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For some, Bollywood jewelry is a golden ticket

23 july 2009

Hooray for Bollywood - and all the new jewelry evoking the colors, styles and techniques of old-world India.

Despite gold's steadily rising prices, a growing number of consumers are gravitating toward modern interpretations of the ancient gold jewelry that originated in the land of maharajas and mogul jewels, according to

Even before Slumdog Millionaire won eight Academy Awards this year, a swirl of social, cultural, financial and fashion trends had already come together to create a passage to India for jewelry design.

"There are many reasons, not the least among them is the fact that India is an emerging nation with a growing middle class and a rich and colorful culture," says Ellen Sideri, founder and chief executive officer of trend-forecasting firm ESP Trendlab in New York. "And the movie that just won an Oscar brings more interest to that whole culture - which includes their ancient jewelry."

Ancient Indian jewels are known for a combination of design elements: Often handcrafted, the metal is warm, rich yellow gold, leading most modern-day designers to choose 22- or 24-karat, and the gemstones used are either vivid, Indian sari-inspired hues or white rose-cut diamonds. Design motifs include paisleys, snakes, scrolls and the om symbol.

Celebrities such as Angelina Jolie and Halle Berry are among the rising number of starlets photographed wearing Indian-inspired jewelry.

Meanwhile, on Main Street, where there is growing interest in yoga, meditation and spiritual symbol jewelry, discerning consumers are seeking handcrafted as well as higher-karat gold jewelry that is perceived as retaining its value. The recession has also prompted shoppers to seek out more understated jewelry, especially with less expensive rose-cut diamonds.

Modern meets ancient

Still, it's important to note that the Indian-inspired jewelry has been intentionally made distinct from traditional Indian jewelry to appeal to the U.S. market.

Pratima Sethi, designer of San Francisco-based Sethi Couture (formerly Manak Couture), and of Indian heritage herself, says traditional Indian jewelry is often made of 22-karat gold with gemstones of multiple colors within one piece.

But, in February, when Sethi premiered her new "Bollywood Collection" at a celebrity suite at the Oscars - yes, to tie in with and salute Slumdog - the dozen-plus items were presented in 18-karat gold - a softer hue that Sethi thinks has more appeal to American consumers. Each piece was purposefully accented with either a single gem or enamel color.

"I think with cleaner lines and less color, the eye is drawn to the whole piece," Sethi says.

In addition, she uses an assortment of rose-cut diamonds. At the Oscars, Slumdog co-director Loveleen Tandan wore Sethi's Bollywood Collection rose-cut diamond earrings and two large green-enamel bangles with rose cuts.

Notably, Sethi designed her Bollywood Collection, which draws on the glamour of Hollywood and Indian cinema as well as the vibrant colors of old Bombay, long before Slumdog was ever released, aiming it at her more sophisticated clients.

"This is for someone who is open to trying new things and who is comfortable with experimentation in clothing and jewelry," she says.

Jonathan Landsberg, co-owner of Landsberg Jewelers, with stores in Manhattan and Rye Brook, N.Y., carries Sethi Couture, but stocks only 10 to 15 pieces at a time, maximum.

"I don't want to bring in a ton of it because I want the customer to understand that it is something different," he says.

But with Slumdog Millionaire winning Best Motion Picture, Landsberg believes other jewelers will likely bring in more Indian-inspired jewelry.

"Celebrity watching is very influential and we're now seeing this look on the celebrities," Landsberg says.

Although jewelry isn't a feature in the Oscar-winning film, New York goldsmith Donna Distefano, who has been inspired by Old World countries such as India herself over the past 25 years, thinks the movie will sway more jewelers to carry the Bollywood-style pieces that were already rising in popularity.

"In the 1980s, when I took my ancient-style-work jewelry to retailers, they'd tell me that the jewelry was too intricate and fine," Distefano says. "Yet, these last few years, I've seen those same retailers selling more artisanal high-karat gold work."

In fact, Temple St. Clair's past designs for Tiffany and Co. served as proof that the traditional retailer was starting to grasp ancient-inspired jewelry's appeal, she adds.

Also helping to spike interest among U.S. consumers in ancient Indian jewelry style is the Internet.

Elias Vayas of EV Jewelry Design in New York City makes jewelry featuring typical Indian themes, from snakes and scrolls to the om and Indian goddesses.  Emeralds and rubies abound in his flagship collection, "Kali Ma" (named for the Hindu goddess).

"Ten years ago, a lot of people didn't even know what the om sign was, but today, many in mainstream America do," Vayas says. "Thousands of people attend yoga and meditation conferences all across the country."

Three years ago, his own yoga and meditation practices motivated Greek-born Vayas to develop a line of one-of-a-kind Indian-inspired gemstone jewelry in 22-karat, 18-karat and 14-karat gold, and now those pieces might be right on target.

"Emeralds, rubies and also blue sapphires have been underplayed for too long, but for spring and fall 2010, the colors get very rich," says trend forecaster Sideri. "So these three gemstones are perfect, and you'll see more of them."

Sideri also notes that Indian jewelry, by its nature, is about collectibles.

"So all of the modern Bollywood-style jewelry is a new way to afford and wear luxury because consumers can mix and layer in all the different hues of the gems and the golds as well as the different symbols," Sideri says.