It is a widely accepted notion that a hobby can never become a career, unless ofcourse, you give it everything you have to see how far that would take you on your desired path !
Srija Ponangi, our next pathbreaker, Executive Designer at Mehta Jewellery, a renowned brand in Chennai which has a legacy of over 100 years, designs exclusive collections of Diamond Jewellery based on customer requirements.
Srija talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about picking up a hobby of making hand made Jewellery with quilling paper during her 3rd year of engineering and taking the bold call to kickstart her career in Jewellery design.
For students, it takes a tremendous amount of will power to discard the safety net of an assured career to follow through your dreams, and beat the odds !
Srija, tell us about your initial years?
I was born in Andhra Pradesh and brought up in Hyderabad, and did my schooling and university education in the same city.
As a kid, I was this confused introvert who hated school. I also had severe stage fright, though I loved singing and dancing. Also, clothing and Jewellery have always been my obsession.
It was my mother who enrolled me in singing and sparked my interest in it. My father, being an IT professional, had to travel a lot during my schooling days. So, I spent most of the time in my mother’s company. I think I got my creative edge from her. Even though I loved singing, I was always scared to perform at events. However, my father used to encourage me to take part in any event that I could. Back then, I used to dread that, but now it totally makes sense. With such support, my confidence has increased significantly. I used to sing during the school assembly, take part in my annual day activities, and even had the opportunity to perform on All India Radio Hyderabad.
Being a dreamer my entire life, my response to the question, “What do you want to become when you grow up?” kept shifting. I had a long list of aspirations: singer, astronaut, fashion designer, etc.
Prior to my ninth-grade year, I had never been particularly strong academically. That, I believe, marked my turning point. I started putting in a lot of effort into my studies, performed well in my exams, and excelled with a GPA of 9.3 in the tenth grade. Since then, I focused completely on studies and took a break from other activities.
The most amusing aspect is that my brother was into art while I had always been into music since childhood. Now, he’s become a great music artist, and I enjoy the artistic side of things.
What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?
After my 12th, I was absolutely clueless on what to do next. I was only focused on getting good grades in school, but not on setting a goal for myself. I was completely confused and lost.
There had never been a choice before, but all of a sudden, I had to decide what I wanted to do with my life.
Engineering being the common household course, everyone felt it’s the safest and most assuring career at the time, which made me go for it.
Therefore, at that point in my career, I was more focused on doing my best in whatever it was that I chose to pursue rather than on my decisions regarding what to take up.
I earned my Bachelor’s degree in Electronics and Communications. I had the best time during my B.Tech programme, had wonderful mentors, made amazing friends who have been my constant cheerleaders since the day I met them.
I did experience a lot of difficulty in the beginning and even failed a subject in my first year, but I eventually graduated with a respectable 70%.
This is the period when I actually realised what I wanted to do in life.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?
During my 3rd year of engineering, I picked up a hobby of making handmade jewellery. Being a crazy admirer and hoarder of jewellery, I just wanted to make a few pieces for myself. That is how it all started.
I used to watch YouTube videos and make jewelry with quilling paper. I eventually started recreating the pieces simply by looking at the pictures. I used to wear them to college.
The response I received from my friends got me excited to experiment with different materials. All this led to me putting up a stall for one of the fests in my college. The whole experience, for the first time, was quite stimulating and exciting. It piqued my interest in the field of designing and to know more about what it might have to offer to me.
The main obstacle to becoming a designer is that one must be an expert at drawing; this was never my strong suit. In actuality, I never showed any interest in it. But then I reminded myself that I had to give it everything I had, and figure it out if I wanted to enrol in this course. I started out by drawing tiny pictures, cartoon characters, and landscape paintings, and over time I actually fell in love with it. That helped me feel a little more confident, making me believe that I might actually succeed as a jewellery designer.
One of the first pieces I ever made (2016)
Material used – Quilling paper
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path
After completion of my graduation, I was hired by a company, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go ahead with it. I wanted to go for jewellery designing, but I was worried if I could sustain in that sector. I had no contacts in that field and had no idea how it operated.
However, my parents were quite encouraging. Although they shared my doubts about the choice, I never really had to persuade my parents.
They enquired about various programmes and accompanied me on visits to colleges and institutions. It was not an easy choice to make—in fact, it was a rather risky one—but it was the best one I could have made.
My original intention was to accept the campus placement position, work there for about a year, save some money, so I could pay my fee and then join a jewellery designing course. But my parents reasoned that enrolling right away in the course would be a smart idea. I agreed with them and we began our search.
NIFT Hyderabad was my initial pick; however they didn’t offer a diploma programme in jewellery design. They offered bachelor’s in accessory designing. My bachelor’s degree was already completed, and redoing it would take an additional four years. That was not what I wanted. Then I discovered a couple of private institutions, and I chose Hamstech since it seemed promising. After much thought, I eventually entered Hamstech.
There was no entrance exam nor was there a portfolio requirement. The classes lasted for roughly 14 to 15 months. There were two semesters – 6 to 8 subjects during the first semester, and 3 subjects during the second semester.
The most crucial topics included CAD, Gemmology, Diamond Grading, and illustration and rendering. 2D designing was discussed in illustration classes. Diamond grading, as the name implies, entails evaluating and rating diamonds based on the 4Cs (colour, cut, clarity and carat) plus a few additional factors. Rhino software was discussed in CAD classes as a tool for 3D designing. Gemmology is basically the study of gems. It goes into great detail about every mineral and gemstone found on earth.
I was hired by PMJ Gems and Jewels as a jewellery designer after my final examinations. That was my very first job ever. I couldn’t wait to develop new designs and release them in the market. I made an effort to put everything I learnt into practice during those 1.5 years and acquired a few clients.
I left my job during the second wave of COVID and briefly tried freelancing. For a few months, things went quite smoothly. I was working on freelancing tasks all day, which kept me busy. After working as a freelancer for six months, I wanted to work for a company. I first discovered Mehta Jewellery in Chennai at that time.
Initially, before I joined my current company, most of my work involved gold jewellery, with little exposure to any other kind of jewellery. I’ve started working on diamond jewellery since I joined Mehta. In addition to creating Jewellery, I also learnt how to design based on a customer’s budget, calculate weight, and a lot more. In the last year, I’ve learned a lot.
Even SVAR – The Voice of Jewellers Magazine published an article about me due to some of my work.
How did you get your first break?
I got a kickstart to my career after my diploma course through campus placements in PMJ Gems and Jewels.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
As a fresher, I initially had only theoretical knowledge of design, but when it came to working, everything was different.
The needs of the real world did not align with my design thinking. As a result, I needed a lot of time to comprehend and adjust to it.
I had to unlearn everything I learned before and get accustomed to the new pattern.
There were several difficulties along the way; it was undoubtedly not an easy ride. For the first six to eight months, I had no idea what I was doing. I had very little self-confidence.
The government then abruptly declared a lockdown. At that point, things significantly worsened. It was really challenging for me to communicate the designs to my bosses. But as I was working from home, I eventually realised that I had plenty of time to experiment and hone my talents.
By the time I left that organisation, I had undergone a transformation in terms of my creativity, my sense of design, and most importantly, how I saw myself. Even though the beginning was difficult, at the end I felt really confident.
Finding my own definition of design and figuring out how to express myself via my work was my first challenge. I didn’t want to confine myself to a specific category when I was developing my style.
The theoretical information I gained during my course differed from the situation in the real world. The toughest obstacles I’ve ever faced was having to undo what I had learned and learn new techniques.
Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?
I’m currently working as an Executive Designer at Mehta Jewellery, a renowned brand in Chennai which has a legacy of over 100 years. They are exclusively known for their diamond jewellery.
I deal with customization and exclusive collections for various events all year round. My job also includes engaging with the client, learning about their design preferences, and attempting to make those a reality.
What skills are needed for your role? How did you acquire the skills?
A person needs a distinctive sense of taste in order to work as a jewellery designer. Along with fundamental design abilities (sketching and rendering), one should always keep up with the most recent developments in the fashion and design industries. Following jewellery bloggers and utilising social media to keep up with the newest changes in the industry (globally) is a highly necessary habit.
Also, technology having advanced to the stage it is in, getting accustomed to digital design software, and other tools and utilities would give anyone an edge.
What’s a typical day like?
My day starts with checking mails, jotting down the tasks and making my To-Do list. Then I check with the merchandiser regarding the status of the new collections/pieces. I talk with the sales department about customer orders and the response to existing pieces. Once I clear my everyday repetitive tasks, I set myself up to get to the designing part and take them up.
What is it you love about this job?
The most exciting part of this job would be the translation of a 2D design on paper into a real jewelry piece with genuine value.
Having something you have designed out in the world potentially being worn by people out there is an experience in itself.
How does your work benefit society?
Jewelry in this modern day is a statement of our expression in society. It displays our attitude outwardly.
The Jewelry field is extremely dynamic and constantly changing, since it is not limited to a specific style, set of guidelines, or framework, which provides everyone with an equal opportunity of succeeding if interested.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
Actually, there are a few of them.
The first one is – My mom’s nose ring.
This was my personal endeavour. A diamond nose ring seemed like a kind gift to give her, so I decided to design and get it manufactured. It turned out pretty well.
Second would be – A diamond detachable necklace with five different ways to wear it. A mere hour was spent on the design, while approximately 11 months were spent on the production. The mechanism was somewhat sophisticated, which presented me with many difficulties during the production process, but the finished product was absolutely stunning.
A fresh, upcoming collection comes in third. I haven’t done anything like it before. The entire collection is based on a gemstone called “Malachite.”
Nose ring I designed for my mom
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Try to participate in all of the events and activities in your institution or school. Don’t limit yourself to a single field. Make connections. Do not be afraid or fear failure. It’s not crucial to be successful in everything you attempt; experience is what counts most. Simply have faith in yourself and move forward. You never know; those encounters might one day assist you in reaching your goal.
And it’s completely fine if you’re confused in life just like me. Take a deep breath, eventually everything will fall into its place.
While I haven’t yet sorted everything out, I do have a plan to launch my own jewellery label and possibly branch out into a few other markets.
My recent work in July 2022 for an exhibition in Chennai
Materials used – fabric, threads ( hand embroidery)
Materials used – oxidised metal, beads
Materials used – Polymerclay
Some of my old work