Tannis Toohey/torstar news service
Reena Ahluwalia remembers the excitement she felt when she faced her first mound of loose diamonds.
“I had never seen anything like it — this heap of diamonds worth millions,” Ahluwalia says of her first day on the job at one of India’s largest diamond and jewelry houses. The gems were on her work table, waiting for her to transform them into solitaire rings and pendants. “I ... knew I had found my calling.”
Ahluwalia, who’s in her 30s and moved to Toronto five years ago, has clients around the world. She freelances for top-tier jewelry houses that turn her sketches, technical drawings and models into reality. They then sell the pieces under their own prestigious names. And she has wealthy private clients, like the woman in Dubai who commissioned Ahluwalia to create a gold full-body ornament to wear under her burqa. In
June she represented Canada at the Antwerp World Diamond Centre’s HRD Awards.
Ahluwalia was one of 38 finalists chosen from more than 1,000 entrants to have her design included in a collection that will tour Hong Kong, Tokyo, Shanghai, Basel and Las Vegas.
The theme for the competition was “A Night at the Opera” and Ahluwalia’s stunning 101-carat white diamond necklace with red enamel was conceived as a tribute to Maria Callas.
“Opera can be playful, prayerful, haunting and incredibly versatile,” she says. “One seems to move through a range of emotions. This is the way I interpret its music in my design – by the emotion it stirs.”
Four types of hinges allow the necklace to move and flex both horizontally and vertically. “This way it takes the contours of different body shapes,” she says of the piece, which took five months to make.
Mathematical precision is typical of Ahluwalia’s work. After growing up in Bhopal, a town famous for a Union Carbide gas leak in the 1980s that left thousands dead, Ahluwalia was accepted at engineering college. “But my heart wasn’t in it.”
Then one day her brother came running with a newspaper ad for a new jewelry program at a leading fashion school in New Delhi.
“I’m a hands-on person,” she says. “I was always playing with wood, paper and wire, always drawing and building things.”
After graduation, Ahluwalia joined Su-raj, one of the biggest diamond companies in India.
Her work became more and more dramatic and not limited to fingers, wrists and necks. “I like the outrageous and unexpected. I began to explore around the body with extreme exaggeration.”
It’s an approach partly rooted in Indian tradition.
“In India, jewelry is a part of the body; it’s a part of your skin. There’s an Indian poem about a couple engaged in lovemaking and they shed their clothes but not their jewelry. That concept fascinated me.”
Then in 1996, in her early 20s, Ahluwalia won first prize in a World Gold Council competition, competing against 6,000 entries. She won the award a number of times, until the council invited her to join the jury.
In 2000, Ahluwalia received the industry’s top honour, a De Beers Diamonds-International Award for a shoulder covering featuring 2,409 diamonds. Alexander McQueen featured the piece in his spring 2000 collection, shown in New York.
Ahluwalia’s followers have grown to include sports and film stars and she contributes to campaigns for De Beers, the Platinum Guild International and the World Gold Council. In 2002 Ahluwalia designed the crown for Miss India Universe.
The same year she moved to Toronto to join her husband, a lead analyst in a software development firm. She teaches technical drawing and design part-time at George Brown College. And she continues to push the boundaries of fine jewelry, with free-form rings inspired by the glaciers and rivers of her adopted home.