The diamond jubilation of South India

The Mylapore maami’s diamonds continue to dazzle even as the young diamond is having its moment


Arathi Pillai decked in diamonds for her wedding. Photo: Jyothiraj N.S./Mint
Arathi Pillai decked in diamonds for her wedding. Photo: Jyothiraj N.S./Mint

I am at this high-end wedding (is there really any other kind?) in a temple town near Kochi. It’s a sea of silks, classic Kanjeevarams interspersed with heavily embellished saris. Everyone’s family heirlooms seem to be out on display and this being gold country, the glare of the yellow metal is fit to blind. But I’m looking for the glister of white light. Lots of diamonds to be found: three-tier chains, heavy-duty chokers, dangling earrings, a plethora of rings on virtually every hand, young and old.

This is wedding ornamentation, I am told. “We don’t do elaborate in real life,” a 20-something tells me with a flourish of her diamond-encrusted fingers. “We prefer lighter stuff, more affordable stuff, because now we buy our own diamonds.” She flashes me a brilliant smile. At which her mother cuts in wryly, “They don’t do elaborate but all of them inherit heavy sets from their mothers, some are gifted diamonds by their in-laws. Which they happily wear when asked to.”

This mode of buying light but wearing a mix of light and heavyweight diamonds finds an echo in all the southern metros. Jewellers caught the trend at the flood some years ago, introducing lightweight diamonds in contemporary designs, stones in rose gold, silver, platinum, delicately cradled in fretwork, trelliswork and enamel, as also intermixed with gemstones. However, diamond kundan, jadau and polki-work continue to take second place, and yellow and black diamonds hover on the edge of the awareness spectrum, yet to be brought into the mainstream.

So here’s the update from the south: diamonds are (still) forever down here. However, these are—mostly—not the old diamonds, the classic closed-setting studs that adorn the ears of many a Tamil mami and her counterparts across the other states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh/Telangana and Kerala. These are young diamonds and diamond lite is having its moment. This is bijoux bought casually, frequently online, and worn casually, which in itself is a relatively new trend.

Like in the days of yore, they are diamonds purchased to mark a milestone, only the milestone is no longer an engagement, marriage, or a new baby. Now it’s all about graduating high school, graduating college, the first pay cheque, the first appearance of any significant event. It’s about buying diamonds that go well with a special outfit, a pretty young girl in Bengaluru assures me earnestly. Her milestone studs she bought for herself (of course) at the opening of her boutique.

The men aren’t behind either. Many young men sport a stud in their ear, and the signet ring with a diamond of preferred size in the centre has always been a hit with Indian men.

Does this mean that southern diamonds are shining in a new, evolved avatar? Not really. The old seven- and nine-stone ear studs, the adigai, the V-shaped Vanki ring, the mukkuthi (nose pin) are all going strong, thank you. While Kerala votes overwhelmingly for the yellow metal, in cities like Bengaluru and even Chennai, things have now shifted slightly to accommodate the trendier, newer and lighter designs.

Traditionally, though, minimalism in jewellery has never taken off in India, a land where more is always less. And Telangana and Andhra Pradesh refuse to buck that. As one young person puts it, “A deep and abiding desire for diamonds is inculcated in most upper-crust Hyderabadi girls; we are talking ducks’ egg size here, there is no question of small and delicate diamond jewellery.”

Even as the old mystique has rubbed off a bit, diamonds have now gained a wider user base in the country. India’s diamond industry, which is estimated to grow by an average 10-15% each year in the next five years, accounts for 70-75% of the total diamond exports in the world.

So, while the prevailing news from Surat is not entirely good, given the slump in India’s diamond market —driven by overreach, wild borrowings from banks, unbridled expansion and an underperforming market—by and large, the lure of the stone endures. India continues to be one of the top five retail diamond markets. Today, a one-carat diamond on the F-G spectrum that grades the whiteness of the stone, (D at the top and Z at the bottom), costs approximately Rs30,000, while those in the E-F scale could sell for as much as Rs48,000.

Sheila Kumar is a journalist, manuscript editor and writer based in Bengaluru.

Fine Print runs viewpoints on luxury and design from different writers.

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