For Shashwat Shah, partner at Umrao Jewels, growing up surrounded by gemstones and vintage jewellery was par for the course. Being the youngest sibling of six, his early days were spent in his grandfather’s workshop and lapidary, attached to their ancestral home in Jaipur, where he would gain most of his formative knowledge about gemstones and natural diamonds.
“The house itself was built in 1750, almost 20 years after the city of Jaipur was founded,” says Shah, referring to their ancestral home. “We were a family that was among the first few settlers in the city, invited by the Maharaja to set up businesses so that Jaipur could flourish.”
Growing up at home was almost like growing up in an institution, he believes. “Being the youngest I was constantly learning from others around me. My father is where I’d say I’ve got my creative side. He’s a fabulous painter and has an amazing sense of design and aesthetics. My late grandfather, Umrao Mal Shah, had a very deep understanding and knowledge of gemstones. Perhaps the best of his time,” says Shah.
Rooted in his learnings are the hours he spent in the workshop, understanding forms, shapes, motifs and design–all of which has helped him shape up his philosophy and business acumen. Shah recalls making notes in his personal diary, titling it, ‘Baba’s Teachings’. It was countless pages of his grandfather’s life lessons that he would write and revise almost once every week. One that he distinctly recalls is, “No matter what you do in life, make sure you are never dishonest in your dealings with your clients. Your reputation and goodwill will be the only lasting things that will go with you and serve as your memory in people’s minds, not your money. It will also be the foundation you lay for your future generation. In our business, a reputation tarnished once is tarnished forever.”
Being the youngest sibling, he believes he always had the opportunity to pursue any other field entirely, but his heart was always drawn to jewellery. After completing his graduation in Mumbai, he went on to do a year-long course at the California Institute of Jewellery Technology and later joined the family’s factory in Mumbai, gaining first-hand experience and technical know-how.
Building a legacy Today, Umrao is more than just a bespoke atelier and jewellery house. It’s an ode to their late grandfather and the compelling reason for the family to set up Umrao Jewels in the year 2000. Our grandfather really laid the foundation for the business back in 1938, he notes. As a jeweller and a lapidary expert, he worked extensively with some of the top jewellers of the world, who took advice from him and outsourced the cutting, drilling, carving, and polishing of their precious gemstones. “At a time when there weren’t laboratories to validate the authenticity of gemstones, his word was the last word for many,” Shah says.
In fact, in the early years when Jaipur began to draw connoisseurs of diamonds and rare, beautiful gemstones, the likes of the Cartier and Bulgari family would travel to the city to source these precious stones and diamonds to create dazzling pieces of jewellery or simply add it to their inventory. Shah says that they have owned and traded a clutch of rare, historical jewels and gemstones dating back to as early as the Mughal to the art nouveau period.
It’s no surprise then, that Umrao Jewels’ roster of clients includes illustrious names such as the Nadar’s, Ambani’s, Dalmia’s, Mistry’s and the Al Thani’s. Their jewellery has also been adorned by well-known personalities such as Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama, Rihanna, and Julia Roberts.
“One of the biggest motivations for us to set up the brand and the atelier was that a lot of the old, skilled artisans were going back to their villages due to constant economic fluctuations.” These were very skilled craftsmen who needed a steady source of income and a sense of security to allow them to stay back and continue their work.
Without the atelier that wouldn’t have been possible, Shah points out. Today, they have two ateliers, one in Jaipur, housed in the historic hotel Narain Niwas Palace, and one in Mumbai.
An ode to Jaipur There’s no doubt that the city of Jaipur plays a strong muse for this heritage brand– rooted in tradition yet imbibing modern nuances as time goes by. “Our existence is almost synonymous with the foundation of the city of Jaipur. We’ve seen it transform from its magnificent past to the bustling city it is today.”
Shah recalls spending time during his childhood days aimlessly strolling the by lanes and streets of the old city, spellbound by the sheer beauty and architecture on display. “From the beautiful arches to the frescos and domes, the minarets, the natural dye murals, and age-old temples–everything served as a source of inspiration.” That influence continues till date encouraging the brand to design jewels that are an ode to the city’s grand old architecture. So, you have ample use of motifs featuring lotuses, parrots, peacocks, fish, and paisleys that are deeply rooted in the rich culture and heritage of Jaipur. Umrao’s style of jewellery ranges from Mughal-kundan and meena, to art deco and art nouveau styles.
“Each and every piece, whether it’s a small pair of earrings, or a strikingly beautiful necklace, is designed and handcrafted meticulously.” What’s most important to us is that any piece we create should not only be pretty but should also hold value for generations to come. Value in design, in motifs and in cost, he believes.
Sparking creativity Umrao’s collections are an amalgamation of various jewellery techniques skilfully honed over generations. Some of their signature pieces include the vintage setting collection, featuring motifs of flora and fauna that bring out the intricacy and finesse of the craftsmanship involved–for timeless appeal. Then, you have the open setting collection using rose-cut, flat-cut and brilliant-cut diamonds, a modern assemblage with old-world charm. This style of jewellery was common during the time of the Nizams of Hyderabad and was imported into Rajasthan. There is also the art deco style of jewellery which makes use of rock crystal, gemstones and brilliant-cut diamonds for a modern, elevated design aesthetic.
Shah believes that just creating eye-catching and visually mesmerising pieces is not enough. What’s also equally necessary is to understand the balance in design. “Our natural diamonds symbolise the past, and flow in harmony with the present so that the wearer can pass these precious jewels on as family heirlooms for generations to come.”