On a balmy afternoon in spring, the air in Jodhpur, Rajasthan’s blue city, is thick with the scent of jasmine. The sun sets early here, and from the steps of the Maharaja of Jodhpur’s palace the exotic plants and grasses of his gardens begin to slip into darkness.
Below us in the palace grounds, the Maharaja’s staff, dressed in black with fluorescent pink turbans, work in single file. Like synchronised swimmers, they move in unison as they prepare for guests, their turbans luminous against the night.
They are preparing the festivities for the fifth anniversary of Nirav Modi, a jewellery brand with a rich Indian heritage combined with a clean European aesthetic. Modi, 45, is one of the first Indian jewellers to move away from traditional design, stripping back the usual yellow gold metal and coloured stones to leave diamonds cut and set in designs that translate far beyond this oasis in the Thar Desert.
Indian jewellery has an impressive history. One thinks of the evocative designs of the Mughal Empire, which governed most of the Indian subcontinent in the 16th and 17th centuries. The contrast between Mughal jewellery and the house of Nirav Modi is stark: while the Mughal era is known for its decorative opulence and vibrant colours, Nirav Modi designs stand out in their refined elegance.
As the light fades further, Maharaja Gaj Singh II, who is quiet and reserved, arrives to welcome his guests. The women wear traditional Indian couture, their dresses heavy with hand embroidery, and nearly all are wearing Nirav Modi jewellery. A mix of billionaires and Bollywood stars, these 100 guests form part of India’s wealthiest one per cent.
But the story does not start in India. Instead it begins some 40 years ago and 4,000 miles northwest of Jodhpur, in Antwerp. It was in Belgium’s second city, the diamond-trading capital of the world, that Nirav Modi grew up, a third-generation wholesale diamond trader.
Here, among his fellow Indian Jains (followers of the non-theistic religion Jainism), who now dominate Antwerp’s diamond sector, Modi learnt from his father how to discern the quality of rough stones – a skill that would be key to his success as a master jeweller.
As India’s economy began to boom, many of Modi’s Indian acquaintances across Europe began moving back to the subcontinent to try their luck. In 1990, aged 19, Modi followed, moving to Mumbai, where he continued his wholesale diamond business, amassing his current billion-pound fortune.
Today he lives in central Mumbai with his wife and three children. Though a diamond merchant by trade, Modi had always been interested in jewellery. But it was not until 2008, when a close friend begged him to create a pair of earrings for her, that Modi discovered his passion for jewellery design. The earrings were made of large white solitaires, encircled by a ring of diamonds.
“I really didn’t want to make the earrings,” he says. “Making jewellery for friends is a nightmare.” But after six months of persuasion, he eventually gave in, and it was her delight on seeing the gift that made Modi realise he had found his vocation.
In the same year, the diamond market crashed, and suddenly rare pink, blue and white flawless diamonds (stones with no visible faults at 10-power magnification) above 10ct were readily available at reduced prices. This was Modi’s chance. He began collecting rare diamonds and instead of selling them loose, he decided to make jewellery. “I’d love to say I planned and strategised, but really it just happened,” he says.
Modi’s big break came when his Lotus necklace, a unique piece boasting a 12ct Golconda diamond, garnered international interest, placing Nirav Modi firmly on the map. Based in Mumbai with sister stores in New Delhi and Hong Kong, earlier this year Nirav Modi opened a flagship store in New York and a second in Hong Kong. In September, Modi opened the doors to a stand-alone boutique in Old Bond Street, London.
Jewellery design still only accounts for ten per cent of his operation, but it takes up all of his time. “I don’t do anything else; in the past five years I haven’t met any wholesale clients or suppliers,” he says.
When asked to reveal the secret of his success, he simply replies, “We’re doing things differently”. Describing his designs as “non ethnic” and “Indian luxury’” he says they combine “Indian sensibilities with European refinement”.
It is safe to say that Modi has turned a page in the canon of Indian jewellery. It was, after all, in India, more than 3,000 years ago, that the first diamonds were found, and still today more than 90 per cent of the world’s diamonds are cut and polished here. This has led to a deep cultural connection with jewellery, which forms part of a complex social code.
Jewellery in India has long been integral to a woman’s financial security. According to tradition, families of all classes give their female relatives jewellery in celebration of marriage – a monetary safeguard against divorce, bereavement or abuse. While this is less true in modern India, jewellery remains an important part of social life. We are told that, as with lipstick in some European societies, a woman is not considered properly dressed in India without earrings. This could explain why 60 per cent of Nirav Modi’s sales in India are earrings, while in the rest of the world they account for only a third of his business.
While Modi is aware of his country’s traditions and caters for them at home, his focus is global. His aim, he says, is to create “Asia’s first luxury brand”. Setting the house apart from other international jewellers, not by playing on its Indian heritage but by emphasising its attention to detail, its cutting-edge design and its unique level of control at every stage of production – from the mines in South Africa to the boutiques in Mumbai, New York and now London. Mined abroad, the stones are cut in Moscow, Johannesburg and Surat in western India, where Neeshal Modi, Nirav’s younger brother, oversees a team of master cutters.
Modi’s jewellers in Mumbai then set every stone. His workshop, located in a rundown and hectic northern suburb of the city, is a sophisticated laboratory. It is clinical and hyper-organised. More than 750 jewellers, polishers and setters sit bent over their workstations, surgical green masks covering their mouths and noses to prevent them from inhaling gold dust.
Modi boasts unique patented cuts, offering bespoke shapes – for example the Endless cut, an unbroken line of diamonds. Another hallmark of the designs is their distinct lack of metal. The aim, Modi says, is for the diamonds to look as if they’re floating in air and have space to breathe against the skin. The design team’s mood board is historical rather than fashion-conscious: images of Roman statues, Greek pillars and art-deco paintings, spotted during a recent team visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, sprawl across the conference-room wall. The philosophy is that the jewellery should be evergreen rather than trend-led.
Much of Modi’s taste, he says, comes from his mother, an interior designer who “has a great appreciation for art, architecture and design”. He recalls how on every family holiday in Europe, he and his siblings would be “dragged off” to a museum: “At first you go kicking and screaming, but in time you begin to understand,” he says. “The sense of aesthetic, the clean lines, it’s Antwerp, but it’s also bigger than that, it’s European.”
After the jewellery has been designed, Modi’s sister, who is based in Hong Kong and whose judgment he trusts implicitly, approves a bronze model. Once accepted, the model is cast in gold and given to the jewellers, who set the diamonds by hand. Each diamond has been Sarine scanned – a technology that produces a 3D image of the stone, to document every facet and dimension and ensure the setting is accurate.
Once the work is finished, there are seven inspections – four by in-house controllers, one by the head of quality control, one by an independent external inspector (to ensure internal standards aren’t slipping), and finally by the general manager, Peter Mazur, to double-check there are no flaws.
To be hired by Modi as a jeweller you have to be able to make a 10ct emerald ring in two days. Those who are successful come from a long line of master jewellers. The idea is that each person is entirely responsible for the design they are working on, from start to finish, to encourage a sense of pride. One Embrace bangle, one of Modi’s signature designs, consists of more than 2,000 stones and takes about 200 hours to complete.
The design is cutting edge. The Embrace, for example, which was inspired by Modi’s daughter’s toy elastic bracelet, is made of more than 700 gold moving parts, giving it an elasticity that allows it to be stretched over any hand. Other iconic Modi designs include chokers that can be taken apart to be used as bracelets.
Modi explains that he wants his jewellery to be versatile and fun to wear. “I’ve seen so many women at dinners holding their earrings up with their hands because they are too heavy, or taking their necklaces off as soon as they get home because they are uncomfortable. It detracts from the elegance – the jewellery should move with the woman, it should be a second skin.”
Modi’s jewellery has already been seen on Hollywood stars including Kate Winslet, Naomi Watts, and the model Coco Rocha. He argues that luxury is not limited to one people or place: “For me, luxury is a mindset,” he says. A few cuts have obvious roots in India’s rich history. In the Mughal range, for example, the diamonds are cut in the shape of a petal inspired by floral motifs in traditional paintings. But most of Modi’s designs, such as Endless or Luminance, which use different cuts to play with light, are European in style.
While his jewellery is a synthesis of his northern European upbringing and his Indian heritage, it is also a symbol of India’s new super-rich, who continue to look at Europe and America for inspiration and style. A few days after the Maharaja’s banquet, now back in Mumbai at Modi’s apartment, there is a drinks party on his balcony. From here, high above the city, the panoramic view includes the Arabian Sea to the west – and to the north a Nirav Modi billboard, illuminated against the night.Read more at:red carpet dresses | marieaustralia