A gem of a designer

A gem of a designer

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AV Shinde was much more than a designer for brought a new dimension to jewellery design due to his exceptional understanding of how stones could be assembled. A Watch World report.

Shinde’s desk at his apartment in New York

While moving around the lavishly laid Harry Winston’s booth at BaselWorld in April this year we chanced upon several watercolours and gouache paintings credited to a familiar sounding Indian name.

That was enough to interest us. And only when a HW spokesperson revealed that “he was our designer, the famed A V Shinde,” that made us curious. So here’s the story of Indian designer of international repute who designed for the gods and mortals alike.

Shinde spent almost four decades working for HW in New York City. An important part of his tenure at the firm involved refashioning many of the stones that had once belonged to Indian potentates, in order to satisfy the changing tastes of a post war clientele that included notables such as the King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia, Imelda Marcos, Sharon Stone, Oprah Winfrey, and Madonna. When Gywneth Paltrow won an Oscar in 1996, she wore a Shinde-designed delicately fringed diamond choker, borrowed from Harry Winston. After the ceremony, her father bought the piece for her.

Born in 1917 in Mapusa, Goa Ambaji Venkateshwara Shinde studied art at Mumbai’s JJ School of Art and acquired a job at the jewellery shop of Nanubhai Jhaveri though he had never designed any jewellery pieces. He received his major commission in 1938, when the firm was asked to create a number of jewels for the coronation of the Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad of Baroda. He continued here for three years until he was hired by Nanubhai Jhaveri. While at Nanubhai, Shinde designed a white sari with more than 1,200 diamonds for Prince Aga Khan third’s wife, Begum Aga Khan and a pair of ear pendants for the Tirupati Temple. Set with 500 carats of diamonds, the central diamonds were each exactly 1.25 carats, an auspicious number signifying good fortune and prosperity. From top to bottom, the pendants measured sixteen inches. It was through Nanubhai who did business with Van Cleef and Arpels and Harry Winston that Shinde was found by the latter. Winston met Shinde for the first time in 1955 during a visit to Nanubhai’s, when he purchased a third necklace from the baguette-cut diamond collection, this one set entirely with caliber-cut In 958 baguette-shaped diamonds.

Sketches of scroll design necklaces (Left), Gouache and watercolour rendering of a natural green and colourless diamond scroll necklace with matching earclip for Nanubhai Jewellers by Shinde (1954) (Right)

In 1959 Harry Winston invited Shinde and offered a position in the firm’s design atelier in New York but as the latter had trouble obtaining an American visa he worked at the firm’s Geneva branch. Three years later, he arrived in New York to work under Nevdon Koumriyan, then the head designer at Harry Winston but soon returned to India and started doing freelancing jobs. “He (Nevdon) was an engraver, carpenter, jewellery designer…he dabbled in everything. He didn’t like me. I think he was upset that Mr Winston had chosen me instead of a more established European designer, as would befit the legendary house of Winston,” Shinde told the author of Shinde Jewels.

In 1966, Harry Winston invited Shinde to head the design department which the latter accepted and arrived in New York.  The letter dated June 10, 1966 from Harry Winston said: “I was always impressed with your work and feel that given the opportunity to work freely and independently you will create some magnificent things for us.”

What Shinde created in his years with Harry Winston were ‘magnificent’ indeed! In 1966, Shinde designed one of his first important pieces: a necklace featuring a 69.42-carat pear-shaped diamond, later known as the Taylor-Burton diamond, cut from a rough South African diamond weighing 240.80 carats that was purchased by Harry Winston.

This diamond necklace was sold to Hariet Annenberg Ames in 1967 and subsequently to Richard Burton who presented it to Elizabeth Taylor in 1968. Among his other creations are a necklace, called the “star of Independence,” a 75.52-carat flawless pear-shaped diamond valued at $4 million in 1975.

Queen Elizabeth wearing diamond jewellery by Shinde for Harry Winston (1982)
Gouache and watercolour rendering of a jeweled ceremonial Nepolese dagger by Shinde

In 1977, Sinde designed three special suites of “Sweet 16″ jewellery, a gift to a Middle Eastern princess from her father. Envious of her daughter’s present, the king’s first wife asked for an equally magnificent gift. And Shinde went to work and designed a necklace for the queen, featuring the 50.67 carat “Etoile du Desert” diamond, with a total diamond weight of over 250 carats. Of which the necklace alone was worth $5 million. In 1990 Shinde designed the centennial Tiara for Harry Winston, commemorating the centenary of the jewellery firm. It featured seven ” fancy” coloured diamonds–intensely saturated coloured diamonds that are the rarest of all diamonds–with a total weight of 100 carats and valued at over $43 million.

Shinde’s legacy lives on through a generous donation of over 5,000 original renderings to the Gemological Institute of America for future students of jewellery design. By the time of his retirement in December 2001, Shinde had produced over a hundred thousand designs for Harry Winston, INC., in addition to a similar number completed for freelance commissions and for personal enjoyment. Commented Suzy Menkes In the International Herald Tribune that although Shinde was “unknown outside the jewellery world, his precise romanticism and gem-studded elegance has marked history. Each painting is a work of art in its own right.”

The recut Indore diamonds set in a necklace by Shinde for Harry Winston (1976)(Left)-A rare diamond necklace by Shinde for Harry Winston (Right)

On the eve of his retirement, Farncois Curiel, international head of jewellery at Christie’s, pronounced, “Shinde (was) much more than a designer. Today in our auctions, a Shinde piece commands a premium over the intrinsic value of the stones. He brought a new dimension to jewellery design due to his exceptional understanding of how stones could be assembled, as if they were suspended in mid air. He designed a line of unique necklaces and, later earrings and bracelet, which have been often imitated but never duplicated.”

In the twilight of his life, Shinde reminisced: “I have explored jewellery design as art. Nature has given us so much that I see jewellery everywhere.”

Shinde died on April 2, 2003, in New York City, at the age of 85.

Shinde’s contribution to the vocabulary of jewellery design cannot be ignored for he was able to distill the essence of Eastern design and incorporate it into the Winston aesthetic of stark minimalism dominated by gemstones. The greatest tribute paid to Shinde on his retirement came from Hoda Esphahani, chairwoman of the international jewellery department at Sotheby’s when she said, “He is greatest designer of the century no one understands stones and glamour like him.”

(Based on excerpts from Shinde Jewels by Reema Keswani)

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