The Society Jeweller

The wealthy invest in ‘passion assets’. In high demand are precious gemstones, diamonds and branded jewellery. Blue sapphires and rare gems from Sri Lanka also make these lists. Fifteen years ago a high-quality blue sapphire had a ceiling price of $3,000 per carat.Now it can fetch as much as $30,000.

A new Asian wealthy class is particularly attracted to passion assets like gem encrusted jewellery because they are attractive and have inspirational value. Society jeweller Avanti Karunaratna acclaimed internationally for her prolific work and signature mastercraftmanship in jewellery design says Sri Lanka should improve her jewellery designs to capture a larger market share.

Avanti Karunaratna is a gemologist, designer, jeweller, geologist, scientist, artist and publisher. She considers herself one of the early educated pioneers of the scientific world of gems. In an ancient industry historically dominated by men, Sri Lanka’s first qualified gemologist was a woman, Gertrude Van Strackx. Her secretary was Barbara Edirisinghe who would go on to become the first Chairperson of the then Ceylon Gem Corporation. These pioneering women of the seventies inspired a young impressionable sixteen year old girl who, at 19, became one of the youngest members of UK’s gemological association. Avanti Karunaratna is a master of many disciplines whose quest for unique experiences and broad intellectual interests has made her push boundaries in both the arts and science. Her genius though is her sublime talent to craft heirloom quality jewellery. The jewellery she designs is aristocratic and mystical with a touch of sculptural glamour. Royals, celebrities and the affluent have commissioned Avanti’s jewellery. Princess Diana, The Duke and Duchess of Wellington and Nicole Kidman are some of the famous names associated with her dazzling jewellery. Her pieces have found their way into the Saudi Royal Family and the Sultan of Brunei. A unique Diamond Necklace was designed for Queen Noor of Jordan in 1984.

It was a famed Sri Lankan blue sapphire that brought to Avanti the first sense of wonder at a young age. That first inimitable sensory experience stayed in her mind

It was a famed Sri Lankan blue sapphire that brought to Avanti the first sense of wonder at a young age. That first inimitable sensory experience stayed in her mind. It was the starting point of a love affair that would take the free spirited, fiercely independent imperious young woman into the alluring world of gemstones and jewellery even as she harboured ambitions to study medicine and become a doctor to follow in the footsteps of her adored Cambridge educated father Dr Gemunu Karunaratna.

valli-story-image-5The family lived in their majestic home “Gunfire” in Kandy where Avanti and her brother did their schooling. Another ancestral property, Monte Christo estate was in Ratnapura, where as Avanti says: “It was here that I would develop a fascination for beautiful gems and jewellery.” The gem mines and the industry centred around gems there were a part of her early years. Avanti also remembers her mother and grandmother’s personal collection of heirloom jewellery.

When her grandmother Murial Sri Nissanka decided that her high-spirited granddaughter with too much time to kill should become more serious about her life, she took her to meet her old friend Gertrude Van Strackx, Ceylon’s first lady gemologist. Avanti was persuaded by her to do a correspondence course in Gemology to pass the time until she left to study medicine at university. “My tutors were the gods of the industry, Robert Webster, B Anderson. I met Gublin and Whitehead, all of those wonderful gemlords who wrote the textbooks we all studied,” says Avanti. When the current Chairman of the Sri Lanka Gem Association mentioned those names, asking her whether she knew how long it has been since Robert Webster passed away, she said “yes, that’s how long I too have been in the industry but living away from Sri Lanka.”

The changes in Sri Lanka occurring in the seventies began to affect their family too. “Schools were closed for various reasons leaving us with lots of free time. Since my brother Amal and I were protected by our eminent families, we were living an idyllic carefree life.”

Her maternal grandfather was H. Sri Nissanka Q.C, a prominent criminal lawyer and one of the founder members of the SLFP, while her paternal grandfather was Dr GW Willi Karunaratne. The family was forced to migrate to New Zealand after a life-changing incident targeting her father took place during the uprising in the country in April 1971. They left in haste with only a suitcase each and no money. Avanti’s father Dr Gemunu Karunaratne got a job in a hospital but the family had to face difficulties in adjusting. To contribute she worked as a nurse. Her first task was to learn to make hospital beds. “I still make beds in hospital style,” she laughs. It was when her mother fell ill and money was scarce that the reality of their situation struck her. The tough times made her take stock of the situation and her future. It was during this period that Avanti recollected her piano accordion teacher’s caustic words about how she would always be “master of none, just a Jack of all trades” for not making an effort to practice her lessons as a young girl. Those words haunted her.

“I told myself that I would never be in second place. My parents had made a tremendous sacrifice leaving behind a life of comfort to give us a chance at education.”

valli-story-image-4“I realized that to go after what I wanted, I had to aim for the stars. So I decided to change my nonchalant attitude and master whatever I set out to do. I wanted it badly and at any cost.”

After she graduated with a major in Geology from the University of Christchurch, the family moved to Adelaide in Australia where she completed a medical science degree. Torn between medicine and gemology, she decided to pursue the latter at the Deutsche Gemological Institute in Germany. From there she left for the United States, where she joined the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) in California to do her graduate studies.

Avanti became the first Sri Lankan graduate student to pass out from the GIA topping her class in 1980. She was asked to take up teaching at the GIA at a time when the founder Richard T Liddicote was still teaching at the institute. Her destiny though lay elsewhere. A fellow Italian student Michael Germani fell in love with the charismatic, stunning student from Sri Lanka and pursing her relentlessly, won her over and married her. Having earned their credentials in gemology, they both decided to go to the oil rich kingdom of Saudi Arabia to explore new avenues for work. Avanti got a chance to work for the renowned billionaire Robert Mouawad, Jeweller to the Saudi King and the world’s richest diamond owner, who bought a 101-carat diamond at auction house Sotheby’s for $12.76 million in 1990 which is now known as the ‘Mouawad Splendour’. It was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s most expensive single pear-shaped diamond at that time. His other famous diamond purchases include the 135 carat Queen of Holland diamond in 1978 and the 68 carat Taylor Burton diamond which actor Richard Burton gifted it to his actor wife Elizabeth Taylor in 1969.

Avanti would later go on to custom-make a jewellery collection for Elizabeth Taylor’s perfumes launch.

Avanti, also known by her middle name Yasmine, and Michal Germani became a power couple. “I was invited for a Royal wedding at the Palace and the jewellery worn by the women was amazing. Unfortunately, they were mostly covered up.”

An introduction to the eldest son and CEO of the Al-Rajhi Bank of Saudi Arabia, Saleh Al-Rajhi created another opportunity for the couple.The Bank was looking to diversify into jewellery stores. Avanti and Michael were offered the job of setting up the Bank’s jewellery stores for the Saudi market. Funded by the Bank, the opening of five stores across the country gave them their first dream job.

“It was Arabian Nights come true. I had trays and trays of gems to play with,” she says of those days. In their quest for the perfect stones they traversed the globe sourcing gems from Europe, Columbia, France, Brazil, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium and Thailand and bought sapphires from Sri Lanka. They visited Italy, the country that has for many years led trends in international jewellery designs. They made jewellery that captured and enraptured the passions of men and women who love magnificent jewellery.

Valli-srory-image-3They also ventured into high-end watches working with Van Cleef, Chamaut, Gerald Genata and Leonard Wittnauer to establish a line of classic timepieces for the Saudi market and later Australia. Avanti herself had her own personal collection of jewellery she wore to parties and events. Avanti began to specialize in jewellery restoration and re-designing of old jewellery. She recreated bespoke pieces in homage to many famous personalities.

The Saudi royal princesses would often get bored with their jewellery and they would bring it to her to have it redesigned.

When war broke out in the Middle East in the early eighties it was time to pack up and leave. They relocated to Sydney, Australia and under their own brand, Germani, went on to open four stores across Sydney. Within a short period the company had vertically integrated into design, manufacturing and retail of high-end jewellery. Their successful line included a brooch handcrafted and set with diamonds and black opals that was presented to the Duke and Duchess of Wellington for opening Sydney’s Skygarden.

A jewellery collection line “RUBY, SAPPHIRE, EMERALD” was designed for Elizabeth Taylor when she launched her perfumes. A pair of blue sapphire and diamond earrings was also gifted to Princess Diana. The sapphires were from Sri Lanka.

The clever and novel marketing ideas behind the Germani brand initiated by Avanti made the company one of Australia’s coveted jewellery brands. The store became a household name when Avanti got Germani involved as a sponsor for 14 years in one of Australia’s most popular television series called “The Sale of the Century.”

The need is to cater to the international jewellery market, which we are not doing at the moment with our designs

In 1990 Germani won the coveted De Beers Design Award for their diamond jewellery category and would go on to win the Australian Governor General’s Award twice in a row. As a member of Sydney’s Power House Museum, a landmark science, design, technology & decorative arts museum, Avanti became part of the museum’s high profile networked community. She also worked with numerous Australian charities. The company began to expand internationally showcasing their jewellery in the United States, Europe and Japan. A Germani boutique was opened in Colorado, United States. They began to produce their own brand of perfume and accessories. The logistics to manage the international sales though profitable was tough. With a son and daughter to take care of as well, the pressure was beginning to build. “I was living my dream life. The one that I had wanted since the age of sixteen. I was balancing a demanding job, was part of the elite, yet my concern was always to make sure my children Tara and Amar were well taken care of ”. Despite the work I used to drive my children to school and take them to their activities including the whole parent-teacher meeting schedules.”

The frantic pace was starting to take its toll and the burn out was inevitable. To recuperate, Avanti took a year sabbatical to go back to her other love, art. She went to live in Italy and joined the famous Michael Angelo School of fine art. “I needed to give myself space to reflect and de-stress.”

She returned to open a new upmarket store for accessories, gifts and clothing. But the restlessness remained and in 2009 when she was offered the chance to become a publisher in New York, when her children were young adults, she took it on. It was a challenge and a new adventure. New York is a tough city for fledgling publishers to break into.

Avanti’s first publishing effort “Betrayal of Love and Freedom” by New Zealand entrepreneur and author Paul Huljich who co-founded Best Corporation, a pioneering organic foods company in New Zealand is a part autobiographical work based on mental wellness.

valli-story-image-6A second book by the same author “Stress Pandemic” published by Avanti went on to win four awards in the US. In building the $100 million company, Paul Hulijch developed severe stress-related conditions. He was diagnosed by several psychiatrists in 1998 as suffering from bipolar disorder. Through exhaustive research, Huljich ultimately succeeded in overcoming his illness and developed a nine-step overall wellness plan.

To promote the book, Avanti travelled extensively across the US. She designed both covers for the books. The book gave her a chance to use her medical science background to help Paul with his research.

Avanti Karunaratna will be breathing new life into her remarkable skills when she establishes her new venture called the “Rare Jewel Company.”

She is also writing a book on the history and heritage of sapphires in Sri Lanka. Most of all she wants to promote and support the local industry.

“The need is to cater to the international jewellery market which we are not doing at the moment with our designs” says she “Tourists do not come to buy jewellery but take the gems to get it set in their countries, or worse still, take it to Thailand.”Avanti is confident she can contribute to elevating Sri Lanka’s jewellery designs to an art.

vallli-story-image-2
“We must have originality in our designs, train our young people to think creatively and not just copy and paste. That kind of work is better done in China and cheaper.”
“A well designed piece of jewellery gives the wearer confidence. Gems are seen as more of a commodity in Sri Lanka. Advances in gemstone synthesis have made gemology an important field of study. The total value of gem and jewellery exports from Sri Lanka for 2014 was $165 million with jewellery amounting to $22 million.It is estimated that more than two million gem pits have been dug in Sri Lanka over the last 50 years. The country’s jewellery manufacturing and retail industries blend traditions with innovation, yet it may not be enough to compete internationally.

Returning home six months ago to the land that she claims is covered in gemstones, a gift of nature that took over four billion years to evolve, she now lives at her home “Gunfire” in Kandy, and is preparing to launch her jewellery collection and paintings in Colombo in December. She has come full circle back to the very place that laid the foundation for her calling in life.