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Designer interview

Rosh Mahtani

Taking inspiration from Dante's Divine Comedy, every piece in Rosh Mahtani's collection of jewellery tells a story

The jewellery designer, Rosh Mahtani is a forager. With her brand Alighieri, taking its name after Dante, she crafts pieces that hold memories of many places. From an unconventional background in literature,

Rosh translates stories into objects and brings us modern heirlooms, meant to bring strength to its wearer. It is all part of her ambition to create a meaningful universe of love and togetherness.

Where does the name of your brand come from?
The name is Alighieri. It is inspired by Dante Alighieri, the Italian poet, who was writing in the 12th and 13th century in Florence. And to give you a bit of back story of how I got there, I studied French and Italian in University and spent time living in Florence. I just fell in love with Dante’s story [The Divine Comedy]. This idea of a man lost in the dark woods, in love with a woman he can’t have, in political exile. And after I graduated from university, I kept going back to his work. And that’s when I decided I wanted to start telling stories and translating stories into objects. So I named the brand Alighieri.

Very cool. You come from quite a different background to jewellery making. How come this became your way of expressing these stories?
It is a really good question. I guess, ever since I was a kid, I always loved collecting objects. I lived in Africa when I was a child and I used to forage for objects quite a lot. I would collect stones and things, I would find, that were imperfect and they kind of became talisman. So ever since I was young, I always would believe in this idea that things we find on our journey remind us of some place and bring us strength as we move forward. And as I got older, I would go to flea markets and that really became my joy. I loved finding things that were essentially worthless and turning them into something that felt precious. A coin that was maybe one pound at the market, and you put it on a chain and the way that you style it brings it to life. And it feels like this precious heirloom. 

So the way that we adorn ourselves with objects, actually?  
Indeed. And then as I kept reading the Divine Comedy, I found it really interesting how every culture uses jewellery as a way of finding strength and passing on the narratives through generations. And I love the universality of that. And for me, that went hand in hand with poetry. Universal sentiments of love and loss and fear and courage. And I think we live in, sadly, a quite divided world, there’s a lot of conflict and ideology and different religions and cultures believing in different things, and I found it quite amazing that jewellery is completely universal. Genuinely, you can believe in a god or not believe in a god, be religious or non-religious, but these objects say something. I love the idea of universality through objects and I also don’t see that as any different to poetry.

The way that you make jewellery, you use wax in a different, or maybe not different, but more playful way than you ordinarily would in jewellery making?
Traditionally, jewellery is very much about being precise and measuring, it is all about precision. That is not my skillset at all. I’m not good at that. I love feeling and instinct. I am not a planner. So when I started playing with wax, I didn’t know what I was doing. And that is what I love. I love the idea that these shapes can take form at their own accord. And why can’t you take wax to a flame? Or why can’t you use your mom’s cutlery to just play around and see what happens instead of saying this is how you carve something, or this is how you create a ring? It brings me back to childhood. Of just playing. And as soon as I had that material and started playing, I unlocked something in me that I was always looking for.

"The world is such a hard place. And I struggle with my own demons, so I wanted to use the brand as a way of genuinely making people feel less alone."

Where do you find your inspiration? It seems like this very playful process, where something comes to mind and you try it out. Is it things you see in everyday life or is it things you see in nature? Where do you get it from?
I draw inspiration from so many different things at the same time. It always starts with a feeling. I always think that each collection is like a therapy. Essentially, it is about how I am feeling right now. Where am I in my life? I will gravitate towards certain parts of the Divine Comedy. For example with the Love in the Wasteland collection, which is the most recent collection that we launched earlier this year, I was reading T.S. Elliott, and looking at how T.S. Elliott was really inspired by Dante and how they are both describing this very dry arid landscape of a place without hope. And for the first time in my life, I felt like I was in a safe relationship, and I had found this pocket of love within the wasteland and so I wanted to bring that hope out of the darkness. I have been looking at chains and traditional old school links and I loved the way that through these pieces of our lives, we can link together to create stories. It is kind of an abstract way, and then as I start making things, it feeds into that. I am always looking around. At fleamarkets. And usually, travel is a big thing for me, obviously not at the moment. But I always get really inspired by different countries and landscapes, photography, music, or even just going on the tube and seeing women in their 60s and 70s and the jewellery that they wear, imagining the stories that come along with these pieces. So I think for me, inspiration is in the everyday, all the time.

Maybe tell me a little bit about your Lion Club. I think that’s quite cool.
The Lion Medallion was the first piece I designed. In the first canto of the Divine Comedy, Dante is confronted by this lion, and the lion is described as so terrifying that even the air around him is trembling with fear and he turns on his heel and says, I can’t do this journey, I am not good enough, I am not brave enough, I am not strong enough. This is when his guide Virgil appears and says, Dante come on, you can do this. I was traveling, maybe four or five years ago now, in Venice for my birthday, I was by myself. I always go somewhere every year on my own. It was January, it was freezing, it was misty. Having the best time with my camera and just listening to music, wandering the streets and I found this lion coin, and I was like oh my gosh, this is like the lion in the Divine Comedy.

And what did it mean to you, personally?
I bought it for myself as a way to remind myself to be strong and courageous in moments when I was down and sad or feeling like I wasn’t good enough. And it was a really destroyed coin, and when I came home, I wanted to repair it and restore it with wax and add texture to it and recast it just as a reminder to myself and that’s kind of how the brand really started actually. And it’s amazing because the women, and the men who buy it, tell me those amazing stories, so I really think the lion club was a way of unlocking people’s stories and bringing people closer together and feeling less afraid to share their vulnerabilities.

Looking at the way that you present your brand, it is really different and unique. There’s this feel to it, that it reaches beyond jewellery.
I think for me it has always been about more than jewellery. It’s about the objects that create a community and bringing people together, making people feel less alone. I think quite simply, I’ve never had a strategy or a business plan, where I was going to create this community. In so many ways, I was the receiver, I was creating for myself as the receiver. I was 25 when I started. And I asked myself, what do I want? I want something that has an accessible price point. Something that tells a story. Something that I can keep forever, that I can pass on, that has story and a meaning. And then I wanted to feel like I was part of something, and I was creating for that. And the more time I spent doing that, the more people just wanted exactly the same thing, and the idea of using fashion, using objects to be inclusive and genuinely making people feel less alone. The world is such a hard place. And I struggle with my own demons, so I wanted to use the brand as a way of genuinely making people feel less alone.

The way that you source and your ethical approach to it, I guess, is also about taking care of people and the world that we live in?
Definitely, I think that’s exactly it. I think it is about sustainability, but I think personally it comes from every aspect of the business. From the way you source materials, knowing people who are making what you sell, and having that human aspect of it, the more you do that, the more you take care of your objects. Because you know the hand of the person who made it. And it goes with our team. Fourteen amazing women, who are all in their 20s and 30s, we all support each other through our life experiences. It is like a family, and in that sense, you treat your customer the same way that you treat your supplier. It is kind of one and the same. If we can all think more like that, then maybe we will be able to take better care of our planet. Because I don’t think it’s about saying let’s not ever buy anything anymore, because that’s not realistic, but let’s take care of the things that we buy, let’s love the things that we buy, and make them last forever. And I think, the more you know where it comes from, the more you are going to do that.

Talking about the women who you work with, it feels like in everything you do, from your team to your photography, and so on, you tend to work with the same people again and again and build relationships with different women.
I meet people who I love, and they become family, and we go on these adventures together. I don’t really believe in trends. We found our voice, we found out what works for us. It felt right and it felt real. For me it’s just about loyalty and actually, the more you love the people you work with, the richer the story becomes.

And there’s so many layers to your story. Now, I just read about your old town project, which was really impressive. Again, it reaches beyond jewellery, building a world around your creations.
Yeah, I hope so. That’s the fun of it, right? Just bringing people together. The jewellery is a conduit to making people feel strong.

It would be interesting to know what other jewellery designers, do you look up to?
I try not to look too much at contemporary jewellery brands. I want to stay in my own universe. I know I have a tendency to compare, and that can be quite dangerous. I really look up to more old school jewellery designers, like Elsa Peretti, what she did when she was at Tiffany’s and the world she created, I think was absolutely amazing. But otherwise, I mostly look to old things. I love artifacts. I love the British Museum, I love Roman jewellery, I love prehistoric Colombian jewellery, I love artifacts.