Jewellery Designer Nirav Modi is Taking Over the World — Here's Why
When a dazzling necklace by an Indian newcomer stole the cover of a 2010 Christie’s Hong Kong auction catalogue, a coveted piece of real estate previously only occupied be traditional heritage brands such as Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Tiffany & Co and Harry Winston, the world of high jewellery sat up and took notice. Featuring a rare 12.29-carat Golconda diamond and a delicate lattice of white and Argyle pink diamonds, the beautiful piece had taken the little-known Mumbai-based brand a year to create. With the subsequent sale of the Golconda Lotus necklace for more than US$3.5 million, Nirav Modi—the man and the brand—had emerged from obscurity to stand on the world stage.
Nirav grew up in Belgium, where his father was a diamond trader. At the age of 19 and after just a year at university in the US, he dropped out and moved to India to train under his uncle, also a diamond trader. “I learned the business and worked 12-hour days almost all week. After a decade, I’d saved a good amount of money to put up for my own diamond company. With just 15 people, I started Firestar Diamond, and it was exhilarating seeing and touching these beautiful diamonds. Having this source of excellent diamonds at hand, I created Nirav Modi, the jewellery brand, in 2010 and here we are today,” he says as we chat in the VIP room of his flagship store in Kala Ghoda, an affluent area in southern Mumbai that’s home to heritage buildings, museums and art galleries.
In the six short years since Nirav created the Golconda Lotus necklace to launch his eponymous brand, the 45-year-old entrepreneur has accomplished what most in the industry take decades to achieve—a solid, growing retail network and a sophisticated, vertically integrated business. Housed above the offices of his diamond trading company in the city’s Kohinoor district, the Nirav Modi workshop employs 500 highly skilled craftsmen, many of them second- or third-generation artisans, to make all the jewellery by hand. Every step of the production process is carried out in-house, including the cutting and polishing of the stones, which come from Firestar downstairs.
“Only the best diamonds are used,” Nirav stresses. “We source over US$1 billion worth of diamonds and of those, the very best—the top 10 per cent at most—are kept for Nirav Modi.” The brand also manages its own visual merchandising, with a dedicated team overseeing all in-store decor, packaging and even gifts for clients.
Nirav himself is very much involved in designing the jewellery. All the collections are realisations of his concepts. “I can’t draw, but I work closely with the designers to translate my ideas into actual jewellery—a process that can take from as little as a few hours to as long as half a year,” he says. A well-travelled art lover, Nirav is inspired by art, nature and architecture. “We travelled a lot as a family when I was a child. My mum was an interior designer, so I developed an appreciation for beautiful things and when we were in a new city the first stop was usually a museum.”
Sometimes, though, inspiration strikes unexpectedly, as in the case of the Embrace bangle. “I heard my daughters giggling uncontrollably one evening and wondered what could be causing such joy,” recalls Nirav. “It turned out they were playing with elastic bands and it hit me: Why not make jewellery that’s elastic?” The resulting bangle, an engineering marvel that took two years to develop, incorporates more than 800 moving parts and thousands of diamonds.
One of the rules of the brand’s design aesthetic is that the jewellery should contain as little metal as possible so the diamonds shine to their full potential. This tenet is so important that it’s displayed on cards at the workstations. The brand’s artisans have also developed and patented four special cuts—the Ainra, Endless, Mughal and Jasmine—to achieve maximum shine.
But the factors of utmost importance in terms of design are the fluidity and comfort of the jewellery, says Nirav. “Our pieces are made with the woman in mind—always. The piece has to move with her. It should be beautiful, yes, but never uncomfortable. I remember my mother would come home from her parties and the first thing she’d do was take off her jewellery and heave a sigh of relief. That stuck with me. I remember thinking it shouldn’t be this way. So when we’re testing a piece, we would have a woman wear the jewellery for hours and observe her, and ask her how she feels after wearing it.”
As we’re wrapping up the interview, Nirav mentions he’s flying to Milan that evening to inspect real estate. At a time when nearly everyone in the luxury sector is anxious about a slowdown in spending, Nirav is aggressively expanding. The brand has six boutiques in prime locations in Mumbai, New Delhi, New York, Miami and Hong Kong, with a couple more opening in London and Macau before the end of the year. “The goal is to reach 100 stores by 2025, and I’m confident we will achieve that,” he says. I chuckle as I remember a comment from one of his employees: “I honestly don’t know how he does it. I don’t think he sleeps.”
"Our pieces are made with the woman in mind—always. The piece has to move with her. It should be beautiful, yes, but never uncomfortable" — Nirav Modi
Apart from his business acumen, drive and passion for jewellery, what strikes me most about Nirav is that he’s unaffected by his success. At 45, this softly spoken, mild-mannered guy is among the 100 wealthiest people in India, according to Forbes magazine, with a net worth of US$1.68 billion. Asked how he feels about being called the “Diamond King” and “India’s youngest billionaire,” he blushes almost the shade of the ruby on his finger and says, “Really, I just want to make beautiful jewellery; everything else is secondary.” And I believe him.
Optimum shine, comfort and movement are three of the guiding principles in the creation of Nirav Modi’s jewellery. Click through the gallery below for some of Nirav Modi's design highlights.
Left: Jasmine ring; Right: The exquisite Golconda Lotus necklace featured on the cover of Christie’s Hong Kong catalogue in 2010
Left: Tremblant ring with a 3-carat fancy yellow diamond; Right: Embrace bangle in rose gold
Left: Waterfall interchangeable ring set with a 5.9-carat emerald-cut diamond; Right: The Mughal cut, one of the four cuts patented by Nirav Modi