By Preeti Lamba

Hema BalakrishnanHema Balakrishnan’s Color D Earth empowers a modern woman with her very own terracotta army – jewellery made from clay. With exuberant pieces full of character and panache she sells style and to many artisans of India she sells hope. In her pieces she weaves the magic of collaboration. Balakrishnan talks to Biz Divas this week and shares her amazing journey..

When did you form this beautiful relationship with the products made from clay? Is there an emotional connect? What does it mean to you?

I started working with clay in 2003 after I did a hobby course with my kids. Touching the first ball of clay felt like déjà vu. I find it hard to describe it in words. At the expense of sounding unreal, I’d say that it felt like there was an unfinished chapter from a previous life. What began as a hobby soon turned into my calling: elevating the lives of all the amazingly talented but struggling terracotta artisans. It’s going to be 12 years since I began this journey and there has never been a dull day or one where I have regretted even a single moment – however challenging that might have been.

What are the cultural taboos/mindsets you feel you’ve broken/changed along the way?

When I started out, few people believed that I would make a success of a venture that makes jewellery from riverbed clay! Also fewer women were even aware of this form of jewellery. But, many women who could never think beyond gold and diamonds for their accessories, happily wear our work today. Customers today understand and appreciate the value of a product that represents a cause.

I have also been able to prove that collaboration works better than competition, especially in handicraft business. By collaborating with 11 artisan groups from 6 different states rather than just growing my own group of artisans has brought more diversity, variety and uniqueness to our work.

If you could, what advice would you offer to Hema of 10 years ago?

To be more assertive, more systematic and not have the fear of excel sheets! J

What are your future plans for Color D Earth? 

My dream is to bring 500 more artisans under our umbrella by the end of 2016. To set up 2 more stores in tier-II cities and grow our online presence to reach more and more conscious buyers across the world.

ISB told you, they weren’t confident of your model and you switched to a social enterprise model? Could you tell us more about how a handicraft business functions and grows? 

Growing a handicraft business can be extremely challenging because it’s tough to maintain the highest standards of quality while constantly increasing your production capacity. Constantly juggling with financial constraints and yet sticking to the fair trade model has been crazily tough.  To sustain the enterprise with constant growth, keeping all the stake holders happy, has been our constant endeavour. A keen understanding of our customers’ needs and changing trends has helped us constantly to innovate. By not compromising on finish or variety, we have been able to grow our customer base around the world.

What has been the biggest success so far? 

  • Success to me has always been about bringing more artisans into our umbrella and constantly increasing the work orders we give them. The turnover has always been reflective of the fine work all our artisans put in. Ensuring they all have sustainable livelihoods through this work has been the driving factor
  • When a dear customer turned friend wears terracotta jewellery at her own wedding reception, that to me is success
  • When women want to wear our jewelry for the most festive, joyous occasions, that is success to me
  • A couple from Mumbai recently walked into our Studio and said that they wanted to shop for terracotta at Color D Earth rather than pearl jewelry in Hyderabad. That to me is the true measure of the value of our artisans’ work

When was the most trying time and how did you get past it?

There have been many challenges along the way, with labour, finances, mindsets of people, but I always believed that each challenge is a learning that would take me to the next higher level and that kept me searching for answers, made me push past my own limitations.

One of the most challenging times was in 2009. I was still struggling to break even at the time. I was operating out of a small 50 square feet retail Studio in an unknown corner of the most expensive city, Mumbai and supplying to well known boutiques through the consignment model. That was just not working for us. All I knew was that I had to make it happen for my kids and all the artisan groups that I was responsible for.

I made the conscious choice to move back to Hyderabad where I had grown up, where I was confident that I would do better with the customer base I had already grown over the years.

That was the best choice I ever made, because this magical city has given me all the love and success that I always dreamed of. I owe much to a few dear friends who lent me money even without asking because they believed in my cause. That has helped Color D Earth to reach where it is today.

Which is your favourite piece in terracotta jewellery?

Over the years I have managed to collect quite a treasure trove of earthy pieces of jewellery. Each of them has a special place in my heart and its really tough to select one. It’s like asking a mom to chose her favourite child. J

This is one of my most versatile terracotta necklaces. Handcrafted by one of our most talented artisans from the east, its rustic appeal combined with classiness makes it a frequent choice. I have worn with a simple sari to a festive ensemble, and never cease to get compliments for the style statement it makes every time.

What is that one change you wish you could see in India or Indians?

For us to be less judgemental, to be more accepting of people’s choices.

We need to stop living in fear of what others would think, if we need to live to our highest potential. Our country has some amazing people doing work at the grass root levels to bring about social change, but we need many more highly qualified people to join in and help expedite the process.

Which is your favourite book and why?

The Alchemist is my all time favourite, because it shows you that following your dream, following your inner calling is a magical journey! You find treasures that you never even imagined. I am blessed to have found my inner calling in this lifetime.

Can you think of one person who can carry your jewellery with much élan?

Vidya Balan. She wears her attitude! She carries off a classic kanjivaram sari with such style and verve..with an ornate terracotta necklace and jhumkas she would make the best style statement!

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Preeti Lamba

Preeti Lamba is the Online Content Editor of Biz Divas blog. She is sensitive to issues related to women and likes writing about social change. Preeti comes with experience of more than five years in communications. She has traveled to many places in India, Canada and UK for travel features, besides writing on society, lifestyle, art and entertainment in her last job with The Week magazine, based in Mumbai. Preeti is an alumnus of Shri Ram College of Commerce and Indian Institute of Mass Communication. She is currently based in London and rediscovering her love of painting.

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