When Meena Nair got married two years ago, her priorities changed. The 32-year-old fashion designer from Chennai felt that she could no longer afford to splurge on new gold sets and accessories for every wedding she attended. Yet she wanted to be in vogue. She certainly didn’t want to be the one who arrived at every function wearing the same old jewellery. “The wedding season was coming up and I had already received close to six invitations. My husband and I were planning to have a child soon and I realised that I just couldn’t afford to invest in gold anymore. When I started asking around, I realised that a lack of alternatives for gold jewellery is something that many youngsters faced in the city,” she explains. Her interest piqued, Nair started her own gold-plated silver line, Silvermore. “I didn’t have the capital to set up a shop, so I began a made-to-order service. People can bring me any gold design they like and I will replicate it for them, using silver as a base instead of gold. This reduces the price by more than 50 per cent. Instead of spending Rs 5-8 lakh on a wedding set, you’ll now spend only Rs 20,000-30,000. And the outer covering is 22 carat gold. No one will even know the difference,” adds Nair.
Starting out, however, was anything but easy with Nair facing stiff resistance from the crafts community in the city. “There is obviously a lot more money in pure gold jewellery and a lot of craftsmen refused to work with me because they weren’t going to make as big a cut. They just didn’t believe that anyone would want to buy, let alone invest in silver jewellery instead of gold. It took me two whole months before I was able to find a partner to work with. And despite sales picking up, he still doesn’t believe that there is an expanding market for silver jewellery in south India.”
Never the accessory of choice for weddings and elite functions, silver jewellery is now fighting to break free of its social stereotypes. Classy and edgy designs, aggressive social media marketing and prices that just keep on getting more reasonable by the day are just some of the ways in which young designers are working to give silver a fresh lease of life. “My family has traditionally been in the gold jewellery business. Over the years, I often noticed that customers, especially young people, would have to compromise on quality and design because they couldn’t afford something better. India has such a rich collection of jewellery designs and motifs—kundan, polki, tribal, filigree. Everyone should be able to enjoy these traditions. That was one of my reasons for starting my own silver jewellery business— I wanted to make beauty and heritage accessible to everyone,” says Madhur Bharwani, a jewellery designer based in Lucknow. A graduate of NIFT Mumbai, she is the founder of the city’s first silver-only boutique, Raabel. “Silver is a softer material, so working with it is more time consuming. But the finish is very similar to gold, so one can wear it without ever having to worry about looking dowdy or out of fashion. Imagine a kanjivaram sari worn with some chunky Afghani silver tribal jewellery; silver can just take you from traditional to cool in a matter of seconds,” says Bharwani, adding that silver has come a long way in the last few years, especially in non-metro cities. “There was a time when you thought of silver and the only images that came up were of Diwali gifts and junk jewellery. It was a shame, really, because silver is a base with which you can design some really gorgeous pieces. Now the mindset is slowly changing, not just in metro cities but also in other towns and cities where statement silver jewellery is making its entry into both everyday wear and party wear.”
For another jewellery designer, Roya Singh from Chandigarh, it is silver’s acceptance in non-metros that is the real proof of its revival in the country. “I started designing silver jewellery in the city around eight years ago. The demand was so low back then that I had to also design gold pieces, just to keep the money flowing in. But now the younger generation has a totally different set of priorities and gold isn’t on top of their list anymore. With bridal gowns, cocktail dresses and gangster fashion making its presence in the city, silver jewellery has suddenly become the accessory of choice,” she says, adding that when she first started working with silver, her mother thought she was playing a prank. “Silver was just looked down upon. People associated it with servants or college students. Silver was that dirty bowl in your living room that you never found time to clean. When I told my mother that that material was actually what I wanted to spend my life working with, she burst out laughing. It took me a few months to convince her that I was serious and even then she would tell her friends that I was designing gold jewellery for retail giants. Today, eight years on, she proudly informs everyone that her daughter is a silver jewellery designer. That to me is a clear sign of just how much social perceptions of silver jewellery have changed,” explains Singh. When I ask her why she was adamant to work with silver instead of gold, she says that silver is a medium of rebellion. “Silver is for people who are free, fiery and want to express themselves differently. Gold always seemed delicate and bourgeois. Silver on the other hand, meant chunky cuts and funky shapes. Working with the material meant breaking free of social conventions for me.”
For Nirvane Jain and his brothers Anubhav and Sidharthe, however, working with silver turned out to be more about reinventing tradition than anything else. The heirs to their father’s 37-year-old jewellery business, Silverline, the three siblings are the force behind the newer, more contemporary bangles, cuffs, neckpieces, earrings and rings that are housed in their shop at Delhi’s Khan Market. “I think the first step was to find out what it was that the new buyers are looking for. One of the first things we came across was the fact that people now wanted light-weight, one-of-a-kind and affordable jewellery that didn’t look cheap,” says Nirvane. Shifting from the traditional style involving big gemstones, heavy material and unimaginative designs wasn’t always easy, though.
It isn’t design and price alone that is aiding silver’s makeover. Internationalisation, personalisation and easy availability have been equally important for designers. Amrapali, the heritage jewellery brand born in Jaipur, was one of the first to retail at Harrods in London alongside brands such as Cartier and Tiffany, adding to the aspirational value of silver back home. “Trends are largely a trickle-down effect. Thousands of brides, families and students in non-metro cities want to wear what people in bigger cities and abroad are wearing. I know a few customers who have gone to the US, seen film stars and socialites wearing silver jewellery and returned home to order a set for themselves. Global travel and exposure has certainly helped propel silver’s status in the country,” observes Singh. She also says that adapting ornaments to people’s preferences has helped her business significantly. “I keep everything bespoke. If a working woman wants minimal designs, I’ll do that. Or if I receive a homemaker who wants more expensive stones inlaid, I can do that as well. Or if a student comes to me and orders some heavy, geometrical designs, I can cater to that too. By customising my designs, I know that I am now always designing something that is definitely going to sell.”
So where does silver jewellery seem to be heading in the country? Tarang Arora, CEO of Amrapali, says that exclusivity, hand-craftsmanship and strict quality- control will be the watchwords of the future. “As a few jewellery houses move towards machine-crafted, mass-market pieces, the brands that will be able to set themselves apart are those that will be able to hold onto their roots. Quality, craftsmanship and trust are some of the things that should never be compromised on,” explains Arora. “Celebrities showcasing different heritage brands and events such as Jewellery Week have also added to silver’s allure and aspirational value,” he adds.
Nair, who has suffered the output of a machine job herself, says, “There was a time when I wasn’t able to fulfill a few orders because the craftsman I usually worked with was unwell, so I outsourced them to a crafts person in Bengaluru. He promised me that it would be hand-crafted and to the highest quality. When I got the final product, it was so shoddy and so ill-cut that I refused to believe that it was done by hand. I called him up to complain and he dismissed it with, ‘It’s only chaandi, who will even notice?’ It’s this attitude of craftsmen that is likely to land you in trouble when working with silver. Now I either work with trusted partners, or don’t accept the order at all. With silver, you just have to be careful.”