It’s telling that it was an artifact, not a stone or a vintage bauble, that set the London-based designer Alice Cicolini on her path to making jewelry. Thirteen years ago, while working as the director of arts and culture at the British Council in India, Cicolini traveled to Mehrangarh, a resplendent 15th-century fort and series of palaces with an accompanying museum in Jodhpur. Among the collection of courtly textiles, armory and miniature paintings, a maharani jewelry box caught her eye. “It would have housed many of the things you need to perform solah shringar,” she explains, referring to the ancient Hindu practice of a bride on her wedding day wearing 16 traditional adornments, from bell-embellished anklets to glass and gold bangles. “The box itself was fairly ordinary looking, but the idea of what its contents constituted was magic to me.”
The discovery compelled Cicolini to embark on an exacting study of Indian aesthetic ritual, devouring books on sacred architecture, royal presentation and the role of cosmology and ceremony in Indian theater. Some years later, after much research and a move back to her native England, where she eventually established her studio in East London, Cicolini’s very first jewelry design took shape: The Shinkara pendant, created in 2010, is a rich, elongated sequence of forms forged in gold, carved ebony and vitreous enamel that replicates the spiked pinnacle of a temple top. “It’s this hybrid object that stacks different shapes and patterns from all along the Silk Route,” she explains of the design, which laid the foundation for an entire line of pieces that draw on religious, natural and architectural forms — there’s now a dedicated Temple collection, inspired by the forms of ancient shrines in Turkey, India and Uzbekistan, while her Summer Snow collection was named for the tufts of poplar tree seeds that cover the streets of Moscow each June — with an emphasis on artisanal technique.
“I’ve always been more interested in the talent of craftspeople than in some massive emerald,” says Cicolini, now 47. “Perceptions of Indian craft have deteriorated over the last 50 years, but if you think back to the 18th century, when Gainsborough was painting portraits of aristocratic women in Kashmiri shawls, it was considered superlative — I wanted to remind people that it remains so.” From the beginning, she has collaborated with Kamal Kumar Meenakar, one of Jaipur’s last remaining masters of meenakari — the practice of enameling intricate designs on metal, which was introduced from Persia in the 17th century. “He’s an artist,” she says of Meenakar, who takes her sketched designs, technical drawings and the occasional wax maquette and returns them as fully formed pieces contained in small wax-sealed tin boxes wrapped in calico. “In his hands the enamel becomes a miniature painting.” While meenakari was traditionally confined to the underside of a necklace or earring, Cicolini positions it center stage, conjuring sculptural, oversize 23.5-karat gold rings hand-painted in enamel with abstract motifs drawn from patterns in textiles, ceramics and antique Chinese screens and inset with large colored stones including mandarin garnets and pink and green tourmalines in classic Indian uncut polki forms. Her bold, scholarly style has won her a devoted following and a coveted place at the fashion boutique Dover Street Market.
Cicolini lived many lives before becoming a jeweler. The only child of two teachers, she grew up in a book-filled late 19th-century house on the suburban fringes of north London. Her mother, a William Morris-obsessed horticulturalist and amateur poet, instilled in her a love for the arts. After studying drama and a stint working front of house at London’s Young Vic Theater in her early 20s, she became a project manager for the furniture designer Tom Dixon before completing a master’s degree in fashion history. In 2009, after five years in India, Cicolini returned to London to earn her master’s degree in jewelry design at Central Saint Martins, where she is now a visiting lecturer. “It took me a while to understand that my voice as a designer was all about my ability to curate,” she says, referring to the way she showcases the work of artisans through her pieces. “And if there’s a common thread that runs throughout my creative practice as both a designer and curator, it’s storytelling.”
Today, her stories could just as easily stem from a color as a technique: “I’ll see a particular shade of chartreuse in a carpet and begin from there,” she says of her process, which always starts with a sketch in pencil or gouache. Her ongoing Memphis collection, first introduced in 2012, can be traced to a holiday snapshot of a candy-banded Venetian gondola pole, which inspired a deep dive into chevrons, stripes and the Italian architect Ettore Sottsass, the founder of the colorful Memphis design movement of the ’80s. With their crisp monochrome lines and precise zigzags, these boldly saturated, stackable lacquered enamel rings and earrings are a stark contrast to her expressive meenakari designs; a difference she likens to electric light versus a candle. Currently, she’s working with a Geneva-based Colombian goldsmith on a collection themed around goddesses. Another, set to launch in October, explores regional Indian sari culture through the medium of marbled enamel.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, for Cicolini, jewelry is far more than simply decorative. In fact, she doesn’t even wear much of it herself, and instead collects rings, bracelets and pendants as one would artwork. “I just love having them,” she says of favorite pieces from the London-based designers Ben Day and Fernando Jorge. Last year, she was one of a handful of jewelers to collaborate with the Carpenters Workshop Gallery, a design gallery specializing in contemporary furniture, with outposts in London, Paris, New York and San Francisco. For the project, whose only brief was to conceive of a collection to fit the company’s muted aesthetic, she created her Totem collection. It includes two Totemic rings, each comprising a trio of graphic, stone-free, monochromatic bands that fit together like a single heraldic shield. The collaboration perfectly embodies Cicolini’s larger philosophy of jewelry: “What’s fascinating,” she says, “is that it exists in this ever-shifting space between fashion, craft, the body and architecture.” Whether adorning a wrist, a finger or a mantelpiece, her jewels are imbued with the stories of centuries of craft, their meaning neatly encased in their enamel forms like so many maharani jewel boxes ready to be opened up by generations to come.