Rosh Mahtani is the London-based designer translating Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy into poetic jewellery, aiming to connect with people through objects and stories. Having studied French and Italian at Oxford University, the self-taught jeweller works on instinct - imprinting Dante's passages into wax, then realising them as battered bronze and gold-plated rings, earrings and medallions. Fascinated by Mahtani's ideas of melancholy and imperfection in literature, we took five to talk through her process as Alighieri becomes the first jewellery brand honoured with the prestigious The Queen Elizabeth II Award.
Have you always had an interest in jewellery? I would always collect stones and shells as a kid and put old coins on chains, so yes - I would say that I've always been interested in turning objects into wearable companions.
When did the design aspect come in? I didn't study design in any way, I always loved being creative but never felt particularly good at it. After university, I did a one-day course in wax-carving. After getting my hands on that material, that was it. I felt like I had found a language that made sense to me. That's when it became clear that I wanted to design pieces with a story.
How did you hone your craft? Without any training, I really did learn on the job! I was lucky to work with a wonderful family-run caster in Hatton Garden, who would always mentor me and guide me, when I would turn up with more and more unconventional designs.
When did you discover Dante's work? I studied French and Italian at Oxford University, and the final year was focused on Dante and his "Divine Comedy". I had the most amazing tutors, who were so passionate about the text and really made it come alive. It's a story about a man, lost in a dark wood, unsure of the future. It was a story that really resonated with me.
Have you always had an interest in poems and literature? I have always been interested in stories; I would write little books as a child and stitch them together! At school, I was completely taken by the literature I was studying as part of the International Baccalaureate: from T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland" to Isabelle Allende's "The House of the Spirits". I feel very empathetic towards the characters I encounter.
"Sometimes I'll read a particular canto and dream of translating the feeling into wax - longing, fear, desire - I like the intangible things, interpreted into objects in a very unplanned way."
How do you incorporate the poems into your designs? I'm pretty instinctive and abstract; I don't sit down and sketch or plan. I like to play with the wax. Sometimes I'll carve something that reminds me of a certain passage in the Divine Comedy. Sometimes I'll read a particular canto and dream of translating the feeling into wax - longing, fear, desire - I like the intangible things, interpreted into objects in a very unplanned way.
One of our key pieces is the Leone Medallion. It's inspired by the first canto of the "Divina Commedia", when Dante wakes up, lost, in the selva oscura, afraid and alone. He is confronted by a lion who is described as being so terrifying, even the air around him is trembling in fear. Dante turns on his heal, to give up hope, and at this point, his guide - the great Virgil - appears. He tells Dante to be brave, and it's a really poignant example of fear turning into courage. I made the Leone medallion as a reminder to myself to be courageous. When people started buying it, they would write to me and tell me why they were buying it, what they needed courage for, and that's how the "Lion Club" community was born. This is the core of Alighieri - connecting with people through objects and stories.
Where else do you look for inspiration? I love to travel with my analogue camera and take pictures. This is probably my biggest source of inspiration along with music. I'm a big Fleetwood Mac fan, and I probably make all the collections to the tune of Stevie Nicks.
How would you describe the Alighieri aesthetic? Modern Heirlooms: objects that feel like they have been dug up from the ground and pieced together to the backdrop of oversized white shirts, jumpers and slip dresses.
Does this sit back to your own? Absolutely, I live in a uniform of cocoon-like pullovers, sneakers, and layers of gold jewellery.
Do you design with a particular wearer in mind? What I really love about Alighieri is that it's a way of bringing people (of all difference ages and backgrounds) together through objects. I love that inspiring women in their 60s wear the Lion Medallion as an emblem of all the adventures they've lived through - as does a 16-year-old, who has all her ambitions for the future.
You're based in London, are you inspired by your surroundings? Definitely! I'm very affected by my surroundings. London is such a melting pot, I'm constantly at flea markets foraging for treasures and I have to say, I'm also really inspired by the women I see on the tube and the jewellery they wear.
What are your favourite materials to work with? I make everything in wax. I'm addicted to the medium. When I first started I bought blocks of wax and carved things with a candle and my mother's cutlery! I really like how easy it is to manipulate wax and how fragile it is once you get it to the place you want it to be.
Once the wax shape is formed, a mould is made, and the object is then cast in bronze. This process is called lost-wax casting. The wax is so malleable and bewitching: I love creating a language in this medium.
What's next? There's so much I want to do! I'd like to create different types of heirlooms (perhaps not just jewellery) that have a meaning or story, spaces and experiences. I feel very excited about where Alighieri could take me.
Why did you choose to stock your pieces at Liberty? The Liberty Jewellery Hall was my happy place as a teenager. I would come every time I was sad, or every birthday and just root through charms. To see Alighieri glimmer in such an iconic London institution is really special.