Our most recent Brown Girl sponsor is an artist, jeweler and blogger extraordinaire! Sapna Mehra grew up mostly in suburban New Jersey, though her family is from Rajasthan, India where she spent many summers as child and later returned as an adult to spend extended periods of time there. In Rajasthan, Mehra learned 400 year-old techniques by generational artisans in Rajasthan, India using a special form of purified 24k gold called kundan.
She continues her business by collaborating with a group of very talented and adventurous generational jewelry artisans in Jaipur, Rajasthan. Together they apply a combination of traditional methods and innovative updates to render my jewelry designs. In Mehra’s words, “my purpose in designing is to motivate, anticipate, inspire and celebrate our ability to overcome, to triumph.”
How did you end up in the world of art, design, and jewelry?
I can’t say that I always knew that this is what I wanted to do or that this was all part of my grand plan, but I can say that I’ve always pursued what I was interested in, not for any end purpose, but rather because I was curious and hungry to learn more. I’ve let my passion and my curiosity be my guide, and I am most definitely delighted about where it has led me.
I was never pressured to follow a particular path or profession, but rather the focus was on being engaged and being exposed to new things. I think that’s how I learned that what was important was exploring what you love, and let the road lead you where it will. I studied Comparative Literature as an undergraduate at Rutgers University because I wanted to explore literary traditions, art, culture and politics from South Asia, Africa and Latin America. Later, I ended up working in different capacities for independent entrepreneurs – people who carved out a niche and a business for themselves.
A couple of experiences that especially stand out for me are as my time as an assistant at a antique art gallery that specialized in works from South and Southeast Asia and also the many years I assisted an antique and estate jewelry dealer at seasonal antique shows in New York City. Both of these experiences allowed me to gain an appreciation about how objects take on meaning and are valued not only for their aesthetic excellence, but for the symbolic meaning they invoke for the person who appreciates the work.
You have learned much of your craft from master craftsmen in Jaipur, India. What was that experience like?
It’s been an absolutely amazing and eye-opening experience to work with such talented craftsmen who’ve been generous enough to share their knowledge with me over the years.
Even today, in Jaipur, jewelry is produced in much the same way as it has been over the last 400 years or so. It takes about 6 weeks and 4 different artisans, each who’ve mastered a particular skill, to complete a single piece of jewelry. Skills are passed down through the generations in the guru-shishya tradition where a young student or shishya apprentices under a guru to master a particular skill such as enameling, stone cutting, beading or gem-setting with kundan. Over time, artisans develop their own specific styles and are very particular about who they choose to work with and with whom they share their carefully mastered knowledge.
What I love most about collaborating with artisans in Jaipur, is the passion, dedication and excitement every artisan felt for the work they are doing. It’s this combination of skill, commitment and genuine enthusiasm that produces a truly beautiful piece of jewelry.
I love the entire process of creating a collection – from the beginnings of an idea, to the trials and errors, to seeing the finished piece for the first time and finally, seeing someone smile brightly when they wear one of my designs!
Where has much of the inspiration for your jewelry come from?
I find inspiration in the way that architectural motifs from Rajasthan are reflected in handloom textiles, how folk tales are depicted in art forms, and how ancient Tantric art and philosophy influences contemporary art and artists such as S H Raza and Mark Rothko. I love finding connections, discovering patterns and understanding how the old is made new and relevant again.
All these things inspire and move me. It’s very important to me that the form of the jewelry I design is as meaningful as the things that inspire it. It’s one of the main reasons that I choose to work with kundan, a very special form of purified 24k gold that was developed over 400 years ago. Kundan is created by repeatedly firing unrefined gold at extreme temperatures till all impurities are burned away. The purified gold is then beaten down and burnished into flowing ribbons of pure, gleaming gold that are used to set natural, hand-cut gems.
There’s an old proverb from Rajasthan that speaks to the process by which gold is transformed into kundan:
“Gold becomes kundan only after passing through fire.”
I make jewelry for anyone who’s passed through fire, and has been transformed by it, to wear it as an emblem of triumph.
By facing your struggles and challenges, by enduring and moving through them, your own strength, courage and grace is revealed. You transcend limitations and your experiences transform you. By refusing to allow circumstances to define you, you rise above them. That’s what I celebrate with my jewelry. That’s the story I want to tell, through the content and the form of my jewelry, the story of triumph.
The Asmi collection is a recent addition to the types of products you offer. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
Asmi means “I Am” in Sanskrit. I designed the Asmi collection as a personal talisman that you can wear everyday, as your own signature necklace, to inspire and remind you to be the best you.
Every necklace features your birthstone gem set with pure kundan and a fine silver disk that’s been hand enameled with one of my exclusive flower motifs. The collection features eleven different enameled flower motifs, each one representing a different number distinguished by the number of petals on the flower.
According to the ancient art of numerology, every person is born with a life path number that’s calculated using your month, day and year of birth (you can discover your life path number using the calculator on my site). Your number gives insight into your innate potential, personality traits and natural talents and abilities. I like to compare it to the colors on a painter’s palette – your number determines which colors are on your palette but how you paint the canvas is up to you!
Hmmmm…. that’s a hard one! There are so many things that I love about what I do! But I suppose what I love most is mashing up the old and the new.
As a jewelry designer much of what I do is informed by tradition, by all the knowledge, the art, the techniques and processes that have been practiced since the 16th century. But how I make it my own is by experimenting with and transcending what would ordinarily be seen as a boundaries or limitations.
That’s also how I look at running a business. Because I don’t have a formal business background, I don’t really have preconceived notions of what makes something right or wrong. This sometimes might make things more challenging but I really value the freedom it allows me in imagining how my business should look and where I am going to go next. It’s an exciting journey and one that I am grateful for every day.
Many Brown Girls out there are interested in starting their own business or just taking an alternative career path. Any advice you can share?
The best advice I got on my journey, that I still hold dear today, is from a cousin of mine who himself is a self-made entrepreneur and someone I have the deepest respect for. He told me to never do something just because someone else is doing it and found success with it. You have to be true to yourself, tell your own story and find what works for you. Whatever you do, make it your own and that’s how you find not just success, but perhaps more importantly, that’s how to create meaning in your life.