Myths, magic and medievalism: the haunting rise of Alighieri

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This article appears in the Fall / Winter 2021 issue of AnOther Magazine:

The jewelry designer Roch Mahtani has strong feelings about the nuances of translation. On Zoom, with stacks of big jingling gold chain bracelets, she unrolls the first terzina of Dante Alighieri’s Commedia – The Divine Comedy – in Italian, before sharing her own interpretation of the text. She knows the quote by heart: “In the midst of life’s journey, I found myself in a dark wood where the right path was obscured. It’s his own take on, sort of – a mishmash of all his favorite variations. “Some people translate it as ‘the correct way was unclear.’ I’m like, ‘No, that must be obscure. He says oscura. ‘”Obscure, meaning unclear but also dark or gloomy, is preferable to Mahtani for its complexity. The finest details are important to her. The canonical text inspired all of his livelihood, after all. Alighieri, an award-winning jewelry brand for seven years, includes a constellation of finely crafted gold coins – like golden shards of ancient civilizations, they match the 100 songs of Dante’s epic poem.

Melted rulers, sturdy coins, jagged shield shards, barnacle bones and oversized asymmetrical pearls are plated or set with 24k gold and in the form of pendants or earrings. Sometimes they are twisted into thick rings or hoops. Precious pieces, they evoke a certain sanctity – a feeling of heritage passed down from generation to generation; memories that were sort of there before the wearer and will survive them too. This is where Dante comes in. Mahtani studied his 14th-century masterpiece intensely, song by song, week after week, during his fourth year undergraduate studying French and Italian at New College, Oxford. “Dante created something that is still so present without us even knowing it,” she says. “It is present in so many cultural fields, in so many artistic, literary and cinematographic references. It is as if the echoes of the past are constantly being drawn through the fabric of today.

Seven years ago, when Mahtani was sitting at her kitchen table with a wax candle and her mother’s cutlery, she began carving and melting her first prototype of jewelry – a silver metal crab claw from somewhat liquefied appearance. It was a distraction, she said now, from her uncertainty about her future. This very lack of clarity brought her back to her past: she reminded him, she explains, of the golden ruler of her maternal grandmother. A small locket was the only treasure this beloved matriarch carried with her when she and her husband fled India after the partition in August 1947. The couple moved, along with their best friends – the grown-ups – paternal parents of Mahtani – in Zambia, where they raised their five children. Mahtani’s parents hated each other growing up, their daughter says today, but ended up happily married after reuniting in their twenties and first raising their two children in Zambia. When Mahtani was eight years old, the family moved to London, accompanied by this same ruler. Avoiding bloodshed and fear, oblivious to time and space, he had reached an almost mythical stature, nestled in the jewelry box of Mahtani’s mother.

London had a less desirable luster, Mahtani explains. “I went from this barefoot life, playing with leaves and stones, to this girls’ school in Hampstead, where it was freezing cold and I wore a beret, a suspender skirt and a duffle coat,” says -she. “I had a little green hymnbook and said the Lord’s Prayer – I was so beside myself. I hated it, I cried so much. I felt like an alien. It’s weird to think it was the ’90s, but I was the only non-white person in my school – I felt so different in an innate way, with that feeling of not belonging that always plagued me. The aforementioned crab claw, in all its molten, rough-hewn glory, comes in its own way from that sense of otherness. Mahtani had taken half of a one-day wax carving class earlier in the day the piece was created and decided that the precise nature of the technique being taught was not for her – she came out of the Hatton Garden class where his classmates hand sawed a tube of wax by following exact measurements, then fitting the finished cast, millimeter by millimeter, to the original drawing. That evening, she “broke free”, watching the wax melt above a flame and sculpting it with her bare hands; she was invigorated by the spontaneity and freedom of the end result. She loved every chain and air bubble and embraced the unique strangeness of the claw. He looked old, as if he had been dug up from the earth. By this time, Mahtani was, by her own admission, bored with a job in fashion merchandising, where every day they asked, “What’s up? This object, paradoxically old in appearance, had the impression of inviting new types of questions.

When Mahtani brought his claw and a six-legged crab that accompanied him to Just Castings, a family-owned Hatton Garden business, they were far from impressed. “What is that?” they asked for the object in question. “He has to go to the hospital. He’s missing two legs – it’s broken. Nonetheless, Mahtani begged them to cast it in bronze, the cheapest metal on offer, and leave it unpolished before plating it. The exchange horrified artisans, but that’s where the texture and the Alighieri brand were born. This same workshop has since produced more than 900,000 parts for Mahtani.

Alighieri started as a business with an order for 48 units from a leading fashion e-trader five years ago. This quickly spread to a second order, for 200 pieces, after the first sold out within a month. Two seasons later, an order for 1,000 pieces arrived. Meanwhile, founded in the 1960s and with a royal appointment warrant, Just Castings had to move upmarket and build infrastructure as quickly as Mahtani, whose production team now numbers 25 people. Yet only one member of the design team continues to mold each prototype with a candle, flame, scalpel and, of course, hand – Mahtani.

She is focused and prolific. She diversified her line by designing two capsule shoe collections adorned with jewelry and including items such as hand-tied chain bridal veils and golden bookmarks resembling tiny puddles of melted gold, which appear in her collections. half-yearly alongside jewelry. Then there are workshop pieces such as the Calliope Camisole – a slip made entirely from freshwater-grown cornflake beads and gold-filled wire that took 40 hours and 900 beads to create. References to The Divine Comedy range from the literal – an oversized link bracelet covered in rain droplets inspired by the tears of sinner Buonconte da Montefeltro in Dante’s Purgatory – to the lateral, seen in the narrative’s redemptive nature exploration more widely. Mahtani named pendant necklaces (the Silencio or the Nightcap, for example) after fragments from his childhood – the tinkling of his mother’s gold bracelets at bedtime being a formative memory. As a work, Alighieri represents an epic journey unique to the designer.

The most recent chapter of this trip is the arrival of Alighieri Man, although this is by no means the first time that Alighieri has attracted male clients. “A lot of guys adopted it early on – especially my friends – and seeing how they wore it was so inspiring. Over the past couple of years in particular, there have been some amazing male clients who really feel confident. and able to dive into the main site and adopt the pearls into their wardrobe, and they don’t really mind whether it’s labeled as male or female. Many couples would buy pieces and then steal them off the tables bedside on the other, which I love.

The resulting formalized riffs of the men’s collection on many themes Mahtani has visited before – dented rings, chunky hand-tied chains (albeit this time in smoother, more woven Celtic shapes) and a lion, the brand’s signature talisman, whose appearance in Dante’s dark wood was so terrifying that the air around his mane trembled; a crude medieval cross-shaped sword named The Torch of the Night also joins the list. These designs appear largely in sterling silver or with the black luster of rhodium-plated bronze; the stones of red carnelian and black onyx give the signet rings a mystical magic. Scabrous baroque pearls bring a new edge to these distinctively masculine metallic tones – hanging from simple earrings, attached to chain necklaces, or strung into full pearl necklaces. It’s an inclusive and inviting offer, which feels modern and timeless.

And it is as it should be. Because for Mahtani there is a heartwarming and heartfelt continuity present in both jewelry and literature. “There are things that never go downhill,” she said. “When you walk into Dante’s dark wood at the beginning of the poem, you remember that whatever problem you have today, whatever you worry about, your ancestors almost certainly worried too.”

Hairdressing: Benjamin Muller at MA and Talent using DYSON. Make-up: Vassilis Theotokis at MA and Talent using BYREDO. Model: Michelle Laff from Next. Casting: Noah Shelley at Streeters. Director of the movement: Ryan Chappell. Scenography: César Sébastien at Swan Management. Manicure: Béatrice Eni in Saint Germain with BYREDO. Digital technology: Daniele Sedda from the Sheriff Project. Photographic assistants: Clément Dauvent, Aurélien Hatt and Jeanne Le Louarn. Stylist assistants: Nicola Neri and Sara Maria Perilli. Hairdressing assistant: Alexandra Adams. Make-up assistant: Clara Barban-Dangerfield. Scenography assistant: Enzo Selvatici. Production: Chaton Paris

This article appears in the Fall / Winter 2021 issue of AnOther Magazine which will go on sale internationally from October 7, 2021. Head here to purchase a copy.


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