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.