Business News

Indian Jewelers Put Their Work on World Stage

Gayatri Rangachari Shah

For centuries, India has been the world’s back office for jewelry making. A main supplier of precious stones, the country was also the world’s sole source of diamonds until they were discovered in Brazil in 1729.

Indian customers look at gold jewellery items on display at the Tribhovandas Bhimji Zaveri (TBZ) store in Ahmedabad.
Sam Panthaky | AFP | Getty Images

When the great Western jewelers designed for Indian royals in the 19th and early 20th centuries, they were seduced by India’s tremendous jewelry heritage, and soon enough their India-inspired designs became the rage in Europe.

As those Western craftsmen became significant brands, India’s own highly skilled local jewelers remained anonymous, their works rarely hallmarked.

That is changing. A subset of jewelry companies, from the exclusive houses Bhagat and Nirav Modi to the more accessible label Amrapali, is embracing the importance of branding.

They are understanding the importance of expanding their presence beyond India. They have made inroads with European and American buyers, either by setting up their own stores or by showing their wares in exclusive boutiques, select trunk shows and fairs. Some even figure in the fine jewelry auctions of Sotheby’s and Christie’s

“We are gaining acceptance in the international market,” said Tarang Arora, 28, who heads Amrapali’s design team and also oversees the company’s international operations.

Viren Bhagat, who has seven workshops in and around Mumbai, makes 60 to 70 one-of-a-kind pieces a year, first hand-drawing each piece to scale. He never works on commission. He has been known to take as long as 10 years to find the right stones to finish one item. His prices start at around $50,000 for a ring, for example, but other pieces can rise well above $1 million.

“I see jewels as art objects,” Mr. Bhagat said.

He sells his works at his own store, Bhagat, in the Kemps Corner area of Mumbai, and at the New York boutique of Fiona Druckenmiller, who specializes in rare gems.

“Viren’s pieces are incredibly sumptuous, elegant, romantic,” Ms. Druckenmiller said by e-mail from New York. “He only uses the best stones, drawing inspiration from traditional Mogul design, but adding touches that are contemporary and uniquely his own.”

Rahul Kadakia, head of jewelry for the Americas at Christie’s, said Mr. Bhagat’s delicate Mogul-inspired style “with a modern deco flair has found a great following.”

He noted by e-mail from New York last month that a diamond and pearl sautoir necklace, highlighted on the cover of the April 2007 catalog for Christie’s New York, had been sold for nearly $1 million, “illustrating the great appeal of his creations internationally.”

Lisa Hubbard, the Sotheby’s head of jewelry for the Americas, described Mr. Bhagat’s jewels as a modern fantasy with echoes of the past.

“His ingredients include faceted or polished drops of brilliant color, natural pearls with the sheen of satin, diamonds cut for their brilliance or cut as petals to frame a colored stone,” she said recently by e-mail from New York.

Mr. Bhagat’s styles, she said, are “very much at home” with today’s contemporary global fashions.

Mr. Bhagat, inspired by Indian textiles, architecture and painting, particularly of the 16th- and 17th-century Mogul period, uses precious natural stones to create intricate designs set in gold, where the metal is hardly visible to the eye. He recently sold a flower-shaped ring in which white diamond petals surrounding a fancy yellow diamond moved just as they would in nature.

Nirav Modi, whose father and grandfather built up a large-volume wholesale diamond business, said he had always harbored ambitions to create a luxury jewelry brand from India. That brand now exists as a division of the family’s wholesale manufacturing and export company, Firestar Diamond, which sells to American retailers like J.C. Penney and Zales, has its own U.S. brand, A. Jaffe, and runs manufacturing facilities around the world. Mr. Modi said Firestar had revenue of $600 million last year.

Under the Nirav Modi brand, which started in December 2010, he produces 100 pieces a year in limited editions and specializes in hard-to-find quality stones. His lead craftsman, the American Jeff Kantra, formerly worked with Carvin French, the fine-jewelry maker whose clients include Harry Winston, Verdura, Tiffany and Van Cleef & Arpels. Prices range from $28,000 for an elastic gold and diamond bangle to $10 million for a diamond necklace.

Mr. Kadakia, the Christie’s executive, said Mr. Modi went to “great lengths to create exceptional jewels,” like a choker featuring a rare pear-shaped, D color and internally flawless diamond set with rare pink and white diamonds from the Golconda mines of coastal India — veins that were depleted by the late 1700s.

Ms. Hubbard, the Sotheby’s executive, also highlighted Mr. Modi’s combination of artistry and technical innovation. His patented “Ainra” cut is a type of setting for rings, necklaces and earrings that replaces the usual gold links with diamonds cut into the shape of links. (Ainra means eternal power in Swahili.)

His patented “Endless” cut uses no prongs or claws in the setting. The diamonds are shaped to fit into one another with a thin, barely visible channel of metal running along the rim of the rings, hoops or bangles.

On a far larger production scale is Amrapali, founded more than 30 years ago in Jaipur by two friends, Rajesh Ajmera and Rajiv Arora (Tarang Arora’s father), who employ more than a thousand artisans to create jewelry. Unlike the work of Mr. Bhagat or Mr. Modi, Amrapali’s pieces are priced at entry levels as low as $400 and rarely rise higher than $150,000.

The company has done much to bring India’s jewelry repertoire to the attention of a global audience. Worn by Hollywood celebrities like Jennifer Lopez, Penélope Cruz and Sandra Bullock, its ethnic designs draw on sources like the Mogul tradition that fused Hindu and Muslim arts to create settings that combine precious stones with gold and enamel inlays.

Amrapali has also popularized traditional styles from across southern India, including the gold Guttapusal pearl and gemstone necklace, which originated near the pearl fisheries of the Coromandel Coast.

The company also designs thalis, a type of traditional pendant necklace worn by married women, the style of which varies by caste and community.

“We don’t want to be known as a Bond Street jeweler; we want to be known as an offbeat Indian jeweler,” Tarang Arora said.

Still, the brand has a London boutique, recently remodeled, in the upscale Knightsbridge district and plans to open a by-appointment-only store on New York’s Fifth Avenue by the summer.

London is also beckoning Mr. Bhagat, who one day wants to open on Old Bond Street, home to the world’s major jewelers: and Mr. Modi too, almost despite himself, plans to open there in the next few years.

“When I first started, people said, ‘You should have Nirav Modi Genève, Nirav Modi Paris’ and I said ‘No’,” Mr. Modi said. “My goal is not to match Geneva and Paris but to be better in terms of craftsmanship, finishing and in the importance of stones. I think the greatest jewels can come from India.”