Parul Kuki Seth has parlayed a fashion background and spirited sense of style into a serious jewelry brand
Luxury jewelry brands tend to develop a recognizable aesthetic and stick with it. Parulina designer Parul Kuki Seth approaches her work differently, mixing jewel-encrusted rings and drop earrings that evoke memories of Grace Kelly and Princess Diana with thorn-motif cuffs and snake studs that reflect Seth’s self-professed “bohemian Goth” taste. In TV terms, Parulina is one part Downton Abbey and two parts Game of Thrones, a combination that attracts a high-end clientele hungry for unique accessories.
“Classy and edgy—that’s exactly what I want to do,” says Seth, whose dual sensibility can be traced to her international upbringing and background as a fashion designer. “My jewelry is inspired by royalty and medieval architecture, by fairytales and nature and haute couture. I love anything historical that has a fabulous story behind it—anything enchanted, from Sleeping Beauty to Tolkien’s Middle-earth. People who like Alexander McQueen, Saint Laurent, and Jean Paul Gaultier understand my collection.”
Pendant with 1.61 ct. black diamond, 0.15 ct. t.w. black diamond accents, and 2.46 cts. t.w. white diamonds; $13,600; Parulina at Luxe Intelligence, NYC; 212-398-9700; parulina.com
Known by her childhood nickname, Kuki (pronounced “Cookie”), Seth is a small, elegant woman who speaks in a charming transatlantic accent. Born near Pittsburgh, the daughter of a British mother and an Indian father, she spent her early childhood in Switzerland and teen years in England before settling in New York City almost 20 years ago. In her office above Manhattan’s jewelry district, reference books such as Maharajas’ Jewels line a bookcase amid antique chairs upholstered in pink and purple stripes.
“I grew up in a convent, but I’m definitely a Goth at heart,” quips Seth, her black Helmut Lang jacket open to reveal an intricate diamond pendant of her own design. And yet her distributors are the crème de la crème of mainstream retailing, with Neiman Marcus in Boca Raton, Fla., A.R.T. Worth Avenue in Palm Beach, Fla., and Jensen Stern in Ketchum, Idaho, near the Sun Valley ski resort, topping the list. “This is serious jewelry,” she says of her niche. Gemstone rings range from $2,800 to $18,000, including an $8,000 emerald cocktail ring recently featured in society favorite Veranda magazine.
Seth’s Fashionable Beginnings
18k yellow gold ring with 6.81 cts. t.w. black diamonds and 4.31 cts. t.w. white diamonds; $19,800
Seth came to jewelry design in a roundabout way. Her grandmother, “a very elegant lady with exquisite taste,” passed down Basra pearls, jade bracelets, and emerald chains, among other antiques. Her fashionista mom, meanwhile, favored Halston dresses and Gucci jumpsuits. After high school, Seth left suburban Surrey for London to study textile design and patternmaking at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. She landed an internship with Vivienne Westwood, then headed to New York City as an assistant designer at Esprit.
“The fashion business is tough,” she says, recalling pinning bustles and working long hours cutting patterns. “It really grooms you for anything.” Shortly after arriving in New York, Seth stitched up 30 dresses of her own design, which sold out in a day at a flea market. “That’s when I realized I needed to open my own business.” Her fashion line Wednesday’s Child made it into the movies Prêt-à-Porter and Cookie’s Fortune, but after marrying an engineer-turned-businessman, she felt ready for a change—and, prodded by an influential in-law, her skill at sketching paved the way for a career in jewelry.
Sovereign earrings with 4.17 cts. t.w. rose-cut rubies in 18k pink gold; $9,000
Explains Seth, “My husband’s aunt is a huge jeweler in Hong Kong and India, and she kept telling me, ‘You make such perfect sketches. Please draw a few pieces for me.’?” By then, Seth had been collecting fashion tear sheets and ideas for accompanying jewelry, so the leap felt natural. “The first thing I did was get a diamond grading degree from GIA,” she says, “and then I went to FIT [Fashion Institute of Technology] and joined Maurice Galli’s class,” referring to the legendary Harry Winston designer, who became a mentor.
Sketching Parulina’s Style
As Seth chats about launching Parulina in 2003, she flips through one of her meticulously organized sketch binders, each page featuring an item drawn to scale and signed at the bottom. She describes the design process in mystical terms (“Sometimes I’m sitting in a car and an earring will materialize in front of my face”), but her drawings have an architect’s level of detail, making it easy for her mold-maker to scan and create 3-D models. From there, she inspects each stone and guides three bench jewelers in assembling pieces that often involve multiple castings.
Briar Rose bangle with 1.97 cts. t.w. diamonds in 18k yellow gold; $5,700
“Each item in the collection takes up to six months from conception to finish,” says Seth, pointing out an oval ring topped with a grid of diamonds and inverted rubies edged in gold braiding, with a side shank of additional diamonds. “It’s a labor-intensive process, but that’s what makes our jewelry unique.” Her eye for fashion extends to mixing stones—emeralds and aquamarine, moonstones and white coral, amethysts and garnets, sapphires and tourmaline—and using reclaimed gold in satin and blackened finishes.
Given Seth’s wide-ranging imagination, it’s no surprise that she adores designing bespoke engagement rings and reworking clients’ heirloom jewelry. “I make sketches for people, reset stones, turn brooches into pendants or clips,” she says. “I enjoy giving something a fabulous new face.” She even placed her own 2 ct. engagement diamond into a striking medieval pyramid setting, a motif that recurs in stud earrings mixing black and white diamonds.
Champagne Bubble ring with 1.84 cts. t.w. diamonds in 18k yellow gold; $8,000
Recently, the ecologically minded designer debuted a collection of pendants benefiting the World Wildlife Fund. A giant opal or South Sea pearl is paired with a tiny jeweled polar bear, tiger, bat, lizard, tortoise, or scorpion, all species at risk of extinction. “I call it Hanging On, because these creatures are hanging on for dear life,” Seth says. “In 20 years, 50 percent of the animals currently on earth will be gone. I have a small child, and I want to leave something for her.”
A passing reference to her 2½-year-old daughter, Miella, leads to a more complicated story: While building her jewelry business, Seth underwent multiple rounds of in vitro fertilization and endured seven miscarriages, including one stillbirth when she was seven months pregnant. She and her husband welcomed their daughter via surrogate and are considering trying for a second child. For now, Miella—“a little ham,” Seth says fondly—provides inspiration and loves playing dress-up with Mom’s latest designs.
Charting Her Future
18k yellow gold ring with 3.7 ct. black diamond and 3.87 cts. t.w. white diamonds; $19,000
There’s no in-house PR guru at Parulina, and Seth manages social media herself, helped by one assistant. But celebs and stylists have discovered the brand on their own. In addition to red carpet loans to Michelle Pfeiffer and Maggie Q, Seth counts Reese Witherspoon, Sharon Osbourne, and Cindy Crawford as personal clients. When magazines request a classic look, Seth steers them to pieces in what she calls “royal colors: reds, greens, blues, and purples,” adding with a laugh, “If you don’t want to be edgy, wear rubies.” At the other end of the spectrum are cage rings, drop earrings dripping with thin chains, and a medieval cross double finger ring worn by Jennifer Lawrence on the U.K. cover of Harper’s Bazaar.
18k pink gold bald eagle Hanging On pendant with 25.37 ct. pearl; $5,000
Thanks to its debut in six Neiman Marcus locations last year, Parulina has jumped from seven to 12 retailers, including Broken English shops in New York City and Santa Monica, Calif. Seth hopes to add four more Neiman stores in 2015 as well as retail outlets in London and Paris, but that’s all she can handle for now; her jewelry is expensive to produce and stock. Almost all of her pieces are fabricated in New York, with a small number produced at a factory in Bangkok.
“The biggest challenge has been to establish myself as a classic jeweler,” she says. “This is a conservative business, and until people see the collection, they may not realize the level of care that goes into each piece. My designs are absolutely one-of-a-kind, and they come to me everywhere. I see a pair of shoes or a bag, and I immediately know how I want to style them. I carry a Moleskine sketchbook and pencil with me so I can jot down ideas before they escape.”
18k pink gold chain earrings with 3.43 cts. t.w. black diamonds and 2.1 cts. t.w. white diamonds; $15,800
The pull of three—make that four—generations of jewelry lovers is evident as Seth talks about her work. “There is so much heart and soul you can put into jewelry,” she observes. “Fashion was my first love, but I have to tell you, as I’ve grown as a person, my first love is now jewelry.”