A royal endorsement is worth its weight in gold. Or, in this case, Shola, the spongey, cork-like material from an aquatic plant used by a subset of Bengal artisans.
In a moment that quickly went viral, England’s newly coronated King Charles and Queen Camila were seen holding playful Indian elephant Shola masks to their faces at the the Animal Ball, the primary fundraiser for nonprofit The Elephant Family, which was co-founded by the Queen’s late brother Mark Shand to help conserve Asian elephants and their habitats.
The masks were collaboratively designed and created by Kolkata-based jewelry and fashion designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee and local Sholapith craftspeople.
The ball, which also hosted Christian Louboutin, Kristin Scott Thomas, Sir Brian May, Anita Dobson, Donna Air, Keeley Hawes, Emma Weymouth, and Gwendoline Christie, among others, was chaired by Ruth Ganesh, the principal trustee of the U.K.-based non-governmental organization.
Honorees of this year’s event included The Real Elephant Collective, the nonprofit socio-environmental enterprise for all things elephant, and director Kartiki Gonsalves, whose film, The Elephant Whisperers, won an Academy Award for best documentary short film.
We chatted with Mukherjee about the many synergies between the NGO whose mission is to protect the endangered elephants and also focus on the conservation of Indian craft. To that end, Mukherjee debuted a new high jewelry collection—which is appropriately animal themed—the night before the gala.
“In context to India’s heritage of art, craft, and textiles, I’m a conservationist, not a disrupter; when I met Ruth, she reminded me of the harsh reality of the many endangered species and habitats in my backyard,” the Mukherjee said, noting the similarities between preserving craft and an animal species: “For me, the key to conserving craft is economic sustainability. For them, the key to conserving wildlife is sustainable co-existence. Elephant Family informs my mission and vision for building, creating, and conserving.”
While the designer has been aligned with the group for eight years, supporting initiatives such as the Animal Ball by hosting tables, designing masks, and more, it was the first time the designer debuted a collection in conjunction with the annual event.
According to Mukherjee, the jewelry reflects a mix of “many endangered Indian crafts and uses the moment to amplify the incredible work being done by the Elephant Family.” He added, “It’s always a humbling experience to be surrounded by people who care so deeply for the environment and spend their lives working to rehabilitate entire ecosystems,” he said (presumably, so is having royalty don the fancy party favors he designed).
The new high jewelry collection uses the house motif, the Bengal tiger, and includes depictions of elephants, gharials (a.k.a. fish-eating crocodiles), frogs, the Indian ram, and flora found in the Indian jungles and savannas. It’s also tangible proof of the efforts to preserve Indian craft that is dear to Mukherjee, who employs almost 1,000 craftspeople and works with an even larger network of artisanal communities on empowerment.
“Craft and master craftsmanship is part of our heritage and legacy that only survives through economic sustainability,” he said. “It’s my mission to develop the know-how, techniques, and livelihoods associated with the same. We commission craftspeople on long-term projects and up-skill them as we work together. From restoring heritage designs to creating new designs, not just for the craft to remain relevant but to be truly appreciated and celebrated today.”
Top: Jeweled cuff with Bengal tigers from Sabyasachi’s new high jewelry collection, price on request (all images courtesy of Sabyasachi)