Varda Shine, the aptly-named managing director of the Diamond Trading Corp. (DTC), a global supplier of rough diamonds, welcomes me warmly into her suite on the sixth floor of the heritage wing of the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower hotel on a late November evening. Our meeting has not been easy to organize—Shine is in India only for a few days and has business meetings to conduct, a conference to attend and a dinner meeting right after our chat. It takes a last-minute shuffling of schedules before we settle on a 1-hour slot over coffee, biscuits and room service chocolates in her suite.
(Her dinner appointment would come as a godsend. Within 2 hours of our interview, and almost moments after Shine left the hotel with associates, terrorists laid siege to it for almost three days, gunning down several guests, especially foreigners. Shine was unharmed and returned safely to London.)
Change agent: When Shine took over as MD, she made several changes in top management in order to bring fresh, new voices to DTC.
That evening, Shine is dressed simply in a printed blouse, skirt and a woollen black bolero. A streak of blood-red colour in her brown hair leaps out. As we walk over and settle into the couch in the corner, I sense Shine shrugging off exhaustion and mentally preparing for our chat. And then, in a flash, there is a fresh smile on her face and she is ready to go. I ask what brings her to India.
“Basically, once a year I go round to each one of the cutting centres around the world and have meetings with all the sightholders. It is really an annual review. How the year has been so far...what are the plans for next year and so on,” explains Shine as a member of her staff orders coffees for all of us. Shine prefers espresso but “by the time they bring it here it will be too cold”, so she settles for black coffee.
She speaks with an unobtrusive but obvious accent that is hard to pin down. It is actually Israeli. Shine was born in Israel and spent the first three decades of her life there before moving to London 11 years ago. But for a quirk of fate she would have become a doctor instead of being at the helm of one of the biggest names in the global diamond business.
After her army service, a mandatory two years for all citizens in Israel, Shine was accepted to study medicine in university. “But then I had eight months to kill from the time I was released from the air force and the academic year started,” explains Shine. So while looking around for ways to “kill her time and collect a little money”, she saw a job advertisement for a sales assistant in Diamdel Israel, a supplier of rough diamonds.
“I went in, saw how things worked and then really learnt it from the bottom up,” remembers Shine. That was the moment, 25 years ago, when Shine’s relationship with the diamond industry began. She repeats the number to herself: “Twenty-five years... shocking, isn’t it?”
In hindsight, Shine reckons that each step of her professional experience, from the air force to the early days at Diamdel, prepared her for her ever-expanding responsibilities at DTC. “At the air force there were five of us girls running a training facility for new air traffic technology. We had our own budgets, building...it was really like running a business,” explains Shine. And despite pressure from the forces to stay back— “a tempting offer”, Shine recalls—she decided to move on.
When she joined Diamdel, Shine remembers that the international market was just recovering from a slump. “So it was a good time in 1983, because the market had just started rising again. It was a great experience. And then I went from sales assistant to sales manager and then I developed a computer system for stock management which they still use in Hindustan Diamond Corp.!”
So with the experience of one fall and rise behind her, is Shine coping better with the current slump in the global economy?
Shine smiles and takes a deep breath before replying. No doubt she has a well thought-out, cut and polished answer to this stock question. “There is a problem. We can’t deny that. But diamonds are different. We have three stories to tell.”
The first, Shine explains, is that diamonds retain their value over a long time. So people buy and hold them. I try to ask her if diamond prices fluctuate like those of other commodities when she interrupts, “Diamonds are not commodities!” She has a look of a shock on her face, and not all of it is faux.
The second story is “a new trend in consumerism”: “What we call ‘fewer, better things’. In times of recession, consumers gravitate towards quality. In good days, people buy, buy, buy... But now quality is more important. Would you buy a handbag that goes out of fashion in two months...or a diamond that is always in fashion?”
The final reason why she believes diamonds will buck the trend is the emotional aspect. “It is the ultimate way in which people...human beings know how to express their feelings,” she explains.
No doubt the story has been told and retold a thousand times to colleagues and business associates on her many journeys all over the world. But Shine’s moving hands and nodding head convey a sense of sincerity; this woman really likes her diamonds.
As she sips on her coffee, I ask her what keeps her in the De Beers family—DTC is part of the Belgian conglomerate. Isn’t she sick of the stones after 25 years? Shine rubbishes the idea. She explains: “We did some market research which showed that once a woman gets a diamond she is addicted. I am living proof!”
And she’s right: From where I sit, I can see Shine’s diamond ear studs, a diamond pendant and a rather glamorous diamond-studded ring. Each one of them several times the size of the one I had bought for my fiancee at our engagement.
Her husband, Shine explains, can never gift her anything with diamonds because “I always know the real price and I tell him, poor man, how much he overpaid for it!”
I take a courtesy sip of my otherwise untouched coffee as her assistant politely tells me to wrap up our meeting.
Finally I ask her for some help: If I had to spent my entire inconsiderable salary on one piece of diamond jewellery for the missus, what should it be? Without a moment’s hesitation Shine replies: “Ear studs. I always say diamond ear studs. She can wear them whenever she wants to and with any dress. You must buy her a pair!”
I promise her I will. And later tell the missus nothing of it.
Curriculum Vitae | Varda Shine
Born: 29 June 1963
Education: Business and management programmes, Oxford University and Cranfield University, UK, and Insead, France.
Current Designation: Managing director
Work Profile: Joined Diamdel Israel in 1983 after a two-year army stint. Moved to the DTC office in London in 1997. Promoted to diamond manager in 1999 and then sales director in 2003. Appointed managing director, DTC International, in January 2006.
Pastimes: Walking holidays, operas and old movies. But Shine gets little time.
Nowadays: She takes a break on Saturdays and prefers to work Sundays.
Favourite Politicians: “I think Botswana has the best politicians in the world. They are very proactive and want to do good things for their country.”