Ethnically Indian, born in London, and raised in Zambia, jewelry designer Rosh Mahtani knows a thing or two about immigration and how "Where are you from?" can be a complicated question.
Inspired by her study of Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy” during her final year at Oxford University, and after a brief stint in the fashion and travel industries, Mahtani has launched a haunting, gold collection called Alighieri that draws on the themes of travel, immigration, home, and loss.
“I found the ‘Divine Comedy’ to be such a visual piece of work that I kept imagining it rendered in objects,” Mahtani told NBC News. “I wanted to tell a story, and the end goal is to establish a brand that sits in the intersection between design and literature.”
Each piece of jewelry corresponds to one of the “Divine Comedy’s” one hundred cantos, following the story as the poet travels through the realms of hell, purgatory, and paradise, and the many characters that he meets along the way.
“Inspired by his odyssey, I imagined these characters in gold, wrapped around my neck, and weaving their way through my fingers, as I read,” Mahtani writes on her website. “Just like Dante’s subjects, each piece of jewelry is battered, imperfect, and a little bit melancholy. Every piece tells a story, embodying a modern heirloom that will travel with you on your own adventures.”
NBC News caught up with Mahtani to discuss her journey to Alighieri.
What is your and your family’s immigration story?
My parents [were born in India but] grew up in Zambia, in southern Africa. I was born in London, but I spent my early childhood years in Zambia, before moving back to London. Because I was studying languages at university, I have lived in both France and Italy, and I am somewhat of a wanderlust-obsessive. I feel like London is my home, but I also have a great affinity to Africa.
"The story I became obsessed with happened to be one about a voyage."
Why Dante? What is it that you find compelling about Dante’s “Divine Comedy”?
I studied French and Italian literature at Oxford, and the final year was dedicated to studying Dante — my professors really brought the text to life. I found “Divine Comedy” to be such a visual piece of work that I kept imagining it rendered in objects. In addition to that, Dante's dialogue has a wit to it; at times, the poet pursues personal and petty vendettas, adoration of Beatrice, anger at the Florentine Medici family, all to the point of absolute obsession. I found this gripping, and still seek to understand the different facets of his personality.
How do Dante and your personal experiences come into play in your jewelry designs?
Dante is on a journey, and he cannot go back to his home, Florence, where he feels he belongs. I think this sense of loss, pursuit, wanderlust, and fear all play a role in my jewelry. My pieces are fragmented, and sometimes battered, much like the trajectory of Dante's great odyssey. Having spent my early childhood years in Africa before coming to London, I've always been interested in the idea of "home" and what that means. I think this sparked a desire to travel and live in various cities, which has been very formative. It is always tricky for me to answer the question, "Where are you from?" especially with a one-sentence response. I think that creating jewelry and telling a story through my brand was really just a way for me to try to answer that question.
What are you trying to achieve at the intersection of travel, literature, and design?
I was eager to create a brand that was not simply about the end product, one that was absolutely rooted in a story. The story I became obsessed with happened to be one about a voyage. I love to design the jewelry, but I am just as interested in writing and photography, as are the women who are interested in Alighieri. I wanted Alighieri to reflect the multi-faceted nature of the people I know, who are as interested in fashion as they are in literature.
"Having spent my early childhood years in Africa before coming to London, I've always been interested in the idea of 'home' and what that means."
What has the response been like? And what do your parents think?
I have been so overwhelmed at how supportive everyone has been — my friends have been incredibly encouraging. I found that people have been really interested to hear about Dante and the tales behind the pieces — this still makes me incredibly excited! One of the best moments has been presenting the collection to Sara Maino from “Vogue Italia,” and reminiscing about her memories of studying Dante Alighieri.
My parents have been very supportive, as they've seen me up all night finishing the collection, or putting giant Look Book pages together covering the studio floor! They get just as excited about the little victories, which is really lovely.
There are so many exciting projects on the horizon. I cannot wait to unveil the collaborations I have been working on — with some incredibly talented artists. You will have to stay tuned to see the results!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.