A Passage From India: Sutra Jewels’ Lifelong Love Affair

For the couple behind Sutra Jewels, a chance meeting at GIA blossomed into a fairy-tale romance and jewelry success story

When a start-up like Sutra opens for business in the middle of an economic downturn and becomes an international sensation with a devoted celebrity following—all before its fifth anniversary—the story begs to be told. Yet it’s been a quiet ascent without much self-promotion for Arpita and Divyanshu Navlakha, the humble couple behind the couture jewelry line often worn by Oscar and Country Music Award winners. In fact, while countless paparazzi shots of stars wearing Sutra flood the Internet, Arpita’s modest biography offers few glimpses of the personalities behind the brand.

Earrings in 18k gold with opals, diamonds, sapphires, and emeralds; $10,600; Sutra Jewels, Houston; 713-988-8210; sutrajewels.com

The couple’s lifelong love affair with gems is the real story behind the antique-inspired jewelry collection, which fuses Edwardian and Art Deco aesthetics with 21st-century flair. Raised in India by jeweler parents—­Divyanshu in New Delhi and Arpita in Mumbai—the ­Navlakhas each grew up “surrounded by beautiful jewelry from such a young age,” says Arpita, 29. “I knew very early on that I would like to one day create jewelry myself.” Her husband knew that he, too, wanted to follow in his family’s footsteps. But despite similar upbringings and career plans, their paths didn’t cross until adulthood, when they were both students at the Gemological Institute of America in Carlsbad, Calif.

Little did they know that their meeting—just as Divyanshu, 31, was arriving at GIA and Arpita was completing her final weeks—would lead not only to a flourishing romance but also to a booming business. Still, neither of them could ignore their immediate connection and how much they shared in common. “We instantly became great friends, and within a few weeks, we knew that we were going to be together for a lifetime,” Arpita says.

Sutra’s ring in 18k gold with opal, sapphires, and diamonds; $7,500

Despite the long-distance separation after Arpita moved to her family’s adopted hometown of Houston and Divyanshu’s return to India after completing his studies, the couple grew closer than ever. They never went more than a few weeks without seeing each other and spent nearly three years sharing their hopes and dreams for the future before tying the knot in December 2007. Within a few months, they took their partnership one step further and debuted the company of their dreams. Sutra, which means “a collection of sacred verses” in Sanskrit, was born in February 2008.

“Sutra was something we had both thought about and it just fell in place once we got married,” says Arpita, who can always be seen wearing her wedding ring, a pair of diamond ear studs, and an 11 ct. sapphire ring, all gifts from her husband. (Divyanshu, on the other hand, limits his jewelry to a wedding band: a white gold band with five diamonds, which he wears on a black thread around his neck.) “We had similar ambitions and visions for the company that made it possible for it to be what it is today,” says Arpita.

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Halle Berry has worn Sutra on multiple occasions—including the fall 2012 L.A. premiere of her film Cloud Atlas.

Those aspirations quickly became reality as glamorous celebrities including Halle Berry, Miranda Lambert, Jessica Chastain, and Kate Beckinsale started lighting up red carpets wearing Arpita’s bold colored stone designs set in Sutra’s signature blackened gold. “I pretty much jumped off my seat when I saw Halle Berry wearing Sutra,” Arpita says. “It gives me a sense of pride, a content feeling when I see any celebrity in Sutra jewelry, that yes, maybe we have arrived in the industry.”

Then came the holy grail of endorsements: First lady Michelle Obama wore an 18k gold Sutra cuff embellished with a raspberry tourmaline and diamond starburst in 2010. And that wasn’t the last Sutra sighting on the fashion-forward FLOTUS, who also has been photographed wearing at least two different pairs of Sutra earrings, including the silver stunners she paired with her Naeem Khan gown to announce Best Picture via satellite at this year’s Academy Awards.

Sutra’s earrings in 18k gold with emeralds and diamonds; $20,500

In the same time frame, the Houston-based company evolved from a small family business helmed by the husband-and-wife team into a burgeoning brand with more than 100 employees in their native India and dozens of top retailers globally. “Apart from the first lady wearing Sutra jewels, my biggest accomplishment is the way Sutra has grown and developed into a luxury brand selling all over the world,” Arpita says.

Obviously, Sutra’s meteoric rise to VIP status is no fluke. The pair possesses hands-on experience gained throughout childhood and expertise honed at GIA—plus, a seasoned front office consisting only of family members, including Divyanshu’s mother, Amita Navlakha, the “backbone of our company,” as well as his brother and sister. “By the grace of God, we’ve grown to a point where two people cannot handle it,” Divyanshu says. “Our biggest problem is not having enough [inventory], even though we have 110 people working six days a week.”

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Pony up! Kate Beckinsale shows off her Sutra drop earrings on the red carpet at the 2012 Grammy Awards.

With their noses to the grindstone to keep up with the rapid spike in demand for their product, the Navlakhas—now parents to a 1-year-old daughter, Samaira—often divide up the travel to and from their manufacturing unit in India and expeditions to places like Australia, Germany, Italy, and Thailand in search of unique stones that inspire ­Arpita’s designs. “I can look at a stone and already know in my head what I want to create with it,” she says. “The vibrant hues of the colored gemstones captivate me.”

While she’s the creative mind who comes up with all the jewelry concepts and oversees a team of designers from “the best design schools,” Divyanshu is the business brain behind the brand. He leads sales and works to establish relationships and host trunk shows with new retailers like Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills, Calif., Zadok Jewelers in Houston, and London Jewelers in Manhasset, N.Y. “Our goal from the first day was to work with the right people,” he says. “Luckily, we work with some of the best.”

Sutra’s ring in 18k gold with paraiba and diamonds; $139,450

The couple also has a savvy, bicoastal marketing strategy that “makes all the difference,” Divyanshu says, including a Los Angeles publicity team at D’Orazio & Associates (which works with fashion stylists) and the Fragments showroom (where anyone can shop from an array of handmade jewelry) in New York City. Those efforts have landed invaluable placements for the company, but stylists have reported that the high-quality product sells itself as fans like Michelle Obama hand-select the jewels at first sight—even from a tray packed with other brands’ glimmering goodies.

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The right cuff: Michelle Obama displayed a starburst Sutra bracelet at the 2010 White House correspondents’ dinner.

It could be the 360-degree aesthetics of Sutra pieces that makes them so distinctive. “We strive for perfection, and everything we make, we’re putting in so much effort to make it so special,” Divyanshu says of their process. “It has to be pretty from each and every angle—even the back. That’s really important to us.” And the couple monitors each piece at every step—one of the many reasons they do not outsource anything. “Everything is done in-house and we have our own manufacturing unit so we can keep prices fair,” he says.

While Sutra prices are still high, ranging from $1,500 to $100,000, Divyanshu contends that each piece is “worth more.” Certainly, time is invested in their designs, and depending on the size and degree of detail, it can take anywhere from three days to six weeks to complete one bracelet, ring, or pair of earrings.

Sutra’s necklace in 18k gold with opal, diamonds, sapphires; $6,200

Adding to Sutra’s appeal is the fact that 80 percent of its designs are one of a kind. Much like architect Frank Lloyd Wright built his structures around nature, Arpita sketches around the stones and lets “the bright colors of the stones inspire” her. So while she may slice into a sapphire to showcase its natural color and texture, the designer appreciates and often preserves its organic shape and inherent imperfections. “We don’t like ­geometry,” Divyanshu explains. “It takes away from the naturalness of the stones.” What they often do tweak is the white gold setting, blackening it to make the stones “pop” and add an element of drama. “Our client is the type of person who wants to wear something no one else has,” he says, “and we have a lot of repeat customers who like to collect our pieces.”

Sutra’s bracelet in 18k gold with sapphires and diamonds; $50,725

At their sixth JCK Las Vegas show in June, they debuted Sutra Essentials—a new collection of “subtle and elegant everyday” jewelry with naturally colored, rough-cut diamonds set in yellow, rose, and white gold and priced from $4,000 to $10,000. As with their past work, it’s evident that true romance and mutual respect are the active ingredients in Sutra’s recipe for success.

“We know the meaning of great teamwork,” Arpita says. “Divyanshu is my pillar of strength and never fails to motivate me. The romance is in our passion and drive to produce things which are unique.”