There’s a reason why Jaipur, in Rajasthan, brings to mind rich textiles, colorful pottery, and bright bangles.
The region is the handicraft capital of India, home to 4,000 sari makers, 35,000 marble workers, and 1,000 bangle makers. These industries have been alive since ancient times and, despite changes to manufacturing and the global economy, still manage to exist in a fragile state today.
India has a population of 1.3 billion. “After agriculture, craft is the second-largest employer—so it has an enormous amount of the population involved in the private sector of making things, normally with their hands,” says Fiona Caulfield, who moved to Jaipur from New York City in 2004 and created a series of travel books on India. “It’s still normal and common in India for people to make things, whereas in America, it’s kind of an indulgence of a few.”
In Jaipur, you can turn a corner and stumble upon a street filled exclusively with brass workers—they sit barefoot, grease-covered on the floor of their workshops, which are open to the street like market stalls.
The metalsmiths take their wares to a communal polishing machine as the final step. The next road over, the air is filled with dust, as marble workers drill away at stone, creating elephants or deities commissioned by temples all over the country. These are the artisans, the people who learned from their fathers—who learned from their fathers—the craft that would be their livelihood. But another group of craftsmen is applying traditional techniques in modern ways to clothing, jewelry, and accessories—bringing intrinsically Indian wares to the international stage.
The of office of Kesya, a men’s accessory line, is situated behind the Royal Heritage Haveli, a hotel in northwestern Jaipur. The 26-year-old duo behind the brand enlists enamel painters for the cufflinks and buttons they design. “We really wanted to take the old traditions and give them a little new-age design,” says cofounder Divya Shekhawat. “We’re trying to revive the whole style of hand painting on enamel. Not many people are doing it, and it’s dying out—now most companies do machine enameling. We’d rather go the old-school way. It’s more laborious, but I think it has its own charm.”
Since 2015, Shekhawat and Shivangani Singh have tapped painters from Jaipur and Jodhpur to paint the delicate motifs on their collections: mallards, pheasants, and bison inspired by the historic maharaja hunts; oral patterns taken from the palaces and forts in Rajasthan; designs based on old Mughal coins. “We try to incorporate a lot of history into our buttons, either into the design or in the way they’re made,” Singh says. The more modern motifs include skulls and French bulldogs— but those pieces aren’t the focus. “We don’t want to try and change something to be completely modern,” says Shekhawat. “Enough people are doing that.”
That’s also the philosophy behind Injiri, the clothing label that Chinar Farooqui started in 2009. “Most of the clothes are actually inspired by traditional clothing, and they’re more peasant-like, more relaxed,” she says of her designs. Farooqui works with weavers all over the country, commissioning fabrics such as jamdani, ikat, and khadi. It’s a laborious process—and a long one. It takes about four months to make each fabric type and eight more months to get a sample ready to show the market.
“But you are being really honest with the technique, you’re being extremely true to the entire process that the weaver has gone through,” says Farooqui. “It’s not forced.”
It’s the opposite of today’s fast fashion—and retailers can tell. Farooqui’s products are stocked at ABC Carpet & Home in New York City, Upstairs at Pierre Lafond in Santa Barbara, L’Atelier in Paris, and some Anthropology locations.
For Tarang Arora, who took over as chief executive and creative director of fine jewelry company Amrapali from his father in 2012, staying true to the brand’s Indian roots is paramount to its 39-year success.
“We are very aware of the fact that it is an Indian brand—we are selling Indian history, Indian craftsmanship, Indian tradition,” he says. “So, when you see a piece, it should look like an Indian piece.”
All of the company’s jewelry is made in its three workshops in Jaipur. Most of the 2,000 or so craftsmen come from the north, one of the few places left in the country where jewelry making is passed down from generation to generation.
“It has to have that Indian DNA,” Arora says. If I showed you a Bulgari ring and a Harry Winston ring you would not be able to tell the difference. But if I showed you a Harry Winston ring and an Amrapali ring, you would know which one was not Harry Winston. That difference is how we can sell Amrapali to the international jewelry market.” And market they do—to Dover Street Market New York, Net-A-Porter, and Barneys New York in Japan; they have stores in Beijing, London, Lagos, Tokyo, Lahore, and Kathmandu, as well as all over India. In 2012, Paris- based designer Manish Arora tapped Amrapali to design a jewelry collection for his runway show.
“Our craftsmen put in a lot of effort because it was something new for them, and we achieved it in the end,” Tarang says. “So we brought them all together, and we put the show on a big screen, and we showed them Paris Fashion Week. It was the simplest thing, but it boosted them so much.”
At boutique store Jaipur Modern, cofounder and director Maximiliano Modesti also puts the focus on the craftspeople, leaving the artisans’ names on many of the designs—a big deal, since they’re normally working for wholesalers. His aim is to revive and sustain traditional artisans by bringing their work to a global marketplace. Inside the store, which shares a space with a restaurant of the same name, there’s plenty of the block printing that Rajasthan is famous for, but there are many other forms of craftsmanship here, too: embroidery from Mumbai, dyeing from Gujarat, pashmina weaving from Kashmir.
And when block printing is showcased, it’s in a nontraditional way: stamped onto leather wallets, boxers, or T-shirts, and often modi ed by slightly dragging the block for a smudged effect and by adding embroidery.
It’s not only about unique products—it’s about maintaining the industries upon which India was built. “Indian village communities have a certain dress code, and they want to wear what they have always worn,” says Farooqui. “But because handloomed fabrics are getting more and more expensive, they stop getting their clothes made by hand, and they want to buy replicas. Obviously, if a block-printed skirt is available for one fourth the cost, it looks almost the same, and it’s easy to wash, then they would want to buy that. So that has affected the artisans—if there were once 500 artisans in a village, that number has shrunk to 100.”
The Indian government recently tried to address the problem with a plan to increase khadi production in the country by providing spinning wheels that use solar energy for power—a way to create jobs in the villages while reducing the carbon footprint.
It seems handicrafts are a point of national pride—from the top down. “In India there’s a really deep-rooted belief that if you can, you should make something beautiful,” Caulfield says. “I remember years ago I was jumping into a rickshaw and the seat had been patched. I would have patched it just by stitching it together, but this driver patched it with a heart.”