The air smells singed and the exposed brick walls are black with grime. The room on the right, Sopan tells me, is where they smelt the gold: I can’t go in there. Those walls are blacker still: the soot stains its ceiling, door frame and the base of the furnace.
Sopan is a jeweler. He moved to Delhi from a village in West Bengal (“It’s too small for you to have heard of,” he assures me with a gap-toothed smile) in the early ‘90s and started out doing odd jobs before moving into jewelry repair. He’d knock on doors asking if people had jewelry that needed fixing—a loose diamond; a change in ring size. Eventually, he started resetting people’s old jewelry to fit newer trends and ended up in jewelry production.
Now, he tells me as he slips off his shoes, he has his own employees. Opposite the smelting room is the jewelers’ workshop: an unevenly lit, small and unsuspecting room, which contains six craftsmen, all of whose footwear is in the doorway. On two large shelves, there are pillows, sleeping mats, blankets and clothes. Below one of them are toothbrushes, a mirror and two combs. There is a butane tank in the center of the room that has tubes snaking out of it; one for each craftsmen’s Bunsen burner. A man is smoking next to the tank.
This is where the men eat, sleep, smelt gold, craft outlines for jewelry in resin and brass and intricately weave diamonds together into necklaces, bracelets, earrings and rings.
I’m almost thoughtless of the fact that I’m minutes away from the Red Fort and Jama Masjid, two of Old Delhi’s star tourist attractions. Below us, in the narrow alleyways of Chandni Chowk, Delhi’s tourist hub, people shop for sweets, books-by-the-kilo, wedding invites and jewelry.
In my naiveté, I can’t help but think of all the health and safety violations that are being broken. It’s not that there aren’t any regulations in place here, rather, that with a population this big, rules are harder to enforce—and harder still when law enforcement is willing to turn an eye for a nominal fee.
This is where the men eat, sleep, smelt gold, craft outlines for jewelry in resin and brass
India is the fourth largest exporter of jewelry globally, just behind the U.S. Indians love jewelry—especially gold, their affinity for which is rooted in the country’s culture. Wherever possible, it surpasses class and caste. Though ancient India had its own reserves, historically, much of the gold came from Rome (in exchange for diamonds). The demand for gold was such that in 77 CE, Pliny the Elder complained about the drain of it into India. The British took a bit of liberty with his words to attribute a quote to him calling India “the sink of the world’s gold.”)
To date, people here see gold as a stable investment: gold jewelry is something that mothers collect for decades to pass on to their daughters at weddings, and something that until recently was still valid currency. During the India-Pakistan partition, my grandmother’s family fled their home in Pakistan overnight with nothing but three suitcases between the ten of them—and their gold, which was tied to their salwars’ drawstrings and smuggled out on their person.
Such is the demand that all around Chandni Chowk, jewelry craftsmen are jammed together in workshops like this one, completing jewelry orders—both local and international.
These conditions are the norm here. These workers have wives and children, and this is the life they’ve chosen because they are chasing the Indian Dream—a dream which is grittier and steeper, and whose fruits of labor will be enjoyed by loved ones back in their home villages.
To date, people here see gold as a stable investment … something that until recently was still valid currency
“Chai?” asks Sopan, gesturing for me to sit. I nod and tell him I’ll have it without sugar. It’s a cold February day, and these parts are cooler still—unheated and poorly ventilated. As I find a spot on a bamboo mat and cross my legs, he hands me what will be a bracelet. The rose gold frame is all there, and it’s been wound together with some metal thread.
I’m reminded of my grandfather, who worked in the government handicrafts department, how he’d never just shop for scarves, or gloves or art; how he’d run whatever he was buying between his thumb and forefinger, or lift his glasses to his forehead to get a closer look. I think perhaps because of him, I already see beauty in this bracelet-to-be. My grandfather loved things that were handmade, crafted painstakingly or stitched with a delicate eye. And he loved preserving traditional creative methods.
As the bracelet makes its way back to the worker, I notice that his station is lit by a single halogen bulb placed between two bottles of water: “It gives him the right amount of light to work with,” Sopan explains.
I remember when I worked a desk job at an ad agency in Mumbai, I’d continually complain about the amount of screentime we had to “endure.” We even worked on a campaign for a jewelry company which presented its craftsmanship as coming from a place where “master craftsmen” work in well-lit, clean conditions with loupes (magnifying glasses) and gloves and forceps and velvet—always red or blue velvet. And then, naturally, you end on a glamour shot of the piece of jewelry modeled by someone as beautiful as the piece she’s wearing. It was as if the unspoken marketing rule is: the more intricate the workmanship of the jewelry, the more light and loupes to be shown on camera.
In a study carried out in Bombay comparing vision-related issues in both IT workers and jewelry manufacturers, researchers found that eye strain in jewelry workers was incomparably worse.
As the jeweler on the far end sits with a flap of leather covering his lap, catching any gold dust that falls out as he scraps and hammers and yanks, I can’t help but question this so-called “traditional” form of craftsmanship. It seems, perhaps tradition is exploitive.
Worker exploitation is something that slides through investigative cracks quite conveniently—specially in a country like India, where increasingly obnoxious weddings generate half the country’s gold demand. Combined, China and India are the largest markets for gold jewelry, representing half the world’s jewelry demand.
But then, how does one measure exploitation in a country where the alternative includes starvation or homelessness? In a place where 240 million people don’t have access to electricity, is my critical gaze at the glass bottles as they diffract light misplaced?
Researchers found that eye strain in jewelry workers was incomparably worse
As Sopan tells me about one of the boys he’s trained, whose father committed suicide after borrowing money for some crops that failed, I can’t help but feel conflicted. Farmers today in India have it worse than jewelers. In the last 20 years the country has seen more than 200,000 farmers commit suicide as a result of the ongoing agrarian crisis.
Two cups of chai later, the jeweler on the far end has finished one segment of the chain he was working on. He places it on a scrap of ceramic blanket and using a metal straw whooshes the flame from his Bunsen burner onto the design.
While Sopan talks me through a few more of his designs—an aquamarine one which he believes a famous jeweler stole from him, and a diamond necklace that’s just about finished—he asks why I don’t wear any jewelry.
“I do,” I say, twinkling my grandmother’s diamond ring in front of him.
He takes a second to look it over and returns my hand with a smile. “Yes, but is it enough?”