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The Old Curiosity Shop

As a young bride in Kolkata in the 1950s,Rekha Jalan was awed by the delicately-crafted pieces of silver jewellery and artifacts her in-laws would gift her regularly.

Written by Dipti Nagpaul D'souza |
March 11, 2012 3:27:11 am

As a young bride in Kolkata in the 1950s,Rekha Jalan was awed by the delicately-crafted pieces of silver jewellery and artifacts her in-laws would gift her regularly. They introduced her to what she says was the mecca for silverware in India,Hamilton & Co. Owned by a few British nationals,the store — opened in 1808 by Robert Hamilton under the commission of the East India Company — was a landmark.

With a huge space dedicated to jewellery,ceramics and artifacts,the magnificent store had a big workshop with the country’s best artisans working in its basement. Hamilton & Co not only exported their wares but was also the official silversmith to the British government. “I had heard stories that no European royalty would leave India without shopping from Hamilton & Co. Understandably so,because they were considered no less than Tiffany’s or Cartier,” she recollects.

A discerning client,Jalan,however,had never thought that some day,she would own the prestigious brand she admired so much. “The 1960s were a difficult time in Kolkata. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) had just been formed and there was an upheaval of sorts in all of Bengal. The Britishers had left India years ago and the owners felt unsettled in this politically-charged environment and shut shop in 1973. They decided to sell off their legendary company,” explains the 72-year-old. The Jalans,an old business family and regular clients of Hamilton & Co were the owners’ first choice as buyers. “It was an offer we could not refuse,” she laughs.

The Jalans took over Hamilton & Co. in 1976,but since the family itself had moved out of Kolkata in 1968,the store did not survive for too long due to logistics.

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But Jalan could not allow such a legacy die. “When we took over the brand in Kolkata,I was the young daughter-in-law of a conservative family with two kids to take care of. By 1993,the children didn’t need me around all the time and I decided to open Hamilton & Co. in Mumbai,” she says. With support from her husband,an initial investment of Rs 75,000 and a small space in Empire House,the building that housed Bombay Gas Company,also previously owned by her family,the enthusiastic entrepreneur revived Hamilton & Co.

The store still stands in the same,quaint Indo-Gothic architectural style building but is virtually anonymous as neither does it bear a signage outside nor does the owner ever advertise her business. However,Jalan does have a long list of clients,which includes corporates,banks and women from some of the biggest business houses. “The first dinner set I made was for Mrs Rajashri Birla. Kokilaben (Ambani) and the Goenkas have also been our regulars,” she points out.

Despite the illustrious patronage,Jalan feels that business in silver comes with its set of challenges,especially today. “The prices have shot through the roof but silver is still not considered as prestigious as gold. And the tradition of gifting silver dinner sets as part of the daughter’s trousseau or using them at dinner parties is long over,” she rues.

This problem,she battles by employing creativity in her wares. “I have introduced many students from the Metal Art department at JJ School of Architecture into the business. They are eager to learn,and with a bit of guidance,can create unique items,” she says,pointing towards a mural of Lord Ganesha in the beaten metal look. Maintaining the quality is of prime concern for the owner. “My clients always come back to me because they know that apart from sterling silverware,they will also get good advise,even if it is not in favour of my business.”

Over the years,Jalan has made Hamilton & Co her own and few can make the connection between the iconic brand and her venture unless they look at the company’s logo. It is the same as the original,mentions the year it was established in and says ‘by appointment of Her Majesty’. Jalan,however,does not lament the loss of Hamilton’s legacy in India. “It is a seal that is well-known across the world. On Fleet Street in London,there is a silver vault with hundreds of items that bear the seal of Hamilton & Co. On my travel to Turkey,too,I didn’t have to explain what business I am into,the well-heeled were aware of the brand’s legacy,” she says.

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