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Contemporary Jewellers On Fulfilling Their Ancestral Promise

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Jeena J Billimoria

With a historic clientele that spans from Hollywood luminaries and American heiresses to billionaires and royalty, Ahmed Joo continues to shine as brightly today.

Legend has it that Marjorie Merriweather Post, an American socialite and heiressto General Foods, owned one of the most remarkable jewellery collections of the 20th century, boasting a staggering 200 pieces of the finest money could buy. Amongst the treasures from Cartier, Harry Winston and Van Cleef & Arpels in her armoire, nestled baubles from the historic Indian jewellery showroom, Ahmed Joo.

Merriweather Post was just one among a glittering galaxy of celebrities counted among the clientele of the jeweller, whose establishment you’d only discover through whispers of those in the know, almost like an exclusive little secret. The brand chooses to be discreet to attract only the most elite clientele who look to possess one-of-a-kind jewellery without screaming it from their ivory towers. This calibre of jewellery is not for the masses, that much is certain.

Kashmir’s Valleys To Colaba’s Shores

When HELLO! speaks to Iqbal Mubarak, the current owner of family-run jewellery house, Ahmed Joo, we can hear the pride with which he speaks of the brand started by his grandfather eponymously in the 1930s. Ahmed Joo, whose origins were in Kashmir, subsequently dealt in handicrafts, carpets and Kashmir-made jewellery at the time, and had branches all over a then united India, pre-Partition, in Lahore, Abbottabad, Murree and Calcutta. Later on, stores in Singapore and Hong Kong would be added to the burgeoning business. After the Partition however, the stores in Pakistan were sadly lost and Iqbal’s father (Ahmed Joo’s son), Habibullah Khanyari, Iqbal Mubarak established a boutique in South Bombay, where the family then primarily rooted themselves in the manufacturing and retailing of jewellery.

In their earlier days, a lot of business came from visiting tourists from luxury liners that docked on the shores of Bombay as a port of call. Each one brought hundreds of moneyed tourists and visiting the iconic Taj Mahal Palace at Colaba was always on the agenda. “Wealthy tourists would have their clothes made there and after lunch, they’d walk out of the Taj and come around to our boutique, which was just behind the hotel (and still is). That’s how Ahmed Joo got established in the jewellery business more and more over the years,” Iqbal tells us from his home in Dubai.

Masterpieces In The Making

With a workshop of 25 karigars, each worked harmoniously to create these jewels. “Many of them were curated by my dad, who would buy the gems or stones and have jewellery made to the tastes of what he felt would be popular and unique to clients at the time,” Iqbal explains. And the process hasn’t changed all that much today. The only difference now is that the sketches are designed in a more modern way. Previously, one had to physically take the gems to the karigar, discuss the piece with them, place them on a wax tablet and then see how it would evolve, bit by bit — till completion. A laborious, painstaking process that led to perfect sets of jewellery being crafted.

Ahmed Joo’s USP has always been the superior quality of gems they use; unlike other maisons, pieces are created around a suite of gems, and not the other way round. That’s probably what attracted the global crème de la crème of purveyors to the store. In addition to Marjorie Merriweather Post, the jeweller’s historic clientele included Darryl F Zanuck of 20th Century Fox Studios, Hollywood star Marisa Brenson, heiress Doris Duke of Duke Tobacco, the Hunt brothers who were Fort Worth Texas oil billionaires, and the Queen Mother of the Sultanate of Oman. Many royal families from the Arab world still remain clients to this day. Then of course, are Hollywood heavyweights and not least of all, the unnamed elite of India who are protected by discretion but whose vaults lay glittering with the beautiful baubles made by Joo. “Our clients are very much loyal to us. Some belong to the second and even third generation of people buying from us. Our brand has stood the test of time through everything — wars, tremulous political and economic scenarios,” says Iqbal.

Timeless Love For Jewels

There has always been a demand for beauty, in the guise of jewels especially. “Maybe in some parts of the world, people don’t wear them as much as before, but generally all over the world, people s t i l l spend a lot of money buying gems and jewels, especially in India. You see them at every wedding. It’s the same in the Arab world, Gulf countries, in the Far East too — they’re all big consumers of jewellery.

There is a difference in preference and tastes of course; somebody in India might wear a large million-dollar necklace, while somebody in China may wear a smaller ring worth the same amount,” Iqbal tells us of the way of the world today.

Apprenticing at his father’s store, Iqbal ventured abroad at age 19 to forge his own path and start a family. Only after his father’s passing many years later did he assume control of the business. His hope for the future is to continue in the same way they have in the past, creating unusual and exclusive pieces of jewellery for his clients. “We don’t make anything generic and because we create pieces around the gem; and each invariably becomes a signature piece. There are never twos or threes of the same,” he says.

And what of the next generation, that includes Iqbal’s four children, taking over? “The next generation is too busy doing other things... But one can hope!” laughs Iqbal. Fingers remain crossed!

Founded by an ancestor who served as a swarnakar for the royal family, The House of MBj continues its prestigious legacy with award-winning contemporary designs.

This story begins in the humble village of Ratangarh in the Churu district of Rajasthan, with a man named Shri Prithviraj Kadel who was appointed as swarnakar (goldsmith) by the royal family in 1897.

Prithviraj’s legacy was carried forward by his grandsons, Motilal and Banarsi Lal, who moved to Kolkata for better prospects as jewellers. When Motilal tragically passed away at the young age of 46, he left the managing of the business to a young Banarsi Lal.

Guided by his father’s wisdom, Banarsi Lal embarked on a journey alongside a silver trader, immersing himself in the art of jewellery-making for export in the 1960s.

Yet, within the confines of mundane design briefs and conventional techniques, Banarsi Lal felt a stirring discontent. Why, he pondered, should innovation and experimental design not take centre stage? With a spark of audacity, he decided to challenge the status quo, pitching the idea of crafting bangles from gold, even utilising family gold to create a few sets of exquisite bangles that spoke volumes of his talent.

This pivotal moment changed everything for him and his descendants, who became the custodians of a cherished legacy, celebrated through the illustrious House of MBj — an acronym for Motilal Banarsi Lal Jewellers.

A Precious Inheritance

“Our founder, Prithviraj Kadel, was my third great grandfather,” The House of MBj Director, Vijay Soni, tells HELLO!. His journey with the family business began in 1982, coinciding with MBj’s expansion beyond their manufacturing unit in New Delhi, which had served as both an atelier and a store since its establishment in 1975. This expansion marked their entry into the retail sector, with the opening of their first store in Calcutta (now Kolkata), followed by the establishment of more stores in the city. Subsequently, they expanded with retail showrooms in Jaipur and New Delhi in the 1990s, pushing the boundaries of business innovation within the Indian goldsmith community.

Both Vijay and Gunjan Soni, Vijay’s nephew and Managing Director at MBj, are at the fore of the business, and have each worked hard to take their legacy forward. Vijay speaks in revered tones of his father and grandfather, who worked tirelessly alongside nearly a hundred skilled artisans, often returning home after weeks at the factory due to their deep involvement in their craft. “To bond with my father during those busy days, I used to visit the manufacturing unit after school. I would quietly observe their dedicated work and the artistry involved in crafting each piece of jewellery,” he says.

Hands-on Innovation

Gunjan tells HELLO! that the creation and curation of jewellery in earlier days were truly a labour of love and craftsmanship. Each piece was meticulously handcrafted, a process that typically spanned 20 to 25 days to ensure every detail was perfect. “Intriguingly, there were no dedicated designers back then. Instead, our forefathers would actively engage with our skilled artisans, sitting with them to brainstorm and bring their creative visions to life. This collaboration not only honoured traditional craftsmanship, but also allowed for the infusion of innovative and unique designs into each piece,” he shares.

Today, their approach to jewellery creation has evolved to align with modern trends and customer preferences. A dedicated team of in-house designers stays attuned to the evolving styles in the world of jewellery and crafts pieces that resonate with contemporary tastes. Moreover, the process of selecting designs has become more inclusive.

Opulence To Elegance

As anyone who’s familiar with this brand knows, their jewellery is simply exquisite. One of their most remarkable and opulent pieces was a pair of heart-shaped solitaire diamonds, each weighing a staggering 25 carats. These magnificent diamonds were complemented by the sheer grandeur of hanging pear-shaped Colombian emeralds, with each emerald weighing an impressive 51 carats. “This exquisite pair of jewels was bought by a sheikh from the UAE. While we can’t disclose the exact figure, it’s worth noting that the transaction represented a princely sum!,” Gunjan says.

Another exceptional piece included the Orbital Wristlet, a diamond bangle that exemplifies the art of balance, which incidentally won them the ‘Most Innovative Jewellery of the Year award’ from among a billion jewellers in India. “Producing this remarkable piece presented considerable challenges,” Gunjan explains. “The intricacy of the design, with its fine details and precisely balanced components, demanded an extraordinary level of craftsmanship and technical precision.”

Designs On The Future

Their trajectory hasn’t been totally smooth-sailing. “During the Gulf War in the ’90s, payments were stuck. This prompted a strategic shift into the retail sector,” says Vijay. Wars, shifts in government, economic inflation and evolving consumer preferences were other challenges. “The recent COVID-19 period presented a formidable test but we stood united as a team,” shares Gunjan.

As the custodians of the legacy, their vision for the future of The House of MBj is one of dynamic expansion and influence. “In the next three years, we aspire to establish multiple new stores across various locations in India, making our brand more accessible to a diverse clientele. Moreover, we have set our sights on a global footprint, with plans to venture into new international markets — and we are already grooming the next generation to take over,” smiles Vijay. And if perfection of a craft exists — it is apparent with The House of MBj.

This story has been adapted for the website from a story that was originally published in Hello! India’s April 2024 issue. Get your hands on the latest issue right here!