Nirav Modi: Man of stone8 min read . Updated: 26 Sep 2013, 01:39 AM IST
Nirav Modi: From third-generation diamantaire to first-generation jeweller
In the fall of 2010, an unassuming Indian jeweler took the auction world by storm. His exquisitely designed diamond necklace with a pear-shaped Golconda diamond of 12.29 carats embedded in the centre on a lattice-work chain, studded with a cluster of rectangular pink and oval colourless diamonds, fetched $3.56 million at a Christie’s auction in Hong Kong.
The auction marked Nirav Modi’s entry into the world of big-time jewellers, just a year after he started designing jewellery. It made him the first Indian to feature on the cover of Christie’s auction catalogue, quite an accolade for a country known more for its diamond cutting and polishing industry and less for high-end jewellery.
In an interview with Forbes magazine earlier this year, Rahul Kadakia, head of Christie’s jewellery department in New York, acknowledged that the auction house doesn’t generally feature first-time designers on the cover of its auction catalogue, but Modi’s “fluid design" couldn’t be overlooked.
As for Modi, there was no looking back. He kept appearing at various international auctions and, in October 2012, his Riviere Diamond Necklace was sold for $5.1 million at a Sotheby’s auction in Hong Kong to an Asian buyer.
Featuring 36 colourless diamonds, the necklace weighed 88.88 carats, “a numerical symbol of prosperity and fortune in Chinese culture," says Quek Chin Yeow, deputy chairman and head of jewellery department, Sotheby’s Asia, who was in charge of the sale of the necklace.
“With excellent cut, polish and symmetry, all 36 diamonds, ranging from 1.25 to 6 carats, were of type IIa purity—a rare quality found in less than 2% of all gem-quality diamonds that denotes the gem is free of nitrogen," says Quek. “Such a highly desirable strand of pure perfection is rare in the market."
In March this year, Modi entered the Forbes list of billionaires. At the age of 42, Modi was 52nd in the list of Indian billionaires and 1,342 in the global list with a net worth of $1 billion.
Diamonds in his DNA
Diamonds, in his own words, are in the genes of Modi, who was born to a Jain family from the Gujarat-Rajasthan border city of Palanpur. His grandfather Keshavlal Modi used to trade diamonds in southern India in the 1930s and ’40s, and then moved to Singapore. His father Deepak Modi took the business to Antwerp in Belgium, the diamond capital of the world, and is still active in the business. Modi was born in India, but grew up in Belgium.
“Dinner-table conversations used to be always about rare diamonds, and business," recalls Modi. “Sub-consciously, I picked up on diamond terminology."
But despite the background, he didn’t want to be in the family business in his formative years. “I wanted to be a music conductor," Modi says. “Tough. I never had the talent and neither did I study music. But I was just fascinated. Like some children want to be doctors or pilots or something, I wanted to be a music conductor. It was mesmerizing to see a man in an impeccable black suit moving his hand in waves and beautiful music being played following those instructions."
Antwerp also exposed him to a lot of art, culture and design. “It is a beautiful city with plenty of natural landscapes and parks," he recalls. And his interior designer mother ensured he went to every museum in every city they visited. “As a child, who wants to go to a museum? I hated it then, but today I am thankful she did that. That’s how I started appreciating my surroundings and taking inspiration from them." Modi says.
He decided to join the family business when he was 19 and quit Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania to join his uncle at Gitanjali Gems in Mumbai. It was here that he learnt the different facets of the jewellery business.
“He worked with me for close to 10 years," says Mehul Choksi, chairman and managing director, Gitanjali Group, one of the largest diamond companies in India, and Modi’s maternal uncle. “And he was all about style. Very few people in India can match up to his standards."
Mumbai was a culture shock for Modi even though he used to visit the city often during the summers. “Diamond traders here spoke in Gujarati, and though our family is Gujarati, too, we speak English at home," Modi says. “I decided to devote myself completely to work."
Choksi remembers Modi as a shy and introverted person who was focused completely on his business. “He has a no-nonsense attitude when it comes to business. Some day, I am sure, he will make one of those legendary brands like Harry Winston or Van Cleef (& Arpels)," says Choksi.
Building a business
Working for Choksi six-and-a-half days a week for nearly a decade was a very important phase of Modi’s life, he says. It gave him the confidence to start his own business and, in 1999, he started Firestone Diamond Pvt. Ltd. The company later changed its name to Firestar Diamond.
What had started as a 15-person operation in a modest office, at a time when the gems and jewellery industry was in decline, has now become a global enterprise with a workforce of 1,300 that operates out of a sprawling 28,000 sq. ft office in Kamla Mills Compound in Lower Parel, Mumbai. The company has wholly owned subsidiaries in Hong Kong and the US to strengthen its marketing base. It also has manufacturing units in Armenia.
Modi started his business by trading in diamonds in bulk. He would buy diamonds in bulk, sort them out for shapes, sizes and colours, and sell them to jewellers.
For fiscal year 2012, Firestar posted revenue of ₹ 2,602.58 crore and net profit of ₹ 28.77 crore, according to a CARE Ratings report released in April this year.
Firestar today has several hundred copyrights, 75 registered trademarks, and 10 mechanical patents in its intellectual property library.
In 2010, Modi joined hands with Rio Tinto to retail the Australian miner’s signature Argyle Pink Diamonds in India. The value of such pink diamonds is directly related to their rarity. For every coloured diamond, there exist at least 10,000 colourless ones.
“The annual production of fancy pink diamonds will fill up a champagne flute, that’s it," Modi said in an earlier interview with NDTV Profit news channel. “And the life of a mine is also limited. So, say, in another 10-odd years, we might run out of pink diamonds," he said in that interview.
His company today offers its customers products for every diamond requirement— rough diamonds, polished diamonds with specific cuts, and certified diamonds.
What transformed Modi from a diamantaire into a jeweller is an interesting story.
In 2009, he designed a pair of earrings for a close friend. “I was initially reluctant as I had avoided doing business with friends for years and even changed the subject every time she asked me. Eventually, however, I thoroughly enjoyed the whole process of selecting the right diamonds, going through multiple designs, and crafting the perfect jewel," says Modi.
But what separates a diamantaire from a jeweller? Modi says they are two different domains. “Diamantaires are diamond dealers. So they buy diamonds, polish and then sell diamonds. It is a trading mentality. Jewellery making is more about creation," he says.
Modi’s passion for jewellery speaks for itself. He first understood the significance of jewellery during one exchange of jewels between his mother and wife. “It is an age-old tradition for a woman to pass on her jewellery to her daughter and daughter in-law. The jewellery becomes a treasure from the past and a glimpse into the future," says Modi. “Which is why jewellery is a kind of investment."
And exactly why it takes so long to design an exquisite piece of jewellery. One such piece was the Endless Cut band.
“We have a band that looks like it has been carved out of one diamond. There are no breaks or seams," says Modi. “It took me almost 20 years to make. I had the idea and the intention, but did not have the financial resources or the mental wherewithal."
There is no bread-and-butter thought, design or inspiration for Modi. The inspiration can come from technology, religion, art, nature—anything, he says.
Take for example the Scheherazade collection that was inspired by the legendary Persian queen and the storyteller of One Thousand and One Nights. Or the Shalimar Ring that took its lotus motif from Hindu goddess Lakshmi. The Diamond Embrace Bangles were born when Modi saw his daughters playing with elastic bands.
“You know these plastic bangles that are generally polished gold and stretch to fit all sizes. Once, I saw them playing with them and thought to create a piece of jewellery. That’s how the Diamond Embrace Bangles were made," Modi says. “It is made up of around 800 interlocking parts and stretches to fit all sizes. So it’s a beautiful piece of engineering. It has got white-gold springs and took us two years to make."
When he is not travelling for work or working from his office, Modi loves to read. In his own words, he could be reading the Bhagavad Gita or a fiction thriller, a classic, or the biography of a famous historical figure. “I read around three-four hours every day," he says. He also tries new devices or apps as soon as they are out. “Apart from reading, I love spending time with my wife and three kids."
His spaces, personal or in office, are dotted with artwork. For example, one can not overlook the Buddhist influence inside his Mumbai office, be it the Buddha statue around the reception area or the prayer wheels along one of the passage.
For such an illustrious jeweller, he doesn’t own any jewellery. Last year, his wife gifted him cufflinks with both their daughters’ handprints. Other than that, he only wears a wedding band.