The festive season seems a good time to meet Vijay Jain, investment banker-turned-diamond retailer. With his business management degree and art dealer wife, Kajal, Jain is as Next Gen as you can get.
We meet at China House, Grand Hyatt’s fancy new Chinese restaurant in Mumbai, where we are seated two tables away from adman Prahlad Kakar and his creative team. From there on, for the next hour or so, I try, over dim sums, seafood noodles and diet Pepsi, to persuade the 39-year-old to part with some of the insider intrigues of the diamond trade.
It is not easy. Orra’s turnover is estimated at Rs100 crore plus, but Jain is cagey about confirming the numbers. “No figures,” he says, when I ask him about sales. Still, he proudly points out that when Orra launched a little more than three years ago, there were as many as 37 jewellery brands in the market. “Most were outspending us 10-12 times—all of them had stars, Sushmita Sen and what have you. Today, if you look at the 37 brands, very few have actually succeeded and most of them are operating at a very skeletal level.” With its 34 stand-alone stores, he says, Orra has grown with the branded jewellery market at a happy rate of 50%. On the eve of Dussehra, Jain is off to Vizag to inaugurate his 35th store.
Some of this success may have to do with Rosy Blue, Jain’s Belgian partners in Orra and the world’s largest diamond manufacturers (owned by the Mehta family which is of Indian origin; the company has an annual turnover of $1.8 billion, approx. Rs7,200 crore). Rosy Blue bring with them their base in Antwerp and their “sightholder” connection with diamond mining monopoly De Beers (they are one of the 80 firms allowed a “sighting” and supply of the famed De Beers diamonds). De Beers’ notorious control over the world’s most precious stone has been well-documented in books such as Jay Epstein’s The Rise and Fall of Diamonds and the 2006 blockbuster Blood Diamond. In the film, Leonardo DiCaprio plays a diamond hustler delivering blood diamonds to a South Africa-incorporated, London-based buying syndicate.
Dr No: Confidentiality is his second name.
I ask Jain if he thinks the sinister diamond buying company in the film is the same as the South Africa-incorporated, London-based De Beers. “No,” he says, very emphatically. And though he hasn’t visited one yet, diamond mines today, he understands, are very different from those depicted in the film. “They’re air-conditioned and they have vehicles that go all the way in,” he says. And no, he has never seen a blood diamond, those notorious conflict diamonds obtained from turbulent African states.
So, why did Jain pick the diamond business? His traditional Marwari business family is based in Fatehpur in Rajasthan, with interests in real estate and textiles. But Jain’s generation (he has a brother and a sister) moved from Fatehpur to New Delhi and then to Mumbai to become bankers in various multinational firms. That’s when, at Peregrine India, whilst pitching for a jewellery retailer buyout deal, Jain met Rosy Blue. The deal didn’t happen, but Rosy Blue—who were looking for an Indian partner—chose Jain. For Jain, the venture made sense: “I was very clear I wanted to do something on my own. Diamonds, with their aesthetic side, seemed perfect.”
His most exciting diamond moment so far has been his first visit to Antwerp’s diamond district in 2002. “It’s really quaint, and like going back in time. The Hasidic Jews wear their traditional attire with kippa caps and the Indians are in suits. There are policemen everywhere too, and cameras on the street. I remember walking into Rosy Blue with shoes off, passport surrendered and through two sets of double doors. Inside, there are hundreds and thousands of carats of diamonds lying on desks in the office, and cameras everywhere."
We speak about the reported breakthrough in the manufacture of synthetic diamonds and its implications for the industry. “Diamonds today are certified with the De Beers ‘Forever’ mark or with other hallmarks. And since a diamond is a gift of love, people will not go for the artificial, chemically-made thing,” Jain says. What if, as reports go, the new diamonds are completely identical to the real one? I persist. Won’t people be tempted to proffer love less expensively? “Perhaps,” he concedes, but right now, “colour and clarity in artificial diamonds have got a long way to go”.
Diamonds have always been big business, as Jain, with his dedicated Orra outlets, will certify. “While other brands focused on “young India”, “happening India” and set up outlets in malls, we preferred to stay stand-alone. A mall may have many visitors, but the average person will not walk in with more than Rs10,000 in his pocket. To expect such a person to spend more than Rs5,000 is highly unlikely.” So, by sticking to dedicated outlets, and within these outlets, stocking only diamond jewellery (which would account for only 30% of total jewellery sales), Jain has worked towards maximizing transaction values. “Single sales of Rs1 crore or a crore and a half for a diamond set are not unusual,” he says. And if it is a business family wedding, with something for the wife, the bhabhi, the aunt, the overall cost could go up to Rs3-4 crore.
Orra’s splashiest collection to date has been the $1 million set modelled by Mallika Sherawat during her 2005 appearance in Cannes with Jackie Chan. “Prior to Mallika going to Cannes, Aishwarya had gone, and she had been completely trashed by the media,” says Jain. “Therefore, Mallika was very particular about her look. She wanted us to create something special for her. She saw it several times as we went through the design process. Since she was playing an Indian princess, we designed a bajuband (arm band), which is as Indian as you can get, with rose cut diamonds and pearls, a white gold choker and payals (anklets).
So, did Mallika happily return the custom-made set? “She returned it,” Jain reports—“happily, I don’t know.” The set sold almost immediately afterwards —the choker to an NRI and the payal to a Mumbai-based industrialist’s wife (Jain won’t say who). “A jeweller is like a doctor or a lawyer,” he says, explaining why he maintains client confidentiality. “You throw an evening party and you call 200 people and the client is one of them—like when we had the prince and princess of Belgium or the president of Botswana; we had everybody there. But you can’t name names.”
Jain is upbeat about the future, the high price of gold (Rs9,600 per 10gm) notwithstanding. Sales have slowed, he concedes, and with the dollar depreciating, gold looks set to cross the Rs10,000 mark. Still, Orra’s spiritual collection of taveezes is doing well. There’s a good demand for 3D designs with depth and for classical pieces with a contemporary twist.
Jewellery habits are like food and drink, they tend to be culture specific, Jain explains. “So, while the South stays focused on purity and clarity, customers in the North prefer solitaires and large diamonds—more flash for more cash.”
Born:12 September 1968 (Samastipur)
Education: B.Com from SRCC, Delhi University; MBA from SP Jain, Mumbai
Work Profile: Worked at Kotak Mahindra, SSKI and Rabo Bank before turning entrepreneur
Drives: Silver Honda Civic
Favourite Gadget: Vaio laptop
Food Recommendation: Papaya salad at Mumbai’s Thai Pavilion
Favourite Drink: Single Malt
Currently Reading: ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ by Mohsin Hamid
(Write to firstname.lastname@example.org)