With his European sensibilities and Indian acumen, Nirav Modi has created a global jewellery brand seemingly out of nowhere. Yet who is he? A marketing genius, a master diamantaire who knows how to extract the most out of his craftsmen, or a businessman who wants to break out of the traditional diamond trader mould and make a billion-dollar point?
When Nirav Modi speaks, his words are barely audible. You have to lean in to catch his hushed tones, sometimes uncomfortably so. Yet the billionaire’s gentle disposition belies his imperious, ballsy core – a searing ambition to create India’s first luxury brand. In a few short years, Modi has shaken up the highest end of the global jewellery industry, with jaw-dropping advertising campaigns shot by the likes of Peter Lindbergh; an aggressive roll-out of boutiques on prized real estate like Madison Avenue and Old Bond Street; and a razor-sharp PR strategy that has placed his jewellery on the necks and ears of Hollywood’s leading actresses as they walk the most prestigious red carpets. “We’re an Indian luxury brand going global,” says the 46-year-old. “That’s the opportunity.”
Modi was raised in Antwerp, the diamond trading capital of the world. Modi’s family are part of the Jain community who control Antwerp’s wholesale diamond industry. While he developed an eye for aesthetics from his mother, who dragged him as a child to some of Europe’s greatest museums, it’s his father who taught him how to discern the quality of rough stones. Modi moved to India at the early age of 19 to learn the ropes of the trade – and he made a killing. Yet, over the years he noticed that the industry based in Mumbai and Surat seemed content being suppliers to the world’s leading jewellers, and sensed there was a global market for a rarefied brand that married Indian craftsmanship with an international design sensibility. “It’s not that people here haven’t tried, they just haven’t had the aspiration,” he says.
Part of what Modi is attempting to do is take on a centuries-established hierarchy dominated by the iconic jewellery houses of Europe, steeped in history, tradition and patronage. But Modi thinks he has some key advantages. “One is our aesthetic: No one has this level of detailing or rigour. Most jewellers will talk of design, and design is a part of it. But it’s our craftsmanship that brings the jewel to life. Our craftsmen are third- and fourth-generation. Which other country has that? As an Indian jeweller these are some of the resources we naturally tap into.” His creations are instantly seductive and have gained attention at the top end of the spectrum, with the appetites of affluent Chinese consumers in Hong Kong and Macao as voracious for Modi’s refined, intelligent products as wealthy Western buyers.
Another key pillar for Modi is service. “We’re open seven days a week at all of our locations and provide full service. That’s an Indian thing, and crucial. I find it funny when jewellers say they’re closed on weekends, which doesn’t make sense to me. I’m open on Sundays because that’s when both husband and wife are free to come.”
Yet it’s not just a global clientele that Modi has worked his magic with. One of the greatest opportunities is the vast Indian market itself, where most jewellery design still errs on the heavy and ornate – traditional codes Modi feels are increasingly less relevant among contemporary lifestyles. “We have an Indian take on luxury that’s modern and elegant,” says Modi, who ranked 71st on Forbes’ 2016 list of the richest Indians, with a reported worth of $1.74 billion. “If we can make desirable jewellery, we’ll have clients, and a brand and a business.”
Nirav Modi seemingly appeared out nowhere to land on the Forbes list in 2013, prompting dismissive chatter, especially among establishment jewellers threatened by his disruptive, rapid ascent. “I’m sympathetic,” he whispers philosophically. “Envy is a highly irrational emotion. If you consider Pandora’s sins, all of them have some gratification… Sloth, greed, lust. You may have regrets after the fact, but there is some gratification, either before or after. Envy has no pay off. So I understand the emotion, but it’s not a rational one.” While Modi is stoic, he admits that he’s upset certain factions of the established order and that not everyone, even among his tight-knit community, has celebrated his success. “If I look at it, yes I do get affected,” he says. “But there is also a high level of adulation. Both are too much. For me it’s about being grounded because all of this is fleeting. There are moments of sadness, which is again irrational, but then I question why I should feel sad if somebody is envious. On the other hand, there are moments of happiness when people say good things about you. That too, I don’t think is right. So I go back to my place, put my head down and just continue my work.”