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La Reina Collection - The Jeweller as Artist
Rarely does one come across a jeweller who combines the flair of an artist with the precision of a technical expert and the research orientation of an alchemist. Little wonder then that someone who is all these and more, has quickly made a mark, winning accolades and awards the world over for his amazing creations. From crafting exotic pieces out of laser cut diamond slices to reinventing antique jewellery pieces by giving them a modern innovations and being one of the first to create titanium jewellery, Samir Bhansali, the chief designer and head of the US-based La Reina Collection, has done it all. In a conversation with Stephen Rego, he speaks about his inspirations, the philosophy of his design and many more aspects of his remarkable business.
By: Diamond World News Service
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Jan 12 2012 4:37PM
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Reference: 6630  

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Perhaps there was a certain inevitability in the career that Samir Bhansali chose for himself – a future in the jewellery business. After all he came from a family that had been dealing in diamonds for a couple of generations before him. Having been born in Mumbai, the heart of India’s then emerging diamond industry, he could have followed the path tread by some many of his contemporaries, moving from graduation to an MBA and then on to taking the family business forward.

But the artist in him led him in a different direction – and he studied Fashion Designing, before fusing his new found skills with his traditional roots in setting up a company specialising in designer jewellery – La Reina Collection – in Los Angeles in 2001.

Within a very short span he was already making waves with his trade mark style – Art Deco elements fashioned from enormous-but-light, laser-cut diamonds crafted with a mix of ancient techniques with contemporary innovation. Each piece had the vibrancy and opulence of the Indian culture he came from, a culture where jewellery is a must for every social occasion, a culture where “emerald, ruby and sapphire-coloured embroidered silk saris paired with equally extravagant gems” and “the clinking of pure gold bangles stacked from wrists to elbows mingled with the sounds of sitar music.”

He easily surmounted the most common obstacle that designers face – creating pieces that speak couture, but are also wearable. His diamond slices turned into a veritable array of wonders – credit-card thin ones morph into life-size butterfly wings, even as slightly thicker ones bloom into dazzling flower petals. With his conjuror’s wand, Bhansali adds the little further touches; here gold trellises peep through an originally opaque diamond now transparent because of its thinness, and there white diamond pavé adds a dew-like quality to wildflower petals, while pink and blue sapphires are fashioned into eye-popping peacock brooches.

The challenge, according to him, and incidentally one that he always seems to successfully surmount, is to create something that universal, yet different. “You cannot wear big stones every day,” he says. “But if you wear artistic pieces, it’s different. Artistic pieces work as well during the day as they do in the evening.”

Elaborating on the thought, Bhansali says, “Elaborate fashions call for even more elaborate jewellery. Simple designs need elaborate jewellery to give the style a punch,”
adding, “I design looks that can be worn by an Indian woman in a sari or by an American in a little black dress,”

Describing La Reina jewellery as “revolutionary”, Bhansali says, “If what you have created works big, others quickly copy it. Then you do something else. The trick is the doing something else. This is what my designs represent.” Or looking at it from another angle, he adds, “If everyone thinks the same thing, no one is really thinking.”

It sounds like a simple approach, but there’s one crucial element that really makes it work – the talented designer himself coupled with his eternal quest for being different! Bhansali lets us in to some of the secrets that make him tick. “I have three muses – my mother, wife and daughter.”

The first one led him, in an indirect sort of way, to his use of titanium in crafting jewellery. “My mother, Pushpa, could not tolerate wearing earrings that pulled on her ears,” he says, “so I set out researching ways and means of creating lighter sets.” The search led him to titanium, a metal that does not exist as an individual element in nature and so was not known of till 1974, when the German chemist Martin Heinrich Klaporth discovered its existence in rutile ore. It is also incredibly light – with a tensile strength that equals some steel alloys, yet 45 per cent lighter; making it ideal for creating enormous, elaborate pieces that would otherwise have been impossible to wear. What’s more, the metal also had a kaleidoscopic effect, presenting a range of ever changing metallic hues.

Four years after he turned alchemist-researcher, Bhansali was ready with La Reina’s first titanium collection, entitled, appropriately enough, ‘Pushpa’. It’s a stunning set of Art Deco -- geometric symmetry and streamlined shapes, with princess cut diamonds set in prongs.

La Reina’s other titanium collection is “Evoluzione”, including earrings the size of orchid blossoms, but as light as if they were crafted from hollow gold loops! The highlight of this collection is the “Mughal Flower” brooch – a two-carat fancy yellow diamond, surrounded by smaller pink and yellow diamonds, blooming amid deep purple petals formed from oxidised titanium. The kaleidoscope effect of the titanium casts ever-changing metallic hues—scarlet, magenta, cerulean, indigo.

India, and its rich heritage of jewellery and art provides another endless source of inspiration to Bhansali. When in India, the designer combs antique shops for impressive pieces, carefully selecting jewellery that he can elevate from its valuable antiquity to a truly invaluable composition. Citing the example of how he added diamonds and rubies set in gold to ivory bracelets fashioned from wooly mammoth tusks or when he accented a 19th-century pink gold cross pendant with diamonds and sapphires, Bhansali explains how history can be transformed into contemporary chic.

These, and similar pieces gleaned from antique shops in other countries are reborn as the ‘Prive’ collection which also boasts of exclusive pieces made using alternative materials like ebony wood, fossil bones, jade and onyx.

Then there is the ‘Art du Jour’ collection, an interesting mélange of antique-cut diamonds juxtaposed with diaphanous diamond slices; or pearl, onyx, wood, rhodium and crystal mingled with gold and diamonds. In many pieces, diamonds are set within pearls, and one princess-cut and two pear-shaped diamonds are convincingly arranged to look like a three-carat heart-shaped solitaire. And the vibrant and stunning Color de la Vida collection is made of diamonds set within laser carved colored gems and crystals.

The craft has been appreciated worldwide, and while awards have come as a matter of course – the “Yellow Passion Flower” bracelet from the “Art du Jour” collection won Town & Country magazine’s honours for Best Design in 2007, and other pieces have won Couture design awards in 2009 and 2011, the true testimony to Bhansali’s brilliance is the wide acceptance he has won from clients in many countries. La Reina’s collections are sold in India, Bangkok, Dubai, Greece, Spain, Switzerland, to name a few, with a number of private clients who were his focus at the darkest point of the recession. In the US, La Reina jewels are also available at Neiman Marcus and other upscale retailers.

Bhansali’s pieces have a universal appeal, across cultures, across age-groups and on all occasions. Perhaps the secret lies in how the designer perceives himself, “I don’t like to think of myself as making jewellery, but as creating art.”

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