I was born in the north of India, in a city called Amritsar in the foothills of the Himalayas. I went from Amritsar to Brooklyn when I was five. I said I was going to go for a walk, and then I just walked. I trekked across Afghanistan into Central Asia and through Europe and then came on a ship to America. No, I’m kidding. I came with my parents. “Amritsar to Brooklyn” would be a great T-shirt, though.
I don’t have any memories before the age of five. I don’t know if the move was scarring or if it was just so drastic that I don’t remember anything before it. I don’t remember India. Any memories I do have are from photos. And those aren't memories, those are implanted. So I always say I was born twice. Once in Amritsar, and then the second time in New York.
I always say I was born twice. Once in Amritsar, and then the second time in New York.
My father unfortunately passed away when I was 20, so I never really got to ask him, “What on earth were you thinking? Why did you move?” I know from my mother that she had no interest. She had done her master’s at NYU and then went back to India, and she was ready to stay in India. She had opened her own school there. She went from one student to hundreds of students. It was called the Waris Public School, which is to say that this idea of naming things after myself—I didn’t start it. My mom did. She set this ball in motion.
I think my dad just wanted an adventure. He was a mountain-climber, a volleyball player, and had a PhD in linguistics. I like to think he just picked me up by the back of my neck, put his arm around his wife, and moved to a new country. Granted, two of my mother’s brothers were here, but he didn't have anyone here. I don’t have a wife, kids, dog, cat, or even a turtle, and I haven’t been able to move once. I’ve never left New York. I travel a lot, but I have never been able to be released from the grasp of this city. For me, it’s my home. It’s my little town. It’s where I’ve grown up. I’ve given a lot to New York, and New York in turn has given a lot to me. I think that’s what’s kept me here.
It’s the people that come through here, that live here, and that choose to make it home. The energy doesn’t come from the buildings; it’s not the prettiest city. I can’t go to London; it breaks my heart. Oh my god. I feel it in my heart, when I walk through London, how gorgeous it is. And then I come back here, and suffer through. New York’s greatness is in its people. For me, the most interesting time in my life—and in anyone’s life—is the time before you’re successful. It’s so magical because you have no expectations. You don’t know where, what, when, how. You’re just trying, and you’re exploring ideas. You’re with friends.
I never knew what I wanted to do. I’m not sure I know now.
I got to live that part of my life really well in my twenties. I like to say I was in the eye of the storm in New York, with people who were trying to figure out what they were doing before they all became famous photographers or platinum-selling artists or Oscar-winning directors or any of that stuff. It was just like, “I’m going to make a movie” or “I’m recording an album” or “I’m writing some songs.” It was exciting to see that evolution.
I never knew what I wanted to do. I’m not sure I know now. But I would know when I tried something if it was for me. It was a process of elimination. Sometimes it would be a few months in, but at some point, I would be like, “No, this is not for me.” I went on two job interviews after college and I walked out of those interviews saying, “Wow, I don’t think I’m ever going to have a job in my life.” It was confusing and nerve-wracking because I was like, “Wait, that’s what people do? You get out of college, and you go get a job?”
I like to imagine that I was on a road, and I’m looking ahead, and it’s a pretty nice, clean, paved road. I looked to the left, and there was a jungle with lots of weeds and trees and bushes and flowers—totally overgrown. I looked ahead again, and was like, “Oh, look. Look how nicely paved that road is. It’s really clear.” Then I looked to the left again where there was no path. And for some idiotic reason, I went left. I went into the jungle, hacking my way and making my own road.
I had an idea for a ring and a friend knew someone in the jewelry business. So I showed the guy the design and said, “I want to put diamonds in it.” He was fantastic—as an individual, as a person. He helped me with the first few pieces, but the experience for me was somewhat lacking.
I would give him a drawing, and then we would meet in his car somewhere in the city. It was a different car every time. It was not how I imagined making jewelry would be like. I am very much interested in the process, and I always asked him, “Can we go visit the craftsmen? Can we go visit the goldsmith?” He would just say that they’re bused in from parts of Brooklyn and that they don’t speak English, that I wouldn’t enjoy it. He just wouldn’t let me.
I realized that wasn’t how I wanted to do things. I want to know how things are made and where they come from. So I said, “Well, this is not going to work.” We were only selling at Maxfield’s, so there wasn’t much to fold. And that’s when I went to do The Life Aquatic in Italy.
I was just as excited to go read Wes Anderson's script as anyone in their right mind would be.
It was my first film. I’d never done any acting. Wes and I met at a peace rally in front of the UN through some mutual friends. One day he asked me to come in and read a script. I was just as excited to go read Wes Anderson's script as anyone in their right mind would be. But I didn’t realize there was more coming; he was quite secretive. I went into the office, and I read the script. And then he said, “I’d like you to play that part.” That’s how it happened.
It was while shooting in Italy that I found a goldsmith. That’s when I was like, “Oh, this is exactly how I imagined making jewelry, and even better.” I was being romanced. It was a tale. I was in old Rome working with a goldsmith in his little workshop on a cobblestone street. I couldn’t have written it better.
So fast forward and I’m selling to stores like Bergdorf Goodman and Barney’s—the most wonderful stores in the world. All was going well. But I was also spending a lot of time on conservation projects, focusing on the protection of endangered species in Asia, with occasional things in the U.S. and in Africa.
When I talk about conservation, what I’m really talking about is protecting ourselves. If we lose any of these majestic creatures, we’ll have lost them because we lost the green spaces. And if we lose the green spaces, that’s the beginning of our end. Nature will come back. The planet will be fine. It’ll regenerate and grow through the buildings. But we won’t be. That’s the stuff that goes through my head all the time, and then I’m looking at my work and I’m selling $60,000 pieces of jewelry. It led to a lot of cognitive dissonance.
Historically, as a people, we’ve been fine saying one thing, feeling another, and doing yet another.
I believe that the world, especially now, listens and understands things through commerce. We want to shop. That’s capitalism! I get that—I like objects, too. But at the same time, the version of capitalism that we’ve been sold is broken. We exist in a system that puts profit over people. And everyone seems to accept it and go, “Okay, I get it. You’re taking advantage of me. Thank you, sir. Can I have another?”
Historically, as a people, we’ve been fine saying one thing, feeling another, and doing yet another. All three can be different, and that’s the way society has functioned. But for me, personally, what I feel, what I say, and what I do have to be aligned. I knew that, but I’d been putting it off. I kept saying, “I’ll figure this out another time. I’ll deal with this later.” And then one day, I realized, “Oh, it’s later.” It had become this heavy, heavy weight. So I pulled everything from the stores and I went on sabbatical.
When I was thinking about what I wanted to do with my time, I kept thinking back to this 10-day-long pop-up we had hosted under the High Line in 2010. My mother served tea. My friends came back every day. We sold our jewelry and other things. It was a great success, both financially and in terms of how we felt about what we created. It was 10 days of bringing people together, and giving them the space, permission, and opportunity to slow down. It dawned on me then that I’d been living with the answer for so long: wherever I went to work with my craftsmen—whether it was the cashmere family in India, or the jewelers, or the goldsmiths—I was offered tea. (The irony, of course, is that it would drive me crazy when my craftsmen would take all their tea breaks.) It was right there under my nose. It was only when I stepped away from the noise that I could see it.
I spent a few years sourcing incredible teas. We found deep Earl Greys, dark and grassy Sencha from Japan, perfectly floral Oolong from Taiwan. I left a successful business to start a new one I knew nothing about. That brought a great deal of stress into my life. Everything was on my shoulders. There was no moment of pause. I was essentially breaking down. I was broken. I went to healers from Mexico, sound healings in L.A., and acupuncturists on the Lower East Side and in Toronto. Herbalists. Nutritionists. I worked for months on rebuilding myself. And when I came out of that, I realized, “Oh my god, what do people do that don’t have access to this? This is insanity. How do people pull through?” And I realized tea is the longest-running medicinal wellness product there is. It’s the second most consumed beverage in the world. And that led us to find a team of herbalists to help us create botanical teas that help us be better.
I worked for months on rebuilding myself. And when I came out of that, I realized, “Oh my god, what do people do that don’t have access to this?"
I just thought about myself. Sleep: I could use improvement. Digestion: I travel around the world; my gut has been attacked by parasites and the things that we eat, the sugars. And then cleansing, and beauty, skin, immunity—the daily battle with the world around us. Feeling cloudy, and needing clarity.
We created seven blends. None of these are a magic pill. I’m not offering anything except a moment to slow down. Obviously, if you’re sick, if you have a disease, if you’re dying, please go see a doctor, because modern science and medicine is incredible. I have a great respect for the field. Except for the individuals who choose to put their profit and their pockets over the well-being of their patients. I have the least amount of respect for them.
We’re opening a space in New York—a lab—where people can come and get blends made for themselves to address basic needs. A place they can meet and understand the history of herbal science, and learn about remedies. Just little, little spaces. We are in the business of solutions, primarily—but not only—using herbs. In that sense, all plants are under our brand. And while we won’t be doing anything with CBD or THC for the initial release, we’re already exploring products with them. There’s just so much buzz around it right now and we didn’t want that to overpower everything else. We didn’t want to be known only as a CBD or THC brand. But we treat cannabis with the same amount of reverence or interest as we do any of the other plants and herbs.
It’s so absurd that cannabis is so stigmatized, and the reason it’s so stigmatized is because of our broken system. It poses a threat to pharmaceuticals, and it poses a threat to liquor industries. It poses a threat to the cotton industry. Think about all those industries and all those lobbyist groups—we’re talking about billions of dollars. That’s why it’s taken this long. We’ve been lied to for centuries and told something is better than the other; not because it is, but because that’s what makes the most economic for a few.
I recently found the first photo shoot I did back when I was probably 21 or 22. Underneath everyone’s portrait was what they did, and underneath mine, it said, “Explorer.” Obviously, there’s no more land or uncharted territory left in this world to explore, but there is still the self, in relationship to the planet and the world around us.
I’m very good at avoiding saying exactly what I do. I do it at dinner parties all the time. But there is a through line in all of my work. The through line, I would say, is exploring. That’s what I’ve created with House of Waris, in whatever form it takes. That’s what I do.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Waris Ahluwalia photographed by JD Barnes at his home in New York. If you like this Conversation, please feel free to share it with friends or enemies.