Poonam Soni's rebellious streak and belief in Buddhism

Feb 15, 2015, 07:00 IST | Deepali Dhingra

Jewellery designer Poonam Soni speaks to Deepali Dhingra about her vision for life, the Buddhist philosophy that changed her life and how she bonds with her daughters over shopping

Poonam Soni, founder, Poonam Soni Signature Line Pvt Ltd

Seated across the poised Poonam Soni, at her lavish white boutique in Santacruz, it's hard to imagine her climbing atop a black and yellow taxi to watch a Bollywood shoot in progress. Yet, the jewellery designer tells me, that it's something that really happened. "I got married at the age of 18 and shifted from New Delhi to Mumbai. The city and Bollywood were both exciting and new for me. Once when we were driving around town, I saw that a crowd had gathered to watch a film shoot. I told Suresh, my husband, to stop the car and before he knew it, I'd climbed atop a taxi standing nearby to watch the shoot!" she laughs.

Poonam Soni at her boutique in Santacruz. Pic/Shadab Khan
Poonam Soni at her boutique in Santacruz. Pic/Shadab Khan 

The founder of Poonam Soni Signature Line Private Limited believes she has a dual personality. The eldest of three children, Soni recalls being the topper in her school and college. Yet, that didn't stop her from bunking college, every once in a while, to watch movies. Since her father was in the Army, she stayed with her grandparents in New Delhi at Chanakya Puri. "Once, I bunked college to watch Bobby. I realised that my distant relatives were seated in a row behind us. Every time the lights would be on, I would duck under the seat to avoid getting caught!" the entrepreneur reveals with a laugh.

But even at that young age, Soni was clear that she had to be the best at whatever she does. "I had no clarity of what I wanted to do but I was very ambitious," she adds. Her reserved persona belies the rebellious streak in her. When she didn't get to pursue English Honours in college as her mother wanted her to pursue another subject, she took up Sociology in retaliation. "You can have a dialogue with me about doing something but you can't tell me what to do. This mindset has taken me a long way now. I don't tell people what I want, but I have a dialogue with them to understand their point of view," she reveals.

Discovering herself
Married at the age of 18, Soni moved from her sheltered and pampered life in New Delhi to her husband's home in Bombay. "Suresh is 10 years older to me and much quieter. He loved my vibrant and impulsive nature," she smiles. Even though she never lacked for anything — material or otherwise — Soni wasn't content just being a housewife. "Money doesn't excite me so much, but making a mark does," says the business woman, who's on the right side of her 50s now.

Soni wanted to do something on her own and gradually started working towards it. "In those days, women from business families did not work. So, I started giving tuition classes to the kids in my neighbourhood," she recalls. Her love for artifacts and all things beautiful drew her to Chor Bazaar and before she knew, Soni had befriended the shopkeepers and started curating their wares at exhibitions. Though she enjoyed it, she was yet to find her true calling.

Attributing her sense of aesthetics to her mother, Soni tells us that she would often design jewellery for herself and give them to her friend, who was in the business, to make. "But every time I would approach him with a design, he would say that my designs are beyond what his team can visualise. Finally, he got me a kaarigar (mason), so I could get it done directly," she says. Soon, Soni started getting orders from her relatives and friends in Delhi, who would admire her bold and unconventional jewellery pieces whenever she visited the capital. "I did it for free for some time, but then I got tired of doing favours," says the mother of two.

One evening, while taking an evening stroll with her friend at Malabar Garden, she revealed that she was toying with the idea of venturing into the jewellery business. "My friend took out her three solitaire rings and asked me to make one ring out of them for her. I went home and told Suresh, 'She trusted me with her three solitaire rings. I'm going to make it big'," she says. In 1989, Soni registered her brand name and that was the beginning of a new chapter in her life.

Making her mark
Initially, people came to her house to place orders. "People like Shobhaa Kapoor (Jitendra's wife) would sit on my bed and select her designs," says the self-taught designee. In 1992, Juhi Chawla, who later became her good friend, inaugurated her first boutique in Fort. In the same year, Harrod's approached Soni after her Greek and Egyptian style of jewellery in semi-precious stones such as Malakite, Lapiz, shells and leather in 18 carat gold caught their eye. But she turned down their offer. "People thought it was a crazy decision. Who refuses Harrod's? But I always think ahead. I was barely three years into the business and had no production set-up. If things didn't work out well at Harrod's, I knew I would be finished internationally," says the visionary.

Over the years, Soni's brand has grown in leaps and bounds. In 2006, the LVMH Moet Hennessy group invited her to showcase at the opening of the Incredible India show in Paris. In 2010, she was part of the Eco Art Parade to be auctioned by the famed auction house Sotheby's at Abu Dhabi under the patronage of Sheikh Nahayan Al-Nahayan and Prince Albert II of Monaco. "I was rubbing shoulders with some of the richest people in the world. When my name flashed on the huge LCD screens, I felt it was a turning point in my life. It was a very special moment and I realised I wanted to be a part of this world," the entrepreneur smiles.

Two years ago, the designer felt that she wasn't concentrating enough on home ground. "That's when this boutique was born," Soni reveals, indicating the lavish store we're seated at. "Kriti, my daughter and I designed the interiors together. I wanted pristine white at one end and a riot of colours at the other. That's my dual personality again," she laughs. She's also launched a prêt line, Jewels Eleven, which was showcased at the New York Fashion Week last year.

Chanting for happiness
Soni believes that people come into your life for a reason. More than 10 years ago, her husband suffered a financial setback, and the designer recalls that as a very tough time for the entire family. "It was a traumatic phase for me and for three months, my life was all about tarot card reading, astrology and fasting," she informs. It was during that phase that she observed her store keeper, a lady who used to do Buddhist chants. "At first, I didn't like it.

Later, Kriti, who got inducted into Buddhism, suggested I try it. I started chanting and it heralded a new phase in my life. It took 10 years but I saw a radical change in myself. I have become more calm and compassionate. There was a time when I didn't even have time to sit and eat my food properly. Now, I can do 10 times more work, yet find time for myself. Today, I feel empowered. Money was never very important, it still isn't, but people are," says the lady.

Taking her Buddhist philosophy ahead, Soni joined hands with the Terry Fox international foundation, and recently hosted a fashion show where she displayed her jewellery and auctioned some of her pieces to raise money for Tata Memorial Hospital's cancer treatment ward. The next fashion show is on February 19, and Soni feels that it's a great way to remind people to stop and think about others. "I'm now on the committee of Terry Fox and want to make this a powerful initiative, so that there is more cancer awareness," says the philanthropist.

Small things matter
Time is a precious commodity for the designer, who has a flourishing business, both nationally as well as internationally. "I've never had time in my life. I don't think I slept properly during the first decade of setting up my business. So when Esha, my younger daughter was about to get married and settle in USA, everyone wondered how I would be able to go and meet her. But I structured my schedule accordingly. The first time she returned to India after her marriage, I switched off my mobile and spent the week with her. I loved it! Now, I religiously spend at least a month or more in USA with her every year," she smiles.

Similarly, she also finds time to visit Kriti, who stays just a few minutes away from her Santacruz boutique. "I drop in whenever I get done early from work," adds Soni. The mother and daughters get along famously, and love spending time with each other. "The three of us love shopping and going out for dinners. On one of the holidays, the men in the family got completely fed up of us. My youngest son-in-law even joked that henceforth, all the children born in this house will be boys, so we won't get any company. Surprisingly, after that, three sons have been born in our family," laughs the doting grandmother.

Money has never been on Soni's mind, even when she started the business. And till today, she finds pleasure in the smallest moments. "You can buy me the most expensive gift, but if you don't give me flowers along with it, I feel the gift is incomplete," says Soni, revealing that her daughters often send her huge bouquets on special occasions.
The early riser says, she has become more health-conscious over the years and tries to work out and eat right. "My life now, is about my children, my work and my family and Buddhism is woven into all of them. I want to achieve a better me and I think I'm already on that journey," she signs off.

My Favourites
Movie: Pretty Woman
Book: Gone with the Wind
TV show: Humsafar
Destination: Switzerland
Metal: All precious metals

Inside Track
Born: November 11
Education: Honours in Sociology from Jesus & Mary College, New Delhi
Mantra in life: Win in your life and teach others to win
Best advice I ever got: It’s something from my Buddhist philosophy — try and create every cause which is a credit in your life

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