Alice Ci­col­ini’s Nar­ra­tive Craft

ALICE CI­COL­INI’s jew­els tell sto­ries that are not just about de­sign and beauty, but also about crafts. A jew­ellery de­signer based in London, Alice is con­tin­u­ously in­spired by crafts from around the world and is de­ter­mined to en­hance the value of skilled crafts­man­ship. For artistry and work­man­ship are equally im­por­tant as the in­trin­sic value of a jew­ellery piece.

Her role as the cu­ra­tor of arts and cul­ture for the Bri­tish Coun­cil in In­dia led her to dis­cover In­dia’s count­less crafts, par­tic­u­larly Jaipur’s fa­mous meenakari work that is now a fun­da­men­tal part of her reper­toire of jew­els.

Work­ing with Ka­mal Meenakar, one of the last few meenakari artists trained in the enamel tra­di­tions of Per­sia, passed down from his an­ces­tors, Alice brings a con­tem­po­rary twist and a host of bright colours to tra­di­tional meenakari. Her vivid jew­ellery cre­ations are in­spired by tex­tiles, art­work and ar­chi­tec­ture that spans across the globe, es­pe­cially ci­ties along the Silk Route, and she jux­ta­poses var­i­ous forms and colours, giv­ing new mean­ing to the jew­ellery piece.

To bring about a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive to her gems, Alice has her gem­stones carved by a wood carver in Jaipur. Ebony, which is used by master crafts­men to cre­ate tem­plates be­fore work­ing on 24-karat gold, fea­tures in her tem­ple jew­ellery col­lec­tion. The tra­di­tional weaves of Benaras and the royal palaces of Ra­jasthan too have col­lec­tions ded­i­cated to them.

With a strong lean­ing to­wards de­sign and crafts­man­ship, Alice, much like an orches­tra con­duc­tor, al­lows the real mu­si­cians, in this case the crafts­men, to shine un­der her cre­ative vi­sion and di­rec­tion.

Alice re­cently show­cased her colour­ful baubles at Bun­ga­low 8, a de­sign store in Mumbai. ALIYA LAD­HAB­HOY caught up with her to get a first-hand in­sight into her ren­dezvous with craft.

From de­sign­ing cos­tumes, fur­ni­ture and ac­ces­sories to be­ing a de­sign cu­ra­tor and fi­nally, tak­ing up jew­ellery de­sign­ing, your ca­reer has taken on var­i­ous forms. Tell us how you ar­rived at jew­ellery de­sign­ing.

After my ini­tial years in the­atre and cos­tume de­sign, I worked for Tom Dixon, an ac­ces­sories de­signer. I then went on to work as a cu­ra­tor of fash­ion for the Bri­tish Coun­cil in London be­fore mov­ing to In­dia as the di­rec­tor for arts and cul­ture for the Coun­cil it­self. My jour­ney in In­dia deep­ened my knowl­edge about In­dian crafts and de­sign, and it was th­ese projects that helped me make up my mind to go back to Cen­tral Saint Martins and start my own de­sign prac­tice.

The fo­cus of my Master’s at Cen­tral Saint Martins was on ex­plor­ing In­dia’s de­sign prac­tices for a spe­cific project. I spent my first year think­ing about what that project might be and one of the main con­ver­sa­tions I had been hav­ing in In­dia was about de­sign – the is­sue of recog­ni­tion for master crafts­men and tra­di­tional crafts in a con­tem­po­rary con­text and be­gan to work my way around this very thought. I chose jew­ellery be­cause it is in an in­ter­est­ing hy­brid space be­tween prod­uct de­sign, fash­ion and craft.

Many of your jew­ellery pieces are ar­tic­u­lated with meenakari work al­beit in a con­tem­po­rary for­mat. How did you pick meenakari as your medium of ex­pres­sion?

I pre­fer to draw and paint rather than us­ing com­puter pro­grammes like CAD/CAM. Meenakari work fol­lows a mak­ing process that is akin to my own cre­ative process and al­lows me to ex­plore things that I find in­spir­ing. Another key fac­tor is that be­cause meenakari is an en­graved process, the meenakar is able to doc­u­ment his work. My meenakari master, Ka­mal Kumar Meenakar, has pre­served his great grand­fa­ther and grand­fa­ther’s work of over 50-70 years on lit­tle pieces of pa­per. This way he is able to di­rectly com­pare his skill to his fore­fa­thers. A meenkari master is able to pre­serve skill in a way most other artists can­not.

You spoke about the lack of recog­ni­tion for master crafts­men in In­dia….

Our ap­proach to the visual artist and our

ap­proach to the ap­plied artist are very dif­fer­ent. In In­dia and maybe around the world as well, we tend to value the skills of master crafts­men less than our per­ceived value for an artist and of­ten, place a higher price on ma­te­rial value rather than on the skills in­volved. Is a jew­ellery piece valu­able be­cause of its gold and di­a­mond con­tent, or is it be­cause it is made by a master craftsman? I would say prob­a­bly both but def­i­nitely the lat­ter is im­por­tant. Most peo­ple tend to leave the craftsman out of the value chain.

Many peo­ple have come up to me and asked me why I openly prop­a­gate my meenakari artist. They of­ten tell me it’s a mis­take but I strongly be­lieve that it is nec­es­sary to recog­nise tal­ent. Also, it is nec­es­sary to build a re­la­tion­ship based on trust which is not worth break­ing.

How did you zero in on Ka­mal Kumar Meenakar?

I be­gan de­sign­ing jew­ellery late in life and didn’t want to sit at the bench my­self but pre­ferred to work with tal­ented peo­ple as I wanted to make

What in­spires you?

beau­ti­ful things. I was in­tro­duced to Ka­mal Meenakar by a very gen­er­ous friend, Nir­mala Ru­dra who lives in Delhi. Nir­mala is a very tal­ented de­signer her­self and she had been mak­ing tra­di­tional In­dian jew­ellery with him in the few years pre­ced­ing the time that I started to work with him. I spent a long time think­ing and talk­ing about Bri­tish in­flu­ence in de­sign be­fore I be­gan de­sign­ing jew­ellery. When you go into a mu­seum you are en­cour­aged to think of the ob­jects as hav­ing th­ese sealed bound­aries of in­spi­ra­tion or be­ing de­fined by ge­og­ra­phy; ex­cept that when you look at a Chi­nese ob­ject next to a Ja­panese, Turk­ish, In­dian and African one, you be­gin to see sim­i­lar­i­ties in mo­tifs and prac­tices that sug­gest our na­tional iden­tity is not her­met­i­cally sealed. I am in­spired by tex­tiles, minia­ture paint­ings and ar­chi­tec­ture. It’s about jux­ta­pos­ing shapes, pat­terns and colours.

We tend to value the skills of master crafts­men less than our per­ceived value for an artist and of­ten, place a higher price on ma­te­rial value rather than on the skills in­volved.

Quite of­ten my in­spi­ra­tions come from a skill/craft and in­tro­spect­ing on what can I as a de­signer do with the craft or some­times my master craftsman will tell me, ‘Oh I’ve just got this new orange colour that fires on sil­ver,’ and that will be enough to send me off on a new jour­ney.

Tell us more about your de­sign process.

I start to de­sign a piece of jew­ellery in my head, which my teacher at Saint Martins al­ways dis­cour­aged. ‘Get it down on a piece of pa­per,’ he would say. When one is run­ning one’s own business and de­sign­ing and pro­duc­ing, there is less time to sit down and leisurely sketch the ob­jects that ap­pear in one’s mind.

Hav­ing ex­panded my of­fice, I now have a support sys­tem that works on tech­ni­cal draw­ings. In a way it’s quite nice be­cause I feel like an art di­rec­tor, which per­haps is my more nat­u­ral role, and al­lows me to think about images, colour and crafts­man­ship.

What is your lat­est col­lec­tion about?

My col­lec­tions are not sea­sonal but more about ex­plor­ing and cel­e­brat­ing hand­crafted skills. The col­lec­tion I am work­ing on at the mo­ment in­volves wood carved in Jaipur, which is then hand-painted by Sughra Hus­seini, a minia­ture painter in Kabul, Afghanistan. This col­lab­o­ra­tion was born out of an in­ter­est­ing con­ver­sa­tion with the cre­ative di­rec­tor of the Turquoise Moun­tain Foun­da­tion in London. The Scot­land-based char­ity is in­volved in train­ing Afghan ar­ti­sans in crafts almost de­stroyed by years of con­flict in the coun­try. I also hope to work with their carv­ing masters in the near fu­ture.

Your jew­ellery is brim­ming with colour. Which is your favourite gem­stone?

I have got a hand­ful of favourites – fire opals, peri­dot, pink sap­phires, pink tour­ma­line and ru­bies. I work with emer­alds as well. Rose quartz, le­mon quartz and green amethysts too reap­pear from time to time in my jew­ellery.

How of­ten do you com­mute to In­dia?

Since I am in the process of grow­ing my business, I am re­stricted to London at the mo­ment. I have been work­ing with Ka­mal for over six years. So­cial me­dia and apps like What­sapp have made the world a small place. In fact, it was Ka­mal who in­sisted that I in­stall What­sapp so that he could text me for free. We un­der­stand each other so well now that I don’t have to be there in per­son so of­ten. I have found a way to make it work. I en­sure that I give my crafts­men enough free­dom to do what they do best.

Who do you cater to?

There is an In­dian el­e­ment in my jew­ellery, but it is not tra­di­tion­ally In­dian. So maybe global, con­tem­po­rary In­di­ans would like to wear my jew­ellery, reit­er­at­ing the fact that they are proud of their In­dian her­itage, but at the same time they are not tra­di­tion­al­ists.

Sim­i­larly in Europe, there are peo­ple who are pas­sion­ately at­tached to the im­mensely skilled crafts­man­ship of coun­tries like In­dia and those are the kind of peo­ple I cater to. I have a nar­ra­tive in my work— a story, a back­ground – and peo­ple are en­gaged by it. A per­son who is on the look­out for jew­ellery that goes beyond the sim­ple means of adorn­ment and ma­te­rial value, is some­one who would be in­ter­ested in my jew­ellery.

Will you cater to the In­dian mar­ket in the near fu­ture?

Un­like fash­ion, the In­dian jew­ellery scene has yet not ar­rived. The idea of a fam­ily jew­eller is still very strong. I think it will take another ten years.

On the other hand, it was lovely to be back in Mumbai with Maithili Ah­luwalia be­cause we have been on this jour­ney to­gether since the time Bun­ga­low 8 was a small store at the back of her fam­ily house in Carmichael Road. There are things that we talked about 15 years ago and we con­tinue to feel strongly about. So it is re­ally great to come and showcase my jew­ellery here be­cause I feel like my brand is be­ing em­braced at a re­tail space that shares the same val­ues and in­ter­ests as mine. If I ever de­cide to do some­thing per­ma­nently in In­dia, then it would be at Bun­ga­low 8.

In­spired by an 18th cen­tury Be­narasi sari bor­der, the rod and chain sys­tem in the Benaras Spot ear­rings al­low you to play with the length.

The dou­ble-stone hand carved amethyst ring set in 18-karat rose gold from the Stone Tem­ple se­ries is em­bed­ded with co­gnac and cham­pagne di­a­monds along with orange sap­phires.

Echo­ing Uzbek­istan’s richly tiled tem­ple tops, the Made-toMea­sure range in sil­ver is cast and hand en­graved by Ka­mal Meenakar. The col­lec­tion is stud­ded with peri­dot, rose and le­mon quartz.

The re­versible ruby and yel­low di­a­mond hoop ear­rings in 18-karat gold are from the Chattri col­lec­tion. Alice’s in­spi­ra­tion for the col­lec­tion flowed from her pres­ence at a palace-set wed­ding in Ra­jasthan.

A peri­dot-stud­ded, hand­lac­quered ring from the Mem­phis col­lec­tion, crafted in Fair­trade sil­ver and 14-karat gold.

The Jodh­pur Chryso­prase Ring is cen­tred on an Amer­i­can chryso­prase bor­dered by richly coloured lay­ers of meenakari and ac­cented with white di­a­monds. Part of a three-piece edi­tion, the ring is in­spired by a 19th cen­tury wall hang­ing in Bukara, Uzbek­istan.

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