Speaking to Sophie Bew in the Autumn/Winter 2021 issue of AnOther Magazine, jewellery designer Rosh Mahtani tells the story of her widely loved, Dante-inspired label: Alighieri
This article appears in the Autumn/Winter 2021 issue of AnOther Magazine:
The jewellery designer Rosh Mahtani has strong feelings about the nuances of translation. Over Zoom, with piles of chunky gold chain bracelets jangling, she reels off the first terzina of Dante Alighieri’s Commedia – The Divine Comedy – in Italian, before sharing her own interpretation of the text. She knows the quote by rote: “In the middle of the journey of life, I found myself in a dark wood where the right path was obscured.” It’s her own interpretation, sort of – a mishmash of all her favourite variations. “Some people translate it as, ‘the correct way was unclear’. I’m like, ‘No, it needs to be obscure. It says oscura.’” Obscure, meaning unclear but also dark or dim, is preferable to Mahtani for its complexity. The finer details are important to her. The canonical text has inspired her entire livelihood, after all. Alighieri, an award-winning, seven-year-old jewellery brand, comprises a constellation of intricately worked gold pieces – like gilded fragments from former civilisations, they correspond to the 100 cantos of Dante’s epic poem.
Melted sovereigns, rugged coins, jagged shards of shields, barnacled bones and oversized asymmetric pearls come plated with, or set in, 24-carat gold and in the form of pendants or earring drops. Sometimes they are twisted into thick rings or hoops. Precious pieces, they evoke a certain sanctity – a sense of heirlooms passed down through generations; of keepsakes that were somehow here before the wearer and will outlive them too. That’s where Dante comes in. Mahtani studied his 14th-century masterpiece intensely, canto by canto, week by week, during her fourth undergraduate year studying French and Italian at New College, Oxford. “Dante created something that is still so present without us even knowing,” she says. “He’s present in so many parts of culture, in so many references in the arts, in literature, in film. It’s as if the echoes of the past are constantly drawn through the fabric of the present day.”
Seven years ago, when Mahtani sat at her kitchen table with a wax candle and some of her mother’s cutlery, she began carving and melting her first jewellery prototype – a silver metal crab claw that was somewhat liquefied in appearance. It was a distraction, she says now, from her uncertainty over her future path. That very lack of clarity took her back to her past: she was reminded, she explains, of her maternal grandmother’s gold sovereign. A small medallion, it was the one treasure this much-loved matriarch carried with her when she and her husband fled India following the partition in August 1947. The couple moved, along with their best friends – Mahtani’s paternal grandparents – to Zambia, where they raised their five children. Mahtani’s parents hated one another growing up, their daughter says today, but ended up marrying happily after they reunited in their twenties and initially brought up their own two children in Zambia, too. When Mahtani was eight the family moved to London, accompanied by that same sovereign. Evading bloodshed and fear, oblivious to time and space, it had by then attained near-mythical stature, tucked away in Mahtani’s mother’s jewellery box.
London had a less desirable lustre, Mahtani explains. “I went from living this barefoot life, playing with leaves and rocks, to this all-girls school in Hampstead, where it was freezing cold and I wore a beret, a skirt with braces and a duffel coat,” she says. “I had a little green hymn book and said the Lord’s Prayer – I was so out of my depth. I hated it, I cried so much. I felt like an alien. It’s weird to think it was the Nineties, but I was the only non-white person in my school – I just felt so innately different, with this sense of not belonging that always plagued me.” The aforementioned crab claw, in all its molten, roughly hewn glory, hails in its own way from this sense of otherness. Mahtani had attended half of a one-day wax-carving course earlier on in the day of the piece’s inception and decided that the precise nature of the technique being taught there was not for her – she walked out of the Hatton Garden class where fellow students were hand-sawing a tube of wax following exact measurements, then matching the finished cast, millimetre by millimetre, to the original design. That evening she “went free form”, watching the wax melt over a flame and sculpting it with her bare hands; she was invigorated by the spontaneity and freedom of the finished result. She loved every warp and air bubble and embraced the claw’s singular strangeness. It looked old, as if dug up from the earth. At that time Mahtani was, by her own admission, bored by a job in fashion merchandising, where every day they asked, “What’s new?” This object, paradoxically ancient in appearance, felt like it invited new kinds of questions.
When Mahtani took her claw, and an accompanying six-legged crab, to Just Castings, a family-run business in Hatton Garden, they were far from impressed. “What is this?” they asked of the object in question. “It needs to go to the hospital. It’s missing two legs – it’s broken.” Nonetheless, Mahtani begged them to cast it in bronze, the cheapest metal on offer, and to leave it unpolished before plating it. The exchange horrified the artisans, but that is where the Alighieri texture – and brand – was born. That same workshop has since produced more than 900,000 pieces for Mahtani.
Alighieri began as a business with a 48-unit order from a major fashion e-tailer five years ago. That quickly expanded to a second order, for 200 pieces, after the first sold out within a month. Two seasons later, a 1,000 piece order came in. Meanwhile, founded in the Sixties and furnished with a Royal Warrant of Appointment, Just Castings has had to upscale and build infrastructure as fast as Mahtani, whose production team is now 25 strong. Yet only one member of the design team continues to mould each and every prototype with candle, flame, scalpel and, of course, hand – Mahtani.
She is focused and prolific. She has diversified her range, designing two jewel-embellished capsule shoe collections, and including items such as hand-linked chain bridal veils and gilded bookmarks resembling tiny, smelted puddles of gold, which appear in her biannual collections alongside the jewellery. Then there are atelier pieces such as the Calliope Camisole – a slip made entirely from freshwater farmed cornflake pearls and gold-filled wire that took 40 hours and 900 pearls to create. References to The Divine Comedy range from literal – an oversized rain-droplet covered chainlink bracelet inspired by the tears of the sinner Buonconte da Montefeltro in Dante’s purgatory – to lateral, seen in the exploration of the redemptive nature of storytelling more broadly. Mahtani has named pendant necklaces (the Silencio or the Night Cap, for example) after fragments of her childhood – the jingling sound of her mother’s gold bangles at bedtime being a formative memory. As a body of work, Alighieri represents an epic journey all of the designer’s own.
The newest chapter of that journey is the arrival of Alighieri Man, although this is by no means the first time Alighieri has attracted male customers. “A lot of guys bought into it in the beginning – especially my friends – and seeing how they wore it was so inspiring. Over the past two years especially there have been amazing male customers who feel really confident and able to delve into the main site and adopt the pearls into their wardrobe, and they don’t really mind whether it’s labelled as men’s or women’s. A lot of couples would buy pieces and then steal them from each other’s nightstands, which I love.”
The resulting formalised men’s collection riffs on many of the themes Mahtani has visited before – battered rings, chunky hand-linked chains (though this time in smoother, woven Celtic shapes) and a lion, the label’s signature talisman, whose appearance in Dante’s dark wood was so terrifying that the air around its mane trembled; a crude, cross-like medieval sword named The Torch of the Night joins the roster, too. Those motifs appear largely in sterling silver or with the black lustre of rhodium-plated bronze; red cornelian and black onyx stones lend signet rings a mystical magic. Scabrous baroque pearls bring a new edge to these typically masculine metal tones – dangling from single earrings, attached to chain chokers, or threaded into full-on pearl necklaces. It’s an inclusive and inviting offering, one that feels modern and eternal.
And that is as it should be. Because for Mahtani there’s a heart-warming and heartfelt continuity present in both jewellery and literature. “There are some things that never degrade,” she says. “When you enter Dante’s dark wood at the beginning of the poem, you remember that whatever your problem is today, whatever you are worrying about, your ancestors almost certainly worried about it as well.”
Hair: Benjamin Muller at MA and Talent using DYSON. Make-up: Vassilis Theotokis at MA and Talent using BYREDO. Model: Michelle Laff at Next. Casting: Noah Shelley at Streeters. Movement director: Ryan Chappell. Set design: César Sebastien at Swan Management. Manicure: Béatrice Eni at Saint Germain using BYREDO. Digital tech: Daniele Sedda at Sheriff Project. Photographic assistants: Clément Dauvent, Aurélien Hatt and Jeanne Le Louarn. Styling assistants: Nicola Neri and Sara Maria Perilli. Hair assistant: Alexandra Adams. Make-up assistant: Clara Barban-Dangerfield. Set-design assistant: Enzo Selvatici. Production: Kitten Paris
This article appears in the Autumn/Winter 2021 issue of AnOther Magazine which will be on sale internationally from 7 October 2021. Head here to purchase a copy.