Parents considering quashing their young offspring’s odd and messy habits would do well to take heed of Rosh Mahtani’s story. Born in London and raised in Zambia, the founder of the jewellery brand Alighieri collected dirty stones and played with hot candle wax in a manner that her mother found annoying and frankly dangerous. Fast-forward 30 years: Mahtani is in her Hatton Garden studio showing me a curious group of small, teardrop-shaped wax sculptures, the first stage of her next collection. “This is where it all starts,” she says, almost apologetically. “It’s a really early, rudimentary way of making jewellery.” And yet the 30-year-old Mahtani is just about to close the books on Alighieri’s fifth financial year, having turned over £3.2m and 500 per cent annual growth. Hot wax alone will not a multi-million-pound jewellery business make. You might also need an entrepreneurial streak passed down from a father who works in retail, a desire not to do the thing expected of you (marketing, law, consulting), an eye for that elusive gap in the market and, oh yes, a passion, fired by an Oxford education, for Dante. As in Dante Alighieri, Italy’s poet god, the namesake of the brand and whose Divine Comedy provides the inspiration for her popular gold-plated antique-style pieces — medallion necklaces, lush baroque pearl drop earrings, clanking bangles.
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“I like taking classical shapes and bringing texture to them,” says Mahtani. “That idea that something can be imperfect or a bit scraggy or look antique but that’s what makes it special. I want my pieces to feel like they’ve been dug up from the ground.” Alighieri is possibly the most esoterically inspired brand selling on the likes of Net-a-Porter and Matches Fashion. But Mahtani did not initially spot a gap in the market for medieval Italian poets, rather she saw a space for “meaningful” costume jewellery at a mid-market price. “I started making things because — and it’s funny to say this because it’s not the case now — but at the time there was nothing in the right price bracket for me,” she says as she hovers next to plywood shelves holding reference books and classical plaster heads that lend her studio an air of academia. “I had one Cartier piece that was handed down to me by my mum and I wanted to wear jewellery that meant something. But I didn’t have the finances. I felt there was a gap at the £200 to £300 mark for someone like me, earning what I earn.” Captured Conversation Bracelet, £165 She started the brand after graduating and while juggling several jobs — au pairing, tutoring, as well as visual merchandising for the online retailer Avenue32.com, where she learnt about e-commerce and “things like uploading into the back-end”. One of the first pieces she made was a gold lion medallion, based on an old coin she had found in Venice. “It reminded me of the first canto of The Inferno, where Dante is confronted by a lion described as so terrifying that even the air around him is trembling with fear.” It’s at that moment in the poem that Dante’s guide Virgil appears and Dante’s fear turns into courage. “I made the medallion as a way to remember to be courageous,” she says. When she started selling the pieces online she gave customers a postcard that told the story. It was an immediate hit among those early buyers and the medallion remains the brand’s biggest seller. “Customers write in and say, ‘I’m buying this for my daughter because she’s about to do her GCSEs.’ Or someone wanted one for their mum who was ill with cancer,” she says. “It’s fascinating that through this inanimate object, a complete stranger opens up to you about something so personal and you feel like you have this bond.” Each person who buys the medallion becomes a member of Alighieri’s Lion Club, a sub-brand that she wants to build into a lifestyle arm of the business, hosting events and holistic retreats. She’s also working on a book gathering together 100 of her customers’ lion stories. Il Leone Medallion, £210 While the regular pieces remain, each biannual new collection is based on a different aspect of The Divine Comedy. “There’s so much scope,” she says. “Dante wrote about everything. You could do an entire collection inspired by one word.” In fact, the next collection, “No More Tears”, will be based on a single tear shed by a life-long sinner Dante meets in the poem, a tear that at the last moment gets him into purgatory. Honestly, though, how many of her customers does she think actually give two hoots about Dante Alighieri? “I think there are some who really couldn’t care less. They just want to wear medallions,” she says with a grin. “But then there are some who’ve emailed and say they’ve just bought a copy of The Inferno because they want to know more. So it can be for both. I love the idea that jewellery and fashion can bring you back to reading a book.” Two years ago Matches Fashion became Alighieri’s first big wholesaler and changed the course of the business. “They placed an order for 50 items and I was so stressed,” she remembers. At the time, she and an assistant were working out of a tiny space in King’s Cross. The Matches collection sold out within a month. The next season Net-a-Porter placed an order for a thousand units. “In year three we turned over £40,000 and year four, £490,000,” says Mahtani. They now have 60 international stockists and no external investment. “I’m glad of that now,” she says. “We have people approaching, but it’s such a personal brand for me. I’m a bit of a control freak.” That control-freakery is what caused her in the beginning to choose local suppliers around Hatton Garden. “I wanted them to be in reach. You really need to micromanage at the early stage. The casters we work with are the oldest in London, a family business just around the corner. I went to them when I started with a little wax of a crustacean that was distorted and they were very dubious. Now we’re their biggest customer and they’re hiring more people just for us. Unbearable Lightness Earrings, £210 “So many brands think, OK, let’s go abroad now for suppliers and make it cheaper, but I want to keep it like this. Maybe that’s naive but the relationship with suppliers is everything.” With an uncertain Brexit looming, she thinks the proximity will stand the business in good stead. “If we were importing materials we would be in trouble. At least we know that’s one constant.” The challenge is to expand the business while keeping the personal touches that customers respond to. Over Christmas, Mahtani’s brother, an investment banker, helped out in the studio. “He was shocked that we were writing hand-written notes for each order and spending five minutes packing it. He said, ‘This isn’t time-efficient. It’s ridiculous, you can’t grow.’ ” Mahtani laughs. “I said: ‘Watch me.’ ” Alighieri’s success is itself the stuff of a storybook legend. Even so, she hasn’t yet had the courage to tell her old Oxford professors about her brand. “I don’t want them to know!” she admits when asked why she has remained so coy about the old association. “They’ll say: ‘You’ve butchered Dante!’” Golden brands to watch Nina Kastens Her quirky, contemporary designs using predominantly pearls and gold elevated Nina Kastens’ eponymous brand to cult status soon after she launched in 2014, writes Flora Macdonald Johnston. Her newest collection has been inspired by New York’s favourite confectionery . . . doughnuts. Large donut earrings in gold, £245, ninakastens.com Hermina Athens Ancient civilisations have been the source material for Athens-born designer Konstantina Pantelous since she founded Hermina Athens in 2011. Her pieces, which have a slightly molten look, are at their best when worn layered. And each design may be more than just decorative — singer Shania Twain wears her Hermina Athens Stardust earrings to “aid creativity”. Stardust earrings, £125, brownsfashion.com Sonia Boyajian Boyajian studied art in Antwerp before turning her hand to jewellery — and art continues to play a big role in her creations. Her designs, which blur the line between jewellery and wearable art, make a statement and her preference is to create more personal pieces “that become a tangible expression of the individual”. She will melt down and make something new and bespoke from pieces of jewellery, stones and other bits and bobs you have lying around. Pablo gold-plated ceramic necklace, £1,395, matchesfashion.com