Ahluwalia was born in Amritsar, Punjab, India, in 1974, and moved with his parents to the south Brooklyn neighborhood of Bay Ridge when he was five. He attended the prestigious Brooklyn Tech High School, but when he thought about what he wanted to do afterward, he drew a blank. “I think that’s probably what led to me wanting to do everything [in my career],” he says. “I think it’s as a result of having no clue, early on.”
He attended Marist College, a small liberal arts school in upstate New York, pursuing a degree that matched his indecision—general studies. “My process was elimination, trying things and going, ‘Oh, that’s not for me.’ Biology class in ninth grade, and walking out of the class and thinking, ‘There’s no way I’m going to be a doctor.’”
But there was one thing that had already piqued his interest—he just couldn’t major in it. Like many New York City teenagers with easy access to transportation, Ahluwalia found himself in famed clubs such as the Limelight and Save the Robots, where he and his similarly underage friends danced until the wee hours. It was New York in the early ’90s, before the M&M store became a central landmark of Times Square, and the nightlife—club kids and drag queens, strobe lights and smoke machines, extravagant costumes handmade for the occasion—is what he remembers as the first thing he was drawn to, a hint of how he might spend his life.
Though partying is certainly a common activity, for most, it’s not a job. But it makes perfect sense as the central passion of Ahluwalia’s life—the free-form creativity that would later solidify into a recognizable shape. After college, he once again found himself up late, out and about, in a community of creative souls, all trying to find their way in life and in the arts. It was those connections that helped him whittle down the infinity of possibilities he’d laid out for himself.
“If you can imagine, it’s 3 a.m. in a dark room in a club and you’re sitting with friends and all of a sudden [whatever you’re talking about] becomes a movie idea or a book idea,” he recalls. “There was less pressure, because you were just trying things, and it wasn’t yet available for the world to see and share.”
Ahluwalia needed inspiration, in part, because the first thing he’d tried had become dispiriting and untenable. He’d started a nonprofit geared toward educating young South Asians on safe sex and AIDS, with music and entertainment as the vehicle. Activism, with a spoonful of sugar. But as any nonprofit administrator knows, running such a fledgling enterprise is a challenge on all fronts. “It was such an uphill battle,” he recalls. “I was like, ‘There has to be a better way to make change. This is just too slow.’”
After the many ideas he’d thrown at the wall, the thing that stuck was jewelry—dazzling rings and earrings and pendants, like those brilliant costumes he’d once seen on the dance floor. He drew a design; a friend of a friend took it to a manufacturer. Those free-flowing, twilight conversations had yielded something he could hold.
Entering the design world, he wanted to marry the yin and yang of his life: partying and purpose, celebration and humanity. Jewelry, he hoped, would allow him to do that. He saw it as a means of pursuing collaborations with friends—of taking his relationships beyond the dinner table. House of Waris became that platform. The company later expanded into textiles, and has hosted numerous fundraisers and pop-up projects. Ahluwalia’s jewelry has sold in stores such as Barney’s, Bergdorf Goodman, Colette, and Dover Street Market; he created a line for Forevermark. But for the last five years, Ahluwalia has been on what he calls a “sabbatical” from making jewelry.
Unlike most designers, he visited the mines from which jewels for his pieces were sourced. At one point, he was spending six months of the year in India, working daily with craftspeople, living with them, getting to know their families. There were no factories; the prices, which started at $2,000, were set by the craftspeople, quantified by their skill and labor, as well as the rarity of the stones used. He never sold to a store before visiting it. He is very confident and very clear: His company did not exploit its workers. But was it exploiting the earth?
“Our very existence is exploitation of the planet,” he explains. “Do you use a fork when you eat? It comes from mining. Regardless of the fact that I was lucky enough to be selling in the best stores in the world, I just wasn’t comfortable living with that disconnect.”
It wasn’t enough that he’d been to the mines, that the craftspeople had been properly compensated, that he was fastidious about following the chain of custody from the pit of the earth to the front of the store. There’s something about selling a $60,000 pair of earrings that can make even the most conscientious designer question their values. And if he was telling the truth, which he was committed to doing, no matter what, he actually couldn’t be sure where every element had originated. All he knew was that these resources belonged to nature, and humans—his least favorite animal—had grown wild in their entitlement to them.
He also realized that he had inadvertently put himself into rarified air. “The worst was when people would come up to me and say, ‘One day I hope to afford your jewelry,’” he recalls. “And I was like, ‘No, if you can’t afford it, don’t worry about it. There are better things to aspire to.’ But I was part of that same cycle now. I was part of that cycle of creating want in a very materialistic world.”
It was time to take a break.