India's premier luxury lifestyle women's magazine
Verve People
June 19, 2013

An Emotional Investment

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena.

Creative designer, art collector, innovative entrepreneur, business leader, family man… Diamantaire Nirav Modi interlinks his diverse interests and myriad roles into one unassuming persona. Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena meets the soft-spoken, newly-crowned Forbes billionaire

Diamonds, as has often been said, are a girl’s best friend. No wonder then that jewels and those who make them have always played an integral part in the different stages of a woman’s life. From the jewellers in ancient times who either visited the homes of the rich to showcase their pieces or displayed them in their shops to the contemporary high-end diamantaire, the role of jewellers in the discreet world of A-listers has come a long way indeed. Ample proof is seen about this changing interface in the hushed environs of exclusive salons, the customised designs and the personalised services offered by those who cater to desires that are embedded in jewels and stones.

One such individual in the sphere of shining stones grabbed headlines recently. Nirav Modi – a man who exemplifies how the role of a jeweller has morphed in contemporary times – made his debut in Forbes’ list of billionaires this year and is a shining example of how the role of a jeweller has morphed…and how!

So, one morning I find myself in central Mumbai to catch up with the 42-year-old diamantaire who puts a sparkle into many lives. His humungous office in Trade Point, Kamala Mills, carries the stamp of the man who helms it. As I walk into its refined interiors, I notice the Buddhist influence not just in the statue that looms over the reception area but in the prayer wheels that line one side of the passage.

I am first ushered into the jewellery salon, a spacious room that reminds one of a plush living room, where appointments with clients are kept. Art works dot the walls in this room and the passage – and they are also meticulously mounted on sliding displays in a separate room, one that I spend time in later.

A few minutes later, I am in Modi’s office, where he emerges from behind his desk to exchange greetings. We sit comfortably on the sofas, he offers refreshments and over the next one hour our freewheeling chat goes back and forth in time as, in his soft-spoken way, he reflects on the years that have shaped him into what he is. “So far, it has been an exciting journey,” he says. “And surprisingly one that happened purely by chance. For, it was not planned that I would go to Wharton and then drop out to join the diamond business. But that is the way things happened.”

It can be said that diamonds are a part of his bloodline. His grandfather traded imported diamonds in Mumbai; his father Deepak Modi is still an active diamantaire in Antwerp. Modi, who was born in India, but grew up in Antwerp, remembers, “As a child all major conversations were about diamonds. My father’s customers from India would come to buy raw diamonds. At the same time my mother emphasised the importance of the finer things of life, like art and architecture.”

Growing up surrounded by all things bright and blingy, it would have been no wonder if young Modi had not dreamt of doing anything different. But, he laughs and says, “I had thought of becoming a musical conductor or an investment banker. I was very fond of classical music even as a child. I thought it was something really beautiful to just stand, move one’s arms and create something beautiful. I had not attended any concert but had enjoyed what I saw on television. But, today I have no regrets about not following my childhood dreams.”

Modi moved to the financial capital of India in 1990 and worked with his maternal uncle, Mehul Choksi, in Gitanjali Jewels. He had never lived in Mumbai before, even though he had often visited especially in the summers to gain experience in various jewellery offices across the city. He states, “It seems like 50 years ago. There was no Pizzeria. There were just one or two TV channels. I experienced a great culture shock. Though my family is Gujarati, we tended to speak English at home. Diamond traders here spoke primarily in Gujarati. I plunged into work and did not see much of the world outside it. I started dealing in diamonds and then slowly began to design myself.”

His work ensures that he is surrounded by beauty all the time. How would he define it? As he speaks about a pair of earrings that he created for a friend, he picks up a tray to show me delicate pieces that shimmer gently as they move, and says, “None of my jewellery is static, each piece is endowed with its fluid movement. Beauty is a lot deeper than appearance. My tag line is ‘Nirav Modi – the jewel within’. For me, a piece of jewellery is not only about how it looks on you, but how it makes you feel. It must suit you. What is appropriate for you may not be appropriate for another person. Also if you are buying my jewellery to keep it in a vault, I am not keen on designing for you. For me, jewellery has to be worn.”

His business mantra is simple: “Define your dream and then persevere and pursue it. The road may not be a smooth ride and there will be bumps on the way.” On his winging it on his own to form Firestone Diamonds (later renamed Firestar as the original name was confused with the tyre company), he states, “Traditionally you have a checklist of what is required to be successful in business – you need a large manufacturing base, you need to be capital intensive and you need to have many family members in the business. The checklist meant nothing as far as my start was concerned. What I did was to look at the traditional way of buying and parcelling diamonds. Buyers would take them to Hong Kong, dissect them and match them for colour and quality and then send them to the workshop or factory. I wondered why this could not be done in India. This enabled me to buy in bulk, cater to multiple clients and give them the diamonds just when they needed it.”

His take on his creations is philosophical and driven by his love for art. He points out, “I have been interested in art for the last 15 years. All my extra money would go into buying art – it was quite reasonable then, compared to what it is now. Art, architecture, whatever is beautiful shaped my sensibilities. And these came into play when I began to design jewellery. I also wondered what it meant when you are buying or gifting jewellery. It is not just something in gold or diamond but it is really a show of love from a husband to a wife, from a mother to a child. It is the passing on of something. So, when you look at a particular pair of earrings or your mangalsutra, you remember those bonds. Buying jewellery is an emotional and a financial investment. You give joy to your wife. The piece appreciates over time and is passed on to your children. What else can you think of which is comparable? Not clothes nor shoes. Traditional luxury items are cars and bags and they have a shelf life of a few years.”

He draws his muse from various facets of life. His creative spectrum knows no limits or boundaries. “I often start with a vision that we are creating pieces of art. The Scheherazade Collection was inspired by the legendary Persian Queen. The Shalimar Ring and its lotus motif were inspired by Goddess Lakshmi. The elastic bangles were born when I saw my two young daughters play with elastic bands. I transferred that concept into fine jewellery to make bracelets that fit onto your wrist. We have the floral collection inspired by nature as well. I believe in creating beautiful jewellery that the client appreciates. Interacting with the client is more to realise how she feels about the jewel, what she likes, where is she going to wear it. It is not about my giving a part of myself, but a lot of taking things in from the client.”

His designs have also occupied pride of place on the covers of catalogues of the auction houses of Christie’s and Sotheby’s. In fact in 2010 his 109.7 carat Golconda Lotus Necklace was selected by Christie’s for the cover of its catalogue and this brought the designer into the global spotlight. That was an important landmark in his career. On the turning points he says, “There were multiple ones. One was when I came to India at the age of 19 instead of going to the US. The other was when I started Firestone in 1999 and third was when I launched Nirav Modi in 2010.”

Weathering the highs and lows in his business, he has stood the test of time. His philosophy is “this too shall pass. So, whether it is struggle or success you must have an equal attitude to it. I am talking philosophically. I am not immune to stress. There can be great highs, there can be even despair. It is my strong belief that one must have an equanimous attitude to events in life. I try to keep mentally and physically fit by working out and with yoga. I am not as conscious as my wife is. Shape-wise she is the same as she was 20 years ago! More important than how you keep physically fit, is how your wife keeps you physically fit.”

His personal attitude has enabled him to dream on and helm his business successfully. He admits to strengths and weaknesses. “There are two ways of looking at it,” he points out. “My biggest strength would be my desire to make exquisite jewellery and try for perfection. But that is also a weakness because one does not look at the return on investment or the time factor involved.”

He interacts with the crème de la crème of society not just in India but across the globe as well. And yet, he has managed to keep his personal life private. He affirms strongly, “I have a wife (Ami) and three children (Rohin, Apasha and Ananya). You will never see us as a family in any picture or in any photo shoots. We remain very private. Under the brand Nirav Modi I understand that I must have a public profile but that is very different from my personal life. It is very easy to keep the two separate.”

He wears the title of a billionaire with ease. It does not, he says, spill over into his life in any significant way. He says, “Our children are grounded. It is my wife’s belief and mine too that dynastic wealth is not something that we have created. We would like our children to do anything, not just do nothing. Luckily they are all still very young and they are not affected by all this. To give you an example, their birthday parties are at home. They can only keep three gifts. They have to choose which three they want. The rest they give away. It is a tradition they have followed from a young age. They understand it and do not feel that something has been taken away from them.”

The Nirav Modi Foundation is the culmination of a long-standing dream. Born in an affluent family, he says, “We could have a good education. But I thought of doing something when I was a teenager and saw people who by chance and circumstance have not been as fortunate. I started the foundation three years ago. It will educate and mentor the brightest of children who are capable of leaving a mark on society. The criteria for selection are education, marks and a positive attitude.”

As the conversation winds to a close – after we have indulged in tea and seen more of his creations – I ask how he would define the role of a contemporary jeweller. “He is,” he states, “one who understands what would delight you, how you would wear the jewel, the occasions you will wear it so how versatile it should be. It is not a matter of just one size that fits all.”

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