Matisse once said ‘Creativity takes courage’, these three words invite deep reflection and the potential of risk. The creations of jeweller Viren Bhagat tend to exemplify the artist’s words, his work is considered par excellence owing to the balance he has found creating a succession of jewellery pieces that astound. It is not the size of stones or design, but rather the element of play and courage to innovate.
The Bhagat family has been in the jewellery business for over a century initially based in Lathi, a village in Gujarat. Presently, into its fourth generation, the Mumbai-based firm of Bhagat is currently led by Viren, along with his sons, Varun and Jay. Bhagat creates a limited number of jewellery pieces a year, not more than five a month, which are each unique. Grand and bold as an idea, their execution remains elegant and timeless. Viren’s intention from the beginning has been to stay true to himself and to follow his own rules. He told The Hindu: “The passion to create something new drives me to work every day. I make jewellery to please myself.”
Carefully selecting the rarest natural diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, spinels and natural pearls, each stone dictates what it needs to be, an unspoken understanding between those who are inseparable from their material and craft. The settings seem invisible, with platinum cast so fine that the stones often appear to be floating. Most images in the public of Bhagat’s pieces are formal, often shared from museums or leading auction houses, a testament to their documentation and importance. It was not always this way. In his early years, Viren started out designing smaller pieces using semi-precious stones. As he grew, he began to travel the world in search of unique stones and ethical diamonds for his rare jewels.
Viren learned about jewellery-making from age 15, at his father’s shop — Bhagat Brothers department store. His father was the head of the jewellery department. It was here that Viren developed his jewellery-making skills through observation, instinct and practice. Bhagat told Vanity Fair:
“I used to help my father, really just as a shop assistant. There were two floors, and the jewellery workshop was upstairs. I loved to go up to the workshop. I’d sit there for hours whenever I could, watching what was going on.”
While the store shut in 1987, Viren had found his calling in jewellery designing. Armed with a business degree, he spent a year working in Kuwait, at his uncle’s jewellery store. In the late 1980s, a chance meeting with Italian jewellery designer Gianni Bulgari inspired Viren to embark on his jewellery making journey. A stamp of approval from Bulgari gave him the confidence to start his jewellery brand. In 1991, Bhagat opened his own jewellery boutique in Mumbai with his two brothers.
Over the last 3 decades, his creations have resonated across the world, widely exhibited and coveted. To jewellery connoisseurs, his work is instantly recognisable, understated and refined. In 2019, three of Bhagat’s jewels, including a rare natural diamond and emerald bead brooch, evocative of the Mughal flowerpot motif, sold for up to three times their estimates at Christie’s ‘Maharajas & Mughal Magnificence’ auction in New York. The brooch, estimated to sell for USD 40,000 – USD 60,000 sold for USD 212,500 – a clear indication that Bhagat’s jewellery continues to inspire collectors.
A Meticulous Mind
Viren Bhagat’s jewellery pieces are born in his imagination. Every morning, he hand sketches his designs on a white sheet of A5 paper with a razor-sharp pencil, while listening to trance music. His sketches are painstakingly to scale, just like an architectural drawing.
“I may think I’ve arrived at the perfect proportions for a piece at the drawing stage, but I’ll continue drawing until I feel I’ve exhausted my options. My sense of proportion is acute, innate. It’s hard to explain, but if the proportion is not right, the piece is out, straight away, it’s no good.”
Viren primarily uses antique gems including natural diamonds in his jewellery pieces, which exhibit old-fashioned cuts. Talking about his design sensibility, he states: “It’s one you won’t find anywhere else on the planet. Yes, I draw inspiration from the past, from the Mughal period and the Art Deco period. I draw inspiration from nature.
“There’s a strongly Indian element to some of my techniques, like the invisible hinges I use, and the cuts of the stones that I prefer. But there’s a strongly European finish and sophistication as well. The best of both worlds, you might say.”
The Craft Standard
A copy of his hand-drawn sketch along with diamonds and other precious stones are given to his craftsmen. Viren shares a strong bond with his karigars, who work to the exacting standards of the scale drawing. The final test is when Bhagat places the finished jewel on his original drawing and the piece sits flawlessly on his black-and-white sketch.
Bhagat’s jewels reflect his impeccable understanding of proportion and symmetry. This is especially evident in the proportions of his long necklaces and earrings. Natural diamonds and other gemstones of varying sizes skillfully come together to create a harmonious jewel. At times, Bhagat is inspired by the gemstones themselves. “All stones are inherently beautiful, charming and interesting, like people.” To him, they are not merely gemstones, but actors in his story: “They speak to me.”
Viren hopes to continue working closely with his local karigars to transform his original designs, iconic diamonds and other rare gemstones, into unique jewels, handcrafted in India. He adds, “It gives me great, great pride to say that my jewels are made in India.”