He is an artist who knows his mind, and has firm control over his creative process. A master craftsman and world-class designer, SAJIL SHAH’S handcrafted jewellery reveals a high degree of finesse. The neckpieces are composed of a medley of diamonds crocheted into lovely lace-like forms intermingled with fine colour gems; three-dimensional reticular patterns materialise as statement cuffs and carved coral and hand-painted cameos are fringed with braided mesh of gold and gems. Pushing the boundaries of one’s craft is not an easy task, but Sajil thrives on putting himself through the rigours of the inventive journey. He arrived on the scene three years ago and mesmerised his clients with his superlative, one-off jewels. His tastefully done-up Mumbai-based jewellery boutique Sajjante (Sanskrit for ‘to be attached with’) displays the treasures that clearly reflect the artist’s perpetual quest for perfection.
By Shanoo Bijlani
If you were not a jewellery designer, what would you be?
I would definitely be in the art/design space… probably an interior designer.
Were you good at drawing and designing since childhood?
I believe that everyone has an inherent eye for design, a particular aesthetic sense or a flair for creativity. However, it is through one’s experience that this skill is further groomed. I did not explore these qualities as a child, but once my interest in jewellery was triggered, I could see the exponential development in my skill, which I can only attribute to passion and hard work.
You spent two years learning the art of goldsmithing and jewellery design in Florence. Tell us about the experience. How did it influence you as a designer?
I trained at a goldsmithing school in Florence where, after receiving some foundation, there is no set curriculum, no structured path to the degree. I loved this creative freedom! I was able to pursue certain aspects of goldsmithing in more depth. As a result we had very personal interactions with the maestros who taught us. Besides the technical knowledge, I was able to soak in so much more, just from the people, the culture and art of Florence, while I lived there for two years. The cumulative experience significantly influenced and inspired me as a designer.
Give us a little background about yourself, and why and when you took up jewellery designing?
I grew up in Mumbai and schooled at St. Mary’s ICSE and later attended H.R. College. While studying, I also worked with my father, who had a diamond manufacturing business. It is during this period that my fascination with gemstones began. I went on to do my Master’s in Management at Lancaster University, UK. Upon my return, I realised that I was not satisfied with simply manufacturing diamonds. I wanted to create, not just the diamonds, but also a form of art through which I could set them and enhance their beauty. So, I enrolled in a school to train as a goldsmith in Florence, Italy, and spent the next two years on the bench. I learnt the techniques of making fine jewellery from scratch. I fell in love with the art, the metals, tools… the entire process and decided that this is what I am going to do for the rest of my life.
So, in effect, I am a first-generation jeweller.
(Left) A broad yellow gold scalloped cuff studded with rose and brilliant-cut diamonds. The cuff is treated with a special hand engraving technique regatta to give it a smooth and satiny effect. (Centre) The oxidised silver and gold cuff displays six deep red roses set with Burmese rubies set against a backdrop of pearshaped rose-cut diamonds creating a garden of paisleys. (Right) A masterpiece in gold and diamonds – The Snowflake ‘Pacheli’ bangle is artistically patterned with brilliant-cut diamonds and diamond beads.
When you came back to India, what did you think was missing in terms of design aesthetics and what did you do to fill the missing gap?
Upon my return, I realised that the term ‘fine jewellery’ is used very loosely in India. Jewellery is treated as a mass-market business with little emphasis on design, craftsmanship and making. In the Indian industry, jewellers very rarely have the complete knowledge and skills necessary to create a piece to perfection. I am trying to fill the gap. I design each of Sajjante’s jewels, after which they are completely handcrafted in my factories. I am involved in every single detail – from conception of the idea, to design, craftsmanship, presentation and sales. This hands-on approach allows me create jewels as I originally envision them.
Your jewellery is extremely lightweight and as soft and supple as satin. How do you achieve that?
For me, not only should my client look good in a Sajjante jewel, she should also feel good while wearing it. I try my best to make the pieces comfortable to wear. All my jewellery is hand-made which allows me to use exactly the right amount of metal that I require, just enough to securely hold the gemstone. I give a lot of importance to flexibility and linking, which gives this soft and supple feel.
Tell us about the techniques that you use to craft your jewels such as Nido di vespa (honeycomb jaal), Regatta (effect of fine lines), Segurito (effect of sand grains) and Miniatura (miniature paintings on gold). How do you commingle these with Indian motifs?
These are old Florentine techniques of goldsmithing and engraving, which I mastered in Italy. Nido di vespa is the formation of a honeycomb lace from a single sheet of metal. Most pieces that involve this technique take about six months to make.
Regatta involves hand engraving fine lines on the metal to give a smooth sheen like satin. Segurito is another engraving technique in which the metal is texturised to look like fine grains of sand. Miniatura is a very specific type of art that used to be practised in France. It involves using enamels to paint on metal. Due to its time-consuming nature, this art is slowly dying out even in France, but Sajjante is trying its best to revive it.
I evaluate which technique will suit a particular design in terms of the overall effect that will be achieved. These are Western techniques, not traditional to Indian jewellery, but go very well with Indian sensibilities and motifs. These techniques particularly stand out in yellow gold, which is synonymous with Indian jewellery.
All your collections are handcrafted. How long does it take to finish a piece from conceptualisation to manufacturing?
This, of course, depends on each design and the level of detailing and intricacy involved in the piece. For example, a Nido di vespa necklace has taken over eight months to make. But on average, a Sajjante piece is made in three to four months.
How often do you cast away your designs/ideas?
About 1 out of 25 designs comes to life. Some are killed at the design stage and some at the making stage.
Do you weave stories into your jewellery pieces or are they based on abstract thoughts or inspired by nature?
My pieces are inspired by my thoughts and experiences in daily life. Old-world architecture and contemporary flows and forms in objects also inspire me.
What is it that sets you apart from others?
My hands-on approach… I buy each stone, conceptualise each design, check every link and sell each piece personally. This definitely results in a fewer number of pieces being made, but I am much happier selling pieces that I am 100% satisfied with.
How do you go about creating a design? Does a stone inspire you or do you work your way around a design and then source the relevant gems?
Both. I don’t have a fixed formula. If I see stones that I fancy, I purchase them and then figure out the design and this can also mean that the stone is lying with me for 2-3 years, until I create the most suitable design. Other times, I am inspired to create a design and then source the stones to make it come to life.
There are a variety of methods and the way I go about it is not necessarily structured… it sort of just flows. Ideas can come from anywhere and at anytime. I don’t really want to methodise the madness because it is working well for me at the moment!
What are your favourite metals and gems?
I use gold and silver. In gems, I prefer brilliant-cut and rosecut diamonds. Emeralds, rubies and tanzanites are some of my favourite gemstones. I also like to experiment with coral, cameos and Japanese pearls.
What are your bestselling jewellery pieces?
My ‘pacheli’ style bangles have been very popular. These pieces are actually a contemporary take on a traditional Marwari style of bangle, which is slim and high. Traditionally, these bangles are made in jadau style whereas my pieces are in diamonds.
(Left) Honeycomb winged bangle lined with Colombian emeralds, brilliant and rose-cut diamonds. (Right) A revival of the old Florentine handengraving technique to emulate silk on metal within a retro cuff design set with diamonds.
Your aesthetics about designing?
I like clean lines. Patterns and movements should flow into each other. The flow should be smooth and seamless without bringing too much attention to it. Design to me is best when subtle, because it is those subtle touches that bring about intrigue and longing in the wearer.
How do you recharge yourself?
I love travelling!
Do you like the work of any other jewellery designer? If yes, who and why?
I love the work of Gianmaria Buccellati for its intricate technique. I am also a fan of Cartier’s vintage Art Deco style.
How has your jewellery been received in India? Since which year did you start retailing your creations?
I started on a small scale in 2011 and opened my store in 2014. I am getting a fantastic response and am very happy to see people appreciating the creativity and craftsmanship in my jewellery.
Tell us about your wife Sanjana. What role does she play in helping with your business? Does she wear only your creations?
I am so happy to have Sanjana join the business since I opened my boutique last year. She plays an important role in sales and is also training to design. Yes, for the most part, you will see her sporting Sajjante!