Most people, even those who adore luxury, have never even heard of Viren Bhagat. But at a Christie's auction in 2006 in New York, an elaborate pair of earrings from the hands of this 50-year-old Indian contemporary jewellery designer were estimated at $150,000 to $200,000. They ultimately fetched a cool $307,000.
Then in 2007, Bhagat found himself in New York attending another Christie's auction. This time, his striking diamond and pearl necklace adorned the sale catalogue's cover – the first time ever for an Indian jeweller. The masterpiece, estimated at $600,000 to $800,000, became the subject of frenzied bidding. It eventually sold to a European banking family for a staggering $958,400. In June 2008, Bhagat was featured in the Robb Report's Best of the Best list beating Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels and Moussaieff.
The diamonds found in Bhagat's jewels are not especially large. But given that Bhagat is selling jewellery faster than he can make it, he has indisputably captured the imagination of the world's biggest spending jewellery buyers. They can be aged anywhere from 19–65 and range from Chinese, European and American clients to Bollywood stars, wealthy bankers and Russian oligarchs, according to the designer. At the moment, many are buying Bhagat jewellery on the basis of nothing more than emailed or faxed drawings from Mumbai – his only retail outlet.
At a time when contemporary jewellery is increasingly popular and antique jewellery is losing its appeal, it is somewhat paradoxical that Viren Bhagat's designs, which embrace design cues as well as diamonds from the past, are becoming increasingly collectible to connoisseurs.
"Viren Bhagat always does very well at auction," says Christie's international head of jewellery, Francois Curiel. "He does not copy anyone. His work has great personality. He has successfully reworked classical motifs into lighter and wearable designs, which suit the contemporary eye. He mixes with great talent noble and ancient materials, such as natural pearls, table-cut diamonds and older stones, into delicate and decorative jewels, which are all unique. It is classicism with a touch of modernism and beautiful handmade workmanship."
What sets Bhagat's designs apart is that he shines the light on old gemstones that carry their own special appeal. Endowing traditional Indian craftsmanship with a 21st century edge, Viren Bhagat re-sets historical Indian gemstones in the style of architecture from the Mughal Era – an époque which spanned from the 16th to the 18th centuries and whose most famous structure remains the Taj Mahal. Bhagat's early work combined contemporary Western style with Indian influences, but the art deco experimentation of the twentieth century, fused with traditional motifs and skills have had a lasting impact on his design philosophy.
His small shop in downtown Mumbai is a "mainly by appointment only" affair visited by clients "from all over the world", according to Bhagat. "We have no display, this is a quiet operation and people hear about us mainly by word of mouth." A client recently flew in from Dubai to talk to Bhagat about his jewellery requirements for 10 days of family wedding celebrations due to take place in Dubai and India. After showing the client some drawings, Bhagat discussed the family's requirements at length and is now setting to work.
Bhagat favours pearls from Bahrain, prized for their rarity, and diamonds hailing from the 17th and 18th centuries. "The cut of older stones is not so 'bling'," he explains. "Older stones hold a softer, subtler charm, like a quiet whisper that signifies old wealth. Cartier set 16th century emeralds into its 1920s designs in a deco style."
According to Curiel at Christie's, older cut diamonds, which exude less sparkle and brilliance than modern gems, are the ultimate in understated elegance. "Older stones have a softer glow that some collectors do appreciate. They are less eye-catching and exude a charm and character that is different from diamonds mined and cut today," he says.
"More people are understanding the distinction between old and new cut diamonds," says London's Burlington Arcade antique jeweller Sandra Cronan. "It's like old silk compared to rayon. Antique diamonds are cut to glow and reflect light – they are delicate, warm and subtle.
Modern diamonds tend to be more glossy and brash. They're cut to calculate the maximum refraction and light – they are much brighter. It takes no imagination to see the difference." Once people understand this, "they're sold", she says. "They know they won't bump into someone else wearing the same thing."
Bhagat's design draws from a wealth of Indian aesthetics – cultural symbols, textile motifs and sculpture and temple friezes. A flexible ruby and diamond bracelet with exquisitely cut rubies is patterned like a pierced screen carved from a single slab of marble or sandstone known as a jali – a design intended to filter harsh sunlight and found, amongst other places, in the Taj Mahal. Each ruby was specially cut for the design.
Another ruby, diamond and pearl necklace alludes to the champa kali, an ancient Indian ornament which translates roughly as lotus bud and is a design which has existed for centuries, according to Bhagat.
The inspiration for a complex platinum choker embedded with 150 rose cut diamonds and thousands of tiny diamonds was an antique Indian anklet. The choker is flexible and lightweight and while it shares design elements with the anklet, it is more wearable.
Producing 60 or 70 one-off pieces annually, most of them selling before they are finished, Bhagat is now struggling to increase production while maintaining quality. "Each piece is one of a kind and since we started 17 years ago, we have never repeated a design. A wealthy person who has everything wants something unique," says Bhagat. "But now the pieces are selling before they are even made. With India booming, I simply can't make enough pieces to sell elsewhere. Even putting together an exhibition, like I did in 1999 in London at the Spink Gallery and later in Milan, Hong Kong and New York, would be difficult right now," he says.
A century ago, Bhagat's great-grandfather started as a goldsmith in Lathi, a tiny village on the western coast of India, designing gold ornaments to meet the exacting requirements of local ruling families.
He opened a store in Bombei (Mumbai), but two generations later, Viren Bhagat's father favoured painting over jewellery making. He became a professor of art and an accredited painter. Today Viren, who has no formal art education, designs and manufactures jewellery that caters to the sophisticated tastes of the global elite.
Viren's eldest brother, Bharat, runs the finance and gemstone cutting sides of the business while Rajan, the youngest of the three brothers looks after administration and sales. Viren's son Varun has just completed a degree in business and now plans to study gemmology with the Gemmological Institute of America.
"Most Indian jewellers make bespoke jewellery for clients, but I refused to do that from day one. I've built my reputation from making my own jewellery. Every piece is crafted entirely by hand. After assembling the historic stones, one necklace can take up to six months to complete, a pair of earrings one to two months and bracelets two to three months."
Although Bhagat has been hunting for a store location in Delhi for 18 months, plans for a London store are on his radar too. "London is the centre of the universe for me. There are so many wealthy and well-known people there with good taste," he says.
Bhagat is also in discussions with American department store chain Bergdorf Goodman about a limited edition hand-finished jewellery collection. "Bergdorf Goodman has a wonderful jewellery floor. My pieces generally start at $10,000 to $15,000. But a more accessibly priced collection of everyday jewellery which would not be fully handmade but rather finished by hand, would ease the pressure and enable us to expand," he says.
Perhaps surprisingly in light of current prices for his jewellery, Bhagat already has fans who are treating his jewels as everyday wear.
"One client came up to me recently at a party," remembers Bhagat. "She told me most of her jewellery remains in the safe but mine is the only jewellery she wears constantly. 'You can live with it,' she told me."
Whether the diffusion concept comes together in the immediate future or not, Bhagat is confident, thanks to the waiting list for his work, that his most precious pieces will retain their value over time. "I recently bought back ruby and diamond earrings from a client after a couple of years for the same price I sold them to her originally. Soon afterwards I re-sold them for a significantly higher price," he says.
"A couple of times, people have even come in and cleaned out my entire store, buying up everything they can see."