives excellent business counsel! (Puja herself works from the US)
On selling through social media
It is funny that I don’t even have a personal Facebook page. Initially I sold through a network of friends and at exhibitions, even though customers always asked me if they could also buy my designs online!
At one such exhibition in Chennai I met Ritika Mittal of Mora, and heard from her how she had managed to create a community that loved and felt invested in her products. When I began to tentatively sell my designs on Facebook, I didn’t quite realise that it would end up taking a life of it’s own. Today, I enjoy the community aspect of social selling and engaging with my regular customers ( 70% of my products go to repeat buyers!). I am also always impressed by how first time buyers trust someone online when they make their first purchase (perhaps seeing other women like them wear my products helps in a way?).
And although I have a professional website too now, Facebook remains the way most people hear of me first.
On her design inspirations, and where she gets ideas from
I have so many design inspirations- people whose work and design sensibilities I like. I love brands such as Anokhi and Anthropologie, and the designs of Rahul Mishra, Urvashi Kaur, Manish Arora, and Rajesh Pratap Singh, Sanjay Garg amongst others. My favourite jewellery designer is Judy Geib- love her work! I guess a common trait between all my favourite designers is that they focus on the earthy and natural-looking.
As for where I get ideas from, it is difficult to say. When I am travelling, or if I chance upon something beautiful, I do make notes and come back to them. But sometimes it could be the chance discovery of a kind of stone, or that one piece of jewellery in a thrift shop whose design I keep coming back to and that inspires me into creating an entire range around it.
On her favourite jewellery these days
I don’t wear a lot of jewellery. But I do enjoy collecting unusual looking pieces wherever I find them. Attaching an image of my current go-to jewellery selection: I wear both silver & gold and love mixing metals. Of late I find myself gravitating more towards pieces that are a regional speciality so the black bracelet is from Siam (Thailand), the jingle-jangle bracelet on top of it is from Lai’s Kashmir collection, the gold-disc covered ring is from Bali, the coral drop earrings are an antique as are the Burmese ruby studs- both acquired from South India. There is another long-geometric earrings- those are from Bhuj, Gujarat, there is a Bidri work bangle & some gold and diamond ones. The other pieces in the image are all Lai.
On the Indian Jewellery Project
The Indian Jewellery Project was inspired by Anusha Rizvi’s Indian Memory Project. I have always been fascinated by the history of Indian crafts and traditions that gets passed on from generation to generation as pieces of jewellery. So I began by asking my customers for old photographs from their personal collection of their grandmothers, grand aunts and relatives in traditional jewellery. Soon, people also started sending me their own pictures wearing jewellery passed on as a heritage by their ancestors. It amazes me that people have made the effort to tell these stories, without any expectation of reward or return, except for the simple act of creating a common history.
I would love to get more images and stories from all over the country for this project, as this is something I am deeply passionate about.
If you have a story to share with Puja from your old albums (or jewellery boxes), contact her through the Indian Jewellery Project Page
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All images are from Puja’s personal collection or her website.