Jewellery designer Viren Bhagat found validation of his work in a lost job opportunity with Gianni Bulgari
The 62-year-old credits meeting one of his heroes, Gianni Bulgari, as a turning point in his career.
This is what Italian jewellery designer Gianni Bulgari had told a young Viren Bhagat when offering him a job. Though he turned the offer down, today, Bhagat lets his creations do the sparkling.
In June this year, Christie’s ‘Maharajas & Mughal Magnificence’ auction in New York was the talk of the town with its spectacular collection of royal jewels and weapons. Amongst those priceless objects were the creations of Mumbai-based jewellery designer Viren Bhagat. His five-strand natural pearl and diamond necklace sold for Rs 11.6 crore.
Bhagat’s is a name that may not immediately spark recognition. A well-kept secret of the uber rich, his pieces are collected by the global elite, a veritable who’s-who — he chooses not to name them. He, himself, keeps a low profile, preferring that his work speak for him in the right places.
The starting point
Coming from a family of jewellers, 62-year-old Bhagat credits meeting one of his heroes, Gianni Bulgari, as a turning point in his career. Bhagat discovered Bulgari’s jewellery designs during a family holiday to Europe in the 1980s. On his return to Mumbai, he picked up the pencil and created a collection of drawings.
“I wasn’t drawing so well but I worked at it. And then I started drawing to scale and then my drawings became really fine,” Bhagat said during a rare public appearance in Mumbai. “I made a collection and sent it to Gianni Bulgari. I didn’t hear back from him. After six months, I got a response saying that he was pleased to see my drawings and that if I’d come to Europe, I could see him.”
That was all the motivation Bhagat needed. Within two weeks, he took a flight to Geneva, even though he didn’t yet have an appointment with Bulgari. He carried all his drawings.
Bhagat waited for another two weeks and got an appointment to see Bulgari during his lunch hour. “He offered me a job but wanted me to sign a long-term contract. But since I wanted to come back, he said ‘I can’t teach you all my secrets and have you run away’.
So that didn’t work out, but it was a huge endorsement from him,” Bhagat said.
Today, as a seasoned designer, Bhagat has a working style that veers far away from the norm. He makes just 50-60 pieces of jewellery each year and refuses to do commissioned pieces. “When you are designing for someone, you are just drafting his ideas. You have no freedom,” he said. “When we started our store in 1991, the first thing I said was that I want complete freedom. I won’t ever deal with someone’s request.”
As for his process, Bhagat said, “I think it’s a dual process. If you are asking me how I work. I sit and draw daily. Every morning when I get to the office, my first one hour is spent at my table, with my headphones on, music blaring [mostly trance]. I put ideas down.
“Having said that, we have a collection of gems that we have acquired from my travels. I’ll take out some gems that I feel are valid for the design I’ve made and try to match that. If that doesn’t work, then I have a gem in front of me and I draw for that. Most of the times when I buy a gemstone, I already know what I’m going to make with that. It’s like I’m having a conversation with the gem.”
His wife Madhura also doubles up as his muse, and his sons, Varun and Jay, share his artistic vision.
Working with karigars
“It’s a very crucial relationship [with karigars] for any jeweller,” Bhagat shared during Saffronart’s jewellery conference. “If you see my drawings, they are one dimensional. They are flat pencil drawings on paper. It’s not a 3D drawing. That’s a drawing that I give to my karigars. To convert it into an actual piece is a challenge. How do I communicate what I have in my head through that little piece of paper? It’s taken me many years but now we have come to a level where it’s almost telepathy.”
As the process moves along, he does make subsidiary drawings to help visualise his designs. “I’m in jewellery to please myself. So, that’s where all those details come from. Then I feel happy and satisfied with it,” Bhagat said.
Patronage and Sheikh Hamad of Qatar
Pieces from the Al Thani collection were exhibited a few years back at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. This included a pair of bangles and a pendant brooch by Bhagat. “Sheikh Hamad is a great patron,” Bhagat said of Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al Thani, the force behind the Qatar-based collection, reportedly comprising over 6,000 rare objects. Apart from jewellery, the collection apparently includes other rarities like ivory plaques from ancient Mesopotamia, Ming Dynasty porcelain, Italian silver and a jade Mayan mask. “It’s a given that no art can thrive without patronage. In the jewellery world, a patron of his vision and calibre is rare,” said Bhagat of the Qatari royal.