It’s not platinum. It’s not gold. Neither is it silver. It is brass and aluminium jewellery sculpted by Manifest Design’s Manreet Deol that has been making its mark across the globe. A NIFT graduate, Manreet spent 15 years working on luxury products before moving to Pondicherry to start her own jewellery label Manifest Design along with her brother Samraat Deol.
Manifest Design’s jewellery is different on many counts. For one, it challenges the notion of precious jewellery in terms of material inputs. Another key differentiator is that her jewellery is crafted using sand casting, which is unusual in the jewellery world.
The sculpted pieces that begin in clay and are finally wrought in brass and aluminum take inspiration from the sea, sand, leaves and corals. Made by hand, the finger imprints only add to the texture and the raw appeal of the pieces.
Organic in nature, the brand resonates with contemporary aesthetics and it is one of the few Indian jewellery brands to be retailed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s in-house store in New York. A commendable feat for a brand that is just three years old!
Manreet’s designs score high on transcending fashion trends and have the propensity to become a perennial favourite accessory that you just can’t get enough of. MANREET DEOL speaks to ALIYA LADHABHOY about her brand’s success.
You worked as a luxury professional in New York and Delhi. How and why did you decide to switch your career and become a jewellery designer?
I have always been interested in jewellery and have crafted many pieces in the past. I spent 15 years in the luxury lifestyle product segment, where I worked with brands such as Jay Strongwater and Michael Aram. When the time came to launch my own label, I felt it was only natural to go back to my first love – jewellery.
Why did you feel the need to move to Pondicherry?
I had just moved back from New York and was looking for an inspiring, multicultural place where I could detach myself from the crazy metros to focus on creating my jewellery line. No place fit the bill quite like Pondicherry. I love being close to nature yet having the amenities of a city. Pondicherry also has a large community of artists, designers, crafters, organic farmers and holistic healers, which creates a very vibrant community to work around.
What inspires your creations?
I’m constantly inspired by nature of course, but these days, I am interested in anthropology and tribal stories. I’m always gathering design intelligence wherever I am and all these influences gathered subconsciously, impact my work when I sit down to sculpt.
Do you feel the lack of formal training in jewellery design is a boon?
I studied accessory design at NIFT, which focussed equally on fashion as well as lifestyle accessories. I chose to design products for many years and yes, when the time came to design jewellery, I was glad that I was not burdened with a formal knowledge of jewellery design. This allowed me a free hand and I was able to create pieces that are free from labels. While creatively, it has been a very open experience, it has also meant that we have had to create a unique, niche market for ourselves.
Fashion jewellery is often viewed as cheap export surplus or overpriced ‘designer’ pieces. We came along and offered a gorgeous line at accessible price points. We also had to shift the consumer’s perception of what is ‘precious’ – not just in terms of material inputs but also in terms of design quality. We feel fortunate that people are noticing our brand. A very broad range of ladies now buy our statement jewellery. The Gem & Jewellery Export Promotion Council recently invited us to speak about our unique design language, which was a huge stamp of approval from the precious jewellery industry.
What were your initial thoughts when you started designing. Did you have very strong ideas of how your jewellery should be?
My process is very instinctual fuelled by decades of imagery collected in my subconscious mind. The basic notion is always to sculpt something that is familiar in an unexpected way which becomes a conversation starter. I definitely wanted to challenge the concept of ‘preciousness’ in jewellery here in India.
What is your design ethos?
We like to create what we call everyday wearable art – pieces that can be worn day in, day out for decades. We do not make trendy jewellery that is not relevant after one season. We believe in slow, sustainable fashion. The hand-sculpted forms lend universality to our pieces that everyone immediately connects with.
Tell us a little more about your design process.
Each piece begins as a clay sculpture in my hands. Instead of sitting with a pen and paper to sketch my designs, I instinctively work with clay to shape my thoughts and designs. Once I am happy with the design, the pieces are reproduced from my original sculpture into brass and aluminium using the sand casting technique. The use of aluminium as well as the process of sand casting is very unusual for a jewellery brand. Aluminium jewellery has sparked a lot of interest.
Do your experiences in New York and Delhi continue to influence your work in any way?
Always. I love travel inspirations. And often, it’s the nontangible aspects of a place that affect our work. The kinetic energies of NYC and Delhi always push me along. I visit both cities at least once a year and still find bottomless sources of inspiration in the museums of NYC and the craft markets of Delhi.
What has been you biggest learning?
Starting a design business is not for the fainthearted. Not only does one have to learn and do things that are new in the business sense, but the hardest part is to put a piece of your soul out there in the form of your designs and wait for market reactions, which is the true litmus test. One has to constantly react to market forces and one must not make it an ego trip.
Tell us how Manifest Design has woven its way into the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s in-house store. How has the response been?
I guess we got lucky! We were in the right place at the right time. The response has been phenomenal. It is rare for the museum to take on ‘new art’, especially something that is not inspired by historical works in the Museum. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recognition of our work and their support is a huge complement for us. Our Totem pendants and bangle continue to be top-sellers there.
Tell us a little about your new collections.
Wearable tech jewellery is the next big step for us. We just launched Alive, a sunlight/UV tracker that we created in collaboration with a team of Harvard doctors. We are in talks with several technology companies to develop more jewellery pieces incorporating useful tech elements. We also launched a collection of hand-forged stainless steel bracelets for men and want to add more pieces to this range.
One jewellery piece that is your personal favourite.
I absolutely love the Totem bangle. It’s a true classic in every sense.
Tell us the one place you retract to when you’re facing a creative block.
Since I live very close to Auroville, I typically go for a walk in the lovely botanical garden there or hop onto a scooter and whiz off into the forest. If I’m travelling, I lose myself in the nearest museum.
You’ve taken your jewellery to several countries. Which pop-up has been the most memorable one?
The most enjoyable event was The India Story in Kolkata last year. The brainchild of Madhu Neotia, it was a wonderful cultural festival with design, music, art, food, etc. We had an amazing time showcasing and selling our jewellery. It was a holistic creative event which was really interesting for visitors of all kinds.
You’ve received a phenomenal response in the few years since you’ve started. What’s next for the brand?
We want to continue to be part of the jewellery makeover in India, so stay tuned.