The rise and reach of Nirav Modi


The rise and reach of Nirav Modi

It all start

In many ways, diamond jeweller Nirav Modi has made a dazzling business out of a well-worn cliché of old luxury: Diamonds are a girl’s best friend. But those once seductive lines from the song in the 1953 film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, performed by Marilyn Monroe, the ultimate mistress of feminine sparkle, may be becoming redundant. Not only do women now seek a different kind of worth, but luxury’s old fixation with ostentation itself is waning.

Or is it?

Perhaps not if you listen to Modi, 45, one of India’s top diamond merchants, who has amassed money, name and fame by mythologizing the precious stone, setting it in poetry, art, romance and emotion. “Jewellery is not about consumption; it is an investment in a woman’s happiness. My obsession is with a woman’s happiness,” he says.

Modi’s public résumé, an assimilation of reports on his work and worth that are all over the Internet, is suitably flashy. He is ranked 1,067 in Forbes’ world’s billionaires list for 2016, and 46 in India. In 2015, he was ranked 1,054 globally and 82 in India. His financial worth is estimated at $1.68 billion (around Rs. 11,237 crore) this year. Details about his background have been written about extensively—he was born in India to a family of diamond traders, raised in Belgium, and dropped out of Wharton School in the US to dive directly into business by learning on the ground. That a NIRAV MODI Golconda necklace fetched Rs.16.29 crore at a Christie’s auction in 2010, that he has boutiques in places ranging from Delhi and Mumbai to Hong Kong and New York (the latter opened last year), or that he is an avid art collector, too is information available in the public domain.

That’s why it is intriguing to interview a man who can’t just be slotted into this résumé.

It is 9am as Modi walks into the rooftop Chambers at Delhi’s Taj Mahal Hotel. He is in a bright blue Canali suit, a silken red pocket square peeping out in perfect proportion, and grey leather brogues. On his wrist is a luxury watch and a Fitbit.

The man who intends to have 100 NIRAV MODI stores all over the world by 2025, maintaining a pace of 6-10 each year for at least the next two years, doesn’t look rushed or impatient. He doesn’t touch any of the dainty eats and softly refuses all beverages.

Softly, is, in fact, a defining word for Modi. He speaks so softly that it is a strain to catch all that he says. His responses are precise, they only address your question. There is no rambling, braggadocio or anecdotal smoke. He is a man of few words. Few, nice words.

Words informed perhaps by his habit of regular and intense reading. “I read a lot, about a dozen global newspapers every day, magazines, literature and poetry,” he says. Poetry? “Yes, classic poetry,” he says. “I grew up appreciating beauty. My mother was an interior designer and I am tremendously engaged by art and the process of design,” says the Mumbai-based Modi, talking about his formative days in Belgium and his many visits to museums in Europe. Yet he remains rooted. The father of three says he speaks Gujarati with his wife and children and is committed to nurturing family customs and tradition.

Modi’s modus operandi as a designer of diamond jewellery rests on the principle of spoken inspiration: He voices his thoughts, his imagination, and his fantasies in words—whether it is a rose, a lotus, a constellation of stones, expressing the fluidity, the functional luxury of jewellery or the way a necklace should fall on a woman’s collarbone. A team of artists listens, comprehends and creates specific sketches based on his evocative monologues. Once the designs have been cleared by Modi, the sketches are recreated in wax models before they are frozen in precious metals like white or yellow gold and diamonds.

“I emphasize minimal patterning, lightness and comfort. About 10% of the designs are scrapped at the last minute,” he says, explaining that whether a NIRAV MODI piece is priced at Rs.5 lakh or Rs.5 crore, it is created in the same workshops, handcrafted by the same craftspeople, aided by state-of-the-art machinery, then tended to by people trained in the culture he wants to be known for. A culture of gentility, cheer and globalism, of linking jewellery with a high point in life, with happiness. His criteria for hiring people is curiosity and passion.

The ad campaigns communicate these facets. Released on 1 August, the new NIRAV MODI campaign, shot in New York by American photographer Peter Lindbergh, features three fashion icons—Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, an English actor and model; Andreea Diaconu, a Romanian model, the face of Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana and Belstaff; and Lisa Haydon, the Indian model and actor. Haydon featured in the previous campaign shot by Guy Aroch too. The message is unambiguous: NIRAV MODI is a global brand, made in India.

In March, Modi hosted a lavish event at Jodhpur’s Umaid Bhavan Palace to mark the fifth anniversary of NIRAV MODI, the brand. It is owned by Firestar Diamond International Pvt. Ltd, a diamond trading and jewellery firm founded by Modi which also owns A Jaffe, another jewellery brand, and produces jewellery for other labels in the US.

Over a luxurious vegetarian (and non-Rajasthani) lunch, served with palatial flamboyance, with turbaned waiters pouring champagne, he showed guests who had been especially flown in—rich and famous clients, friends from Indian high society and media representatives from select publications in India and abroad—diamonds that would blind many an eye. Brilliant and large necklaces and rings, earrings that cascaded like diamonds in water, bracelets that shone despite the glaring sunlight. The models wore these pieces with couture made from fresh flower petals—roses, orchids, chrysanthemums—and leaves—inadvertently showcasing the head- on collision between ecological sustenance and luxury.

“They were handmade from 2am in the morning so that they didn’t wilt before the show,” said Modi when we met in Delhi.

An exhibition of diamond jewellery alongside blurred the distinction between elegant elitism and crazy wealth, not the easiest to digest for those who are uncomfortable with conspicuous consumption. There was a necklace worth Rs.12 crore, for instance.

The evening event was fused out of predictable Indian luxury—glamour, rich guests in designer couture wearing big, flashing diamonds, a Sufi musical rendering, an all-girl band, tables decorated with silverware for a Rajasthani meal, and white floral decorations. Royalty was in attendance with Gaj Singh II, the erstwhile maharaja of Jodhpur, cheering Modi and his wife Ami, who ushered in her birthday there. Everything wore a diamond metaphor: It shone mercilessly and was attention-seeking.

Except Nirav Modi the man. He almost disappeared into the background with his soft, self-effacing, non-flamboyant manner. “I am naturally shy,” he says, when I bring it up during our Delhi conversation.

He retains an enviable reticence. He talks proudly about his new store on New York’s Madison Avenue, and when he walks me around his store in Delhi’s Defence Colony, his joy is transparent. He holds up his favourite jasmine designs, another piece from his Lotus collection in rose gold, points out how the bracelets don’t flip on the arm and how the finely constructed connectors between diamonds on a necklace almost disappear when worn.

Is his wife bored of diamonds? No, he says, she loves them. He, however, sports a pigeon blood ruby on his little finger—he is taken by its red depth. “It’s like a red diamond.”

Modi, who says he shops for clothes once in five years, buying 50 shirts in one go and a number of suits every few years, smiles widely when asked about the fish-shaped cufflinks in burnt orange and white that he is wearing. “When one of our necklaces auctioned for Rs.50 crore at Sotheby’s two years back, the Economic Times ran a headline with the words ‘NiMo’ for me. I made these ‘Nemo’ fish cufflinks inspired by that name,” he says.