From Dante to jewellery: The Divine Comedy in gold

Rosie Gaunt interviews Rosh Mahtani, New College graduate and founder of the jewellerry brand Alighieri

You might not notice amongst the hubbub of hundreds of freshers starting their Oxford journey, but every Michaelmas term, a small group of Italian finalists back from their year abroad on the boot embark on an equally exciting and daunting journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven with Dante as their guide as they dedicate themselves to The Divine Comedy. Some may joke that it is like Hell; many will admit to feeling as lost in the text as Dante does at times. But most will say, at least by now in Hilary, that it is a special experience.

For Rosh Mahtani, New College grad in French and Italian and Dante student of Michaelmas 2011, it was life-changing. Her study of The Divine Comedy at Oxford not only influenced her jewellery brand Alighieri in name, but also in design, as each piece corresponds to one of the 100 cantos of the poem. It is an idea that came to Rosh through inspired reading. “It is just so visual,” she says. “As I was reading Canto 9, for example, with Medusa, I just couldn’t not see snakes wrapping themselves around my fingers.”

Of course Rosh is not the first to feel driven to turn the vivid imagery of the text into visual works of art, and Alighieri jewellery really is art. She follows in the footsteps of Botticelli, Blake and Dalì, to name but a few. This is something she has long been aware of, having first come across Dante in her studies of Art History at the British Institute in Florence during her gap year, even if she laughs “I thought I knew about him then, but I don’t think I really did.” She returned to Dante’s native city on her year abroad to remedy that. “I didn’t know anyone who was living there anymore, I just took Dante and made my notes canto by canto. It was quite a strange way to spend so much time on my own and at that age, but I really enjoyed it.” The connection she felt with the text was immediate, not only for how visual it is, but how universal too, from the very beginning when Dante is lost – “that struck a tone with me immediately.”

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Lost is exactly how Rosh felt on graduating. Not, she says, because Oxford was her whole world, but because she didn’t know what was next for her. “I didn’t know what was going to happen, I didn’t know where I wanted to live, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew this one text, The Divine Comedy. I took my copy with all my notes in everywhere… it was like a Bible, a safety blanket.” She pauses. “There was a boy too, and I was a little bit heart broken. I didn’t physically know what to do with my hands so I took a one day wax carving course and started making things.”

And she hasn’t stopped since. Officially founding Alighieri in 2014, now with a small London studio selling online and stocked internationally, she is already a firm fashion editorial favourite and has just been chosen as one of 2017’s 3 Future British Designers by Boden and the British Fashion Council.

Those unfamiliar with The Divine Comedy though often ask her how many pieces and collections she’ll be able to make inspired by just one, albeit long, poem. Indeed, seldom do brands in the fashion industry take such singular and unwavering inspiration for just one collection let alone the entire brand. Rosh agrees: “there’s something quite nice about it, especially in an industry where it is all about newness.” And she is not worried about inspiration drying up: “I could make a whole collection inspired by one word in The Comedy. The problem for me is that I have too many ideas from it.”

Rosh feels equally free in her medium as in her inspiration. She doesn’t just make jewellery but also hair accessories, men’s jewellery, bookmarks that can be worn on chains and even a capsule collection in collaboration with Australian designer Anna Quan of classic pieces like black palazzo trousers and white shirts punctuated with gold Alighieri buttons and cufflinks. Rosh is certainly not just a jewellery designer. “I didn’t train as one so I don’t have that voice in my head that says I am one.” In fact, she finds it hard to say she is at all, when she knows people who have studied jewellery for a really long time. That’s not to say that she didn’t try jewellery courses herself; she only found that she hated them. “It was very methodical and precise,” she explains. “Finicky precision is everything in the jewellery industry.” It’s a world obsessed by perfection, something that Rosh used to be worried about at school and then at Oxford where she never felt as perfect as she thought everyone else was, before she decided that “it’s boring being perfect.” Rosh prefers to make jewellery that is as “imperfect” as Dante and his subjects, bearing the marks of his journey and his story.

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It is, as Rosh says, a universal story that we can all relate to. On the morning of our interview Rosh received an email from a customer who wanted to buy a necklace for her daughter, that Rosh describes on her website as being inspired by Dante who sometimes knows exactly what he wants and sometimes is terribly conflicted. The customer felt it described her daughter to a T and wanted to make sure the description came with the necklace in the box. “It’s really magical that people relate to it like that,” Rosh says, almost surprised. Of course, she knows from her own experience how impossible it is not to relate to the story told in Dante’s words, but she can’t quite seem to believe that her telling of it in gold, just as she had imagined it when she was studying it here at Oxford, has the same effect on people.