No one embodies Indians’ love of accessorizing better than a tiny bronze statuette in Delhi’s National Museum. This 4,500-year-old icon from one of the world’s oldest civilizations looks like she’s telling a mansplainer exactly where to stuff his opinion. Archaeologists peg her age at 15 or 16 and believe that “she was good at what she did and she knew it” and was “a girl perfectly, for the moment, perfectly confident of herself and the world.”
In a stunning example of cultural continuity, she wears a multi-pendant necklace and 25 stacked bangles on one arm in the way Rajasthani women in northwest India do to this day.
For Indians, jewelry isn’t only about self expression. It is many things ― investment, heritage, insurance against misfortune. It is a thing in which women, historically denied ownership of traditional forms of capital like land, find immense reassurance.
When pierced into little girls’ ears as studs or little baalis (circlets), it is ritual. When written into wills, it is both artifact and legacy. When worshipped on the Hindu festival of Diwali, packed into a bride’s trousseau or offered at temples in gratitude or supplication, it is sacred. When worn in the form of ancient, unchanging geometry unique to a tribe or subculture, it is identity.
Writer-historian Aanchal Malhotra, whose book chronicles the 1947 territorial partition of the subcontinent into predominantly Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan, views jewelry as memory. She tells of two Hindu and Muslim best friends from the northern Indian province of Jammu and Kashmir, separated when the Muslim family migrated to Pakistan. At 5 and 6 years old, the friends divided a pair of gold earrings between them as a symbol of unbroken friendship. Gold is serious business, even when you’re little.
But is it OK for people of other cultures to wear Indian jewelry, given all that it represents? Yes, but with respect to history. The dominant anxiety around Indian dress and ornamentation isn’t focused on cultural appropriation by outsiders ― most of that anxiety is turned inward, on caste and class conflicts and emergent ones that threaten liberal and secular thought.
A cruelly irrational caste system that ascribes social status at birth accords upper caste women with divine status, necessitating proper ornamentation. Specific forms of gold jewelry become visible markers of caste, life stage and social status. Yet lower caste women are judged when they self- assert via dress, accessories and general appearance. For them, avoiding conspicuous ornamentation has been a spinal reflex for centuries. Flaunting beautiful gold jewelry is pretty much an exclusive upper caste privilege, and the fear of backlash is real.
Today, designers are reinterpreting the gehne or zevar, Hindustani catchall for precious jewelry, and changing attitudes toward ornamentation. Worked in metals like brass and silver, their designs put affordability and access at the heart of their brands. These designers translate themes like feminism, colorism and working-class pride into powerful imagery meant to provoke and subvert. Yet their pieces are no less in heirloom value than the sort you air only at family weddings, to be muffled with velvet and silk and locked away in a Godrej almirah for years.
Shaya’s dreamy jewelry has it all: romance, structured whimsy and versatility. Pearl-encrusted flowers tumble down your collarbone and crawl up your earlobes. Softened with cascading silver chains but fooling no one, battleaxes and swords flash warningly. If you’re a fairy who’s left her sun-dappled forest for the urban jungle or a princess-assassin in hiding, this is yours to own.
No one does texture and form like Kassa. The company’s jewelry feels otherworldly and has a talismanic quality. Some of the most memorable pieces are inspired by the ocean and by Lego.
Bhavya Ramesh finds inspiration everywhere, including India’s nomadic tribes, the witchy-romantic aesthetic of gypsy culture, rock and roll and nature. Her pieces have the quality of both armor and weaponry and give the wearer an air of un-messability. Her Hysteria line is particularly notable (seen in the glasses above).
Sisters Divya and Pragya work silver with gentle humor and clever nods to Hindi films and literature. Their cerebral, poetic pieces feel personal in a way nothing does. The Scissors design (available as earrings and hairpin, seen above on the right) brings to mind every desi mum’s stock diss of her mouthy daughter: ”Zubaan hai ya kainchi?” (“Is that a tongue or are those scissors in your mouth?”)
Sausset’s work is a lesson in the cross pollination of cultures. French minimalism meets motifs from Indian architecture and wellness traditions. The results are stunningly elegant. Her timeless necklaces are best worn layered, winking from beneath a crisp white shirt collar.
Bhatt’s playful maximalism can instantly brighten a non-committal wardrobe. She delights in turning objects into fantastical versions of themselves, yet her work is endlessly wearable. A profusion of lightbulbs jangles on your wrists as paper planes swoop in and out of the candyfloss clouds at your ears.
Loved by movie stars and commoners alike, Tribe Amrapali’s jewelry has serious collectible value. Don’t even bother trying to prune your cart. Instead, lose yourself in their vast, exquisite inventory like a kid in a candy store. Amrapali challenges the stuffy idiom of traditional ornamentation with fresh, affordable designs that become instant classics.
Equal parts weird and wonderful, Jesrani’s jewelry is not for the wallflower. Have a laser-cut tiger sprawl on your chest or feel like a ringed planet with her wide zodiac collars. She even has a leaf-inspired line that’s biodegradable. This is fun, happy jewelry.
Simultaneously raw and refined, Dhora jewelry has a quiet dignity. Their pieces feel ancient and elemental, like jewelry worn by the first humans. Dancing Girl would’ve worn them gladly.