The seed of inspiration for Ila, the colorful line of fine jewelry handmade in Houston by sister-brother duo Ila and Vikas Sodhani, was planted halfway across the world. As children, the siblings, who were born and raised in the U.S., would spend their summers in Rajasthan, in northwestern India, at the intricately designed haveli, or townhome, that had been in their father’s family for two hundred years. They’d sit with their grandfather in the open-air courtyard and listen to his stories of the ancient Indian mythology depicted in the hand-carved drawings and paintings on the walls, some adorned with inlaid stones. “It was like a jeweler worked with the architect on the detailing of the building,” remembers Vikas.
An appreciation for beautiful baubles seems to run in the family. Twenty-five years ago, after their father, Vasu, retired from a long career as a nuclear engineer—which took the family from Houston to New Jersey to Tennessee and eventually back to Texas—he and their mother, Pratibha, decided to become diamond wholesalers. They sold their first parcel of precious stones from their car but were soon supplying many of Houston’s upscale jewelry stores.
Still, neither Ila, 40, nor Vikas, 38, ever intended to join the family business: she pursued a business degree at UT, while he headed off to MIT to study engineering. But it took only two weeks in a cubicle at a corporate job for Ila to realize she wanted more creative freedom, so she moved back to Houston to start working with her parents. Meanwhile, Vikas, who was involved with a couple of tech start-ups in Cambridge after school, embarked on a three-month backpacking trip through southern India before spending a year in Mumbai apprenticing in a diamond-cutting factory and taking classes in jewelry design. In 2007 the siblings decided to launch their own line. Today, they work together in their studio near the Galleria, crafting hundreds of custom pieces in addition to designing seasonal and permanent collections that are sold by high-end retailers like Saks Fifth Avenue. “It’s unusual for a line to have two head designers,” says Ila, “and it’s been a process for us to learn to work together, but we always have two different ideas coming together to make one stronger, better idea.”
Q&A With Ila and Vikas Sodhani
Your line shows a beautiful use of color in surprising combinations. Where does your love of color come from?
VS: I think it started on those summer trips to Rajasthan. It’s known as the most colorful culture in India. Because it’s in the desert, all the vibrant clothing and architecture is in stark contrast to the arid backdrop, making it all the more striking and beautiful. We’ve weaved a lot of that color and the curves of the architecture into our work, but in a very subtle way. We aren’t focused on making pieces that are totally Indian-inspired but rather designs that are more classic with a touch of our heritage.
Are there other aspects of your designs that are nods to your heritage?
IS: We use a lot of rose-cut stones. It’s an antique cut that’s used a lot in India. They are cut by hand, and they aren’t perfect, which is part of their allure. Unrelated to our culture, we are also known for setting stones upside down. That adds a special dimension to pieces and gives them an added depth.
How has your Texas upbringing influenced you as designers?
VS: One of the greatest things about Houston in particular is that the city breeds an environment that supports diversity and allows people to express their individual styles. We travel a great deal for our work, and we find that a lot of people outside of Texas have the opposite perception of Houston.
What misconceptions do they have?
VS: If you’ve never visited Houston you might not know we have such a diverse set of cultures here that all thrive and coexist with one another. It has allowed us, as designers, to be proud of our heritage and the quirks that make our personalities unique. We truly believe that by letting these differences blossom and grow, amazing creative energies begin to bubble up. It has been an incredible adventure that I am not sure we could have had, or would have wanted to have, anywhere else.
What’s it like working with your sibling?
VS: There is no pretense of being politically correct. It’s refreshing. It took a while to be able to handle someone saying they didn’t like one of my designs. In a normal working situation, it would take a lot longer to be critical of someone’s work, but we can move a lot quicker because we can be bluntly honest with each other.
IS: The best part is that we get to re-create our childhood memories together through our jewelry.
In addition to your own line, you do a lot of custom pieces. What are some of the more notable creations you’ve been asked to make?
VS: When we first started, we made hip-hop artist and producer Jermaine Dupri a necklace to wear to the BET Hip Hop Awards. It was incredibly difficult because it was a 3-D replica of his logo, which is of a person’s face, that we covered in diamonds. It was huge. It wasn’t exactly indicative of the kind of work we do.
IS: There was this guy in the oil business who had more money than he knew what to do with. He brought us a picture of an oil well that he wanted us to make into a diamond necklace. It was probably four inches tall, and we used brown diamonds to make it look like dirt beneath the well and black diamonds to make it look like oil spraying from it.
What do you love about Texas style?
IS: Texas women are not afraid of standing out in a crowd; bright colors and bold pieces are staples. Since I am petite, I’ve always been more drawn to delicate jewelry, which can be just as striking. As we cultivated our design aesthetic, I wanted to show that more-subtle pieces paired together in the right way can make just as much of a statement.
For more information, go to ilacollection.com.