Nirav Modi’s jewellery exhibit opens today. We explore how single, statement jewels marry design and gems to change the face of traditional Indian jewellery. From elastic diamond bracelets to collapsible scarf necklaces. By Jackie Pinto
IN THE 1960s, American jewellery designer David Webb drew society women like Jacqueline Kennedy and Marisa Berenson away from their demure pearl and diamond trinkets towards his big, bright Maltese crosses, chunky enameled earrings and strong animal motifs. His eponymous brand, launched during the feminist movement, began to symbolise the changing cultural and social roles of women at that time. Webb didn’t just design knockout jewellery, but held court in his Park Avenue store, got to know his customers well, and learned their preferences. A successful trend that is gaining ground in India, where the largely fragmented jewellery market is worth over $16 billion a year. And where organised retail accounts for just about four per cent. The rest remains in the hands of about 3,00,000 unorganised jewellers, according to a recent McKinsey report. “All that is slowly but surely changing,” says the CEO of Gitanjali Gems, Mehul Choksi, who is reportedly the largest integrated diamond jewellery retailer in the country with over 37 brands like Nakshatra, D’damas and Gili under his belt, sold across 4,000 retail outlets. He was apparently the first person to bring branded jewellery into the sector. Choksi operates more like a CEO of a multinational company, unlike his peers in the $10 billion diamond cutting and exporting business.
Having swapped the old, crowded diamond hub near Opera House in South Mumbai, for swanky offices in the city’s financial district, Choksi hosts tycoons and Bollywood stars, uses social media extensively, approves mega ad campaigns and targets the new age shopper ‘who is aspirational, brand conscious and looking for standardisation of quality’. “Jewellery as a buying category is no longer confined to weddings, or special occasions but is appropriate right through the year. My young customers are looking beyond the neighbourhood family jeweller for brands with a sense of style and design thanks to global exposure,” he tells us.
On the other side of the big brand spectrum is the Antwerp-bred Nirav Modi who believes that ‘Indian jewellery is forging a whole new identity, moving out of anonymous workshops onto centre stage in today’s global arena.’ With home-grown brands like Amrapali becoming international in their appeal, individual designer-jewellers such as Nirav Modi and Viren Bhagat are attracting connoisseurs and collectors from across the globe.
Modi’s store in Delhi designed by Spanish artist and designer Jamie Hayon features sleek black lacquered cases to hold his sparkling creations. Snowy, finely-detailed white paper installations replicate his fastidiously crafted pieces and the whole buying process is gentrified to an extreme. Highlights of the 6,000 sq ft space include an elegant bridal salon, a private viewing area for shoppers, a live workshop to watch artisans at work, and theatrical jewellery displays that are re-designed every season. It is a show of craftsmanship, design and carefully curated extravagance. But he has his eyes trained on a bigger canvas. “The American global market is coming back in terms of luxury consumption, Europe is showing signs of revival, and China is booming,” he smiles.
Making the cut
Modi, a Wharton dropout, was raised in Antwerp by a diamantaire father and interior designer mother. “I grew up with beautiful things — Paris was a two-hour ride away. I enjoyed museums and learned enough about art to start collecting it seriously in my 20s. I even wanted to be a professional music conductor. But dinner table conversations centred around diamonds,” shares the man who wears whimsical gummy bear cuff links, designed finely detailed enameled cupcake earrings for his daughters and was inspired by their elastic wristbands to create a diamond bracelet with 800 movable parts. His scarf necklace collapses into the palm of your hand as does a flexible sari necklace with a detachable pendant. His famous Golconda Necklace was auctioned by Christie’s in 2010 for `16.29 crore and he was the first Indian jeweller to feature on the cover of the Christie’s Hong Kong auction catalogue. Two years later, Sothebys auctioned his Riviere Diamond Necklace for $5.1 million in Hong Kong. His latest creation carries a reserve price of `50 crores, with 17 Russian diamonds ranging from 10 to two carats. Modi moved to India in 1990 to learn the jewellery business from his uncle Mehul Choksi, on a monthly salary of `3,500. His company Firestar Diamond, started in 1999, now has over 1,300 employees with operations in USA, Europe, the Middle East and India.
Big boys’ club
He belongs to a club of individual designer-jewellers like the reticent Viren Bhagat, who has often been compared to the Parisian designer JAR. Like JAR, Bhagat caters to a handful of niche clientele and operates out of a quirky little ground-floor-and-basement affair, in Kemps Corner. Here he turns out fanciful Mughal meets clean-line Art Deco work that ‘can never be duplicated and is instantly recognisable,’ say people in the business like Neville Umrigar, a property tycoon- cum-jeweller with six workshops in Mumbai. He works by appointment only, creating jewellery for industrialist friends, Middle Eastern royalty and Bollywood stars. He is also credited with introducing coloured diamonds into the country. “Diamond buying trends are changing—from yellow gold traditional wear, to one-of-a-kind pieces that feature symbols and talismans, textures such as wood and leather, to create pieces that are edgy and unique,” he tells us, adding, “Social media is opening up new channels. Cartier has launched a full e-commerce platform to engage their consumers. Tiffany has launched an Engagement Ringfinder app. And embedded videos in their web pages to add some drama and emotion.”
Diamond buying trends are changing—from yellow gold traditional wear, to one-of-a-kind pieces that feature symbols and talismans, textures such as wood and leather, to create pieces that are edgy and unique
Set in stone
There is an ethereal lightness to Modi and Bhagat’s jewels. There is no visible metal and the stones appear to take the form they imagine. Modi features white and coloured diamonds in bright yellows and soft pinks, with innovative cuts, sophistication and a hint of Indian influence. “I was never trained in jewellery design and I can’t draw. I was a diamond importer. A friend insisted I make a pair of earrings, so I sourced some fine diamonds from Russia and the earrings turned out perfect. By the joyous look on her face, I knew I had found my calling— making women truly happy,” he smiles, elaborating, “I aim to evoke instant recognition of Indian jewellery design the world over. Just like one would recognise Harry Winston’s classic, yet grandiose jewels, Cartier’s sculptural fluidity with fine stones and precious metals and Vancleef and Arpel’s nature inspired pieces.” Nirav Modi’s exhibition is on November 28 and 29, at The Oberoi, MG Road, from 11 am to 7 pm.
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