“I believe in slow luxury. I create highly artisanal handcrafted jewelry—only 100 to 120 pieces are produced a year. Each is one-of-a-kind, made in my atelier in Mumbai. I don’t have the creative bandwidth to go beyond one-on-one commitments. I want to be small. If an idea really resonates with me—if it drives me mad—it will be created.”
For Vishal Kothari, designer of fine jewelry house VAK, the notion of creativity is paramount, and not something to be tampered with. While placing his vision above all else has kept his operation comparatively though intentionally small, it has allowed for the production of some of this century’s most spectacular jewels—a fact made evident by VAK’s frequent appearance in auction catalogs for the likes of Phillips and Sothebys. On the block, as on the body, Kothari’s pieces glitter with an unapologetic opulence. It is jewelry meant to be noticed, today and always.
Hailing from a line of jewelers, Kothari was indoctrinated into the world of beautiful objects at a very young age. “You could call it osmosis,” Kothari says. “Jewels were discussed at the dining table. You couldn’t escape it.” Kothari, though, did not fully follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, at least not aesthetically. The jewelry they made was, in Kothari’s estimation, more traditional, and, in keeping with the times, not necessarily inspired by art or design. “But I wanted to do something different,” Kothari enthuses. “I wanted to be a sculptor or a couturier or a musician. My expression as a jewelry creator today is an amalgam of this.”
One of the hallmarks of a VAK piece is a hint of the unexpected. In one bracelet, asymmetrical portrait-cut diamonds give the appearance of a stone broken into pieces and haphazardly—but decadently—thrown back together again. In a pair of earrings, the plump edges of a traditional Indian motif bumps up against the jagged toughness of something a bit more rock-and-roll. The juxtapositions are always subtle, and so flawlessly executed you almost don’t notice what’s so artfully at play. The result of a sorcerer’s skill, a magician at work.
The epitome of exclusive, VAK remains a word-of-mouth favorite of the international elite with a patron list that includes members of various royal families. Kothari’s pieces are carried by select retailers, and has been featured in Architectural Digest, Harper’s Bazaar India, and Town & Country, to name just a few. Below, Latest Revival speaks with Kothari about Burmese rubies, breaking rules, and the self-professed brutality of his own judgment.
You grew up in the jewelry business. What is your strongest memory from your father’s atelier as a child?
I remember organically making a connection with gemstones. They were the paint I would use for my palette. It was so natural, the whole thing.
What would you say are some of the hallmarks of Indian craftsmanship?
India’s craftsmanship is an amalgam of indigenous form and what was imported via its socio-cultural effects from Mughal to Colonial rule. The vast architectural legacy of India has moved me and my gemstones to metamorphose into bold yet wearable pieces of jewelry. My design vocabulary draws from sculpture, nature, and motifs in architecture—Indian architecture, in particular. There are Gothic, Victorian, Mughal, Indo-Saracenic, and, at times, Art Deco influences in my work.
Are there particular motifs that come up again and again in your work?
Jewelry is a beautiful canvas to express poetry or something you want to really say. I have a sculptural vision to breathe life into motifs in nature and architecture in my pieces. Nature, architecture, and spiritualism form the DNA of my design. In my quintessentially VAK pieces, you will see metaphoric visions like “The Tree of Life” or florets and vines, which show my reverence for Mother Nature and its abundance.
You like to say you’re a disruptor of sorts… a rebel. What, would you say, are you rebelling against?
I rebel against the norm. I want to create something new. Something daring. Something I believe can stand the test of time. I want to enthrall. I want to surprise. I like to think I am a creator. To be able to create is very humbling.
How do your other interests—art and music, for instance—inform your designs or your process, if at all?
Popular culture and musicians have always inspired me. Bands like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin and musicians like Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison have really impacted me personally and, I think, my work. They were pioneers, risk takers, rebels, and originals. They broke the rules and expressed what they had to say. Quentin Tarantino’s work is another example of what subliminally shaped my creative process.
Walk me through an example of how a particular source of inspiration becomes a VAK piece.
My “Arch of Heaven” pieces are a nod to Mughal history.
Arches are the gateway to heaven, to paradise. They represent a welcome, a homecoming. The pieces are a mix of many worlds. Worlds of yesterday and today. They waft between centuries. Bridging the gap between antiquity and contemporary, in the “Arch of Heaven” earrings and rings, I have tried to blend the romance of the Old World with the ultramodern.
How else has Mughal design influenced your work?
The legacy of Mughal design has played out in my contemporary designs, in particular, with portrait-cut diamonds, which pay homage to Mughal’s high elegance and rich gem history. Favored by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, the portrait-cut diamond originally covered miniature paintings and were later used to make exquisite pieces of jewelry. They are among the earliest cut diamonds. Usually colorless, with a very high clarity grade, portrait-cut diamonds are flawless and incredibly sophisticated.
Do you have a way to test a piece to judge on your own if it’s interesting enough to produce?
Let’s just say I am brutal. If I haven’t spent enough sleepless nights dreaming about a piece or an idea, it won’t see the light of day! I am my biggest critic.
What was the last thing that inspired you?
Recently the baroque edifice and interiors of the Royal Opera House in Mumbai inspired me. This found light in a few of my pieces—Baroque Berries and a few others.
How did getting “picked up” by a few big auction houses change the trajectory of your career?
When I first began VAK, I sold largely one-on-one to a discreet and private clientele. A quiet buzz had spread about my work, largely word of mouth. I was lucky to have caught the eyes of auction houses like Sotheby’s, Phillips, and Saffronart early in my career. That set the ball rolling, and brought in an international and discerning audience.
What quality or qualities would you say your clientele all have in common?
My jewelry has always found art patrons. My client is sensitive to art, sculpture, and design. They have a highly evolved aesthetic and look at jewelry as a creation, an expression of an artist, not something to be assessed by size, weight, or price. She wears jewelry to express herself. One piece is often enough. I believe art always finds its taker.
Your settings are remarkable in that they are so often nearly imperceptible. How difficult is achieving such a look?
I experiment with maverick metallurgy to give the pieces a very organic, sculptural look. Much like a painting, my pieces are a seamless canvas of floating gemstones with minimal metal to highlight the carnal beauty and boldness of the stones.
What gemstone are you most into at the moment?
I work with important and rare stones such as Columbian emeralds, Burmese rubies and spinels, and, of course, diamonds. Often the brilliance of a gemstone inspires me to create an expression around it. I like to think my pieces are intelligent…. that they have a point of view. Portrait-cut diamonds are a personal favorite of mine. Like slivers of magic, these shards of diamonds are an exercise in pure precision, and flirt with elegance and romance. Gemstones are like living beings—intelligent and emotional.
In what ways do you challenge yourself to make more and more beautiful objects?
Constant observation. Constant research. I am always on the quest to be inspired.