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Jewelry designer Nirav Modi is sitting in the plush, velvet-upholstered VIP room of his new boutique in Hong Kong’s 1881 Heritage shopping center. The store, his third in that luxury-obsessed city and eighth worldwide, is neighbored by such jewelry-world stalwarts as Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels. The relatively unknown Modi, 45 years old and based in Mumbai, is wearing the kind of inconspicuous gray suit favored by businessmen everywhere. Much more conspicuous, however, is the creation in his hands: a ring topped with a cascade of jasmine blossoms, each petal a canary yellow or white diamond, totaling over 10.5 carats. Modi explains that the airy, nearly invisible setting—minimal metal and maximum sparkle— is one of the innovations that’s become a signature since he launched his brand seven years ago. “That’s the Indian spirit,” he says. “The relentlessness.” And that’s what Modi’s banking on to become Asia’s first export to dominate the highest stratum of the jewelry industry. “We want to be Asia’s first luxury brand,” he declares.
Modi’s declaration is a battle cry, particularly at a time when luxury brands are struggling to maintain theirmarket share. But if anyone has the bona fides, it’s Modi: A third-generation diamantaire (his family roots in the industry go back 100 years), he was raised in Antwerp, the international epicenter of diamond trading. When he was growing up, gems were a regular part of dinner table conversation. Observing his diamond-trader father’s work left a strong impression. At 19, Modi dropped out of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, after just one year, and moved to India to begin working with his uncle, also a diamond trader. Modi was content running his own trading company until eight years ago, when a friend approached him about making her a pair of earrings. He had a revelation: Why not produce his own collection?
Modi’s approach to design is informed by a technical prowess gleaned over years working in jewelry manufacturing. He is open about the fact that he can’t draw, preferring to dictate a narrative—often to his sister Purvi, who works on product design and development. Since starting his brand, he’s patented four proprietary cuts. One, the Endless cut, was inspired by a jade ring he saw at 19. “It was like $100,000, and I went, ‘Huh? It looks like green plastic.’” After learning that the ring had been carved out of a single piece of jade—a difficult and costly pursuit—“I thought, Ah, one day in diamonds...” Some 20 years later he invented a cut that could be pieced together creating the illusion of a seamless band of diamonds, and it’s become one of the cornerstones of his burgeoning jewelry empire.
When asked how his Indian heritage factors into his designs, Modi returns to that sense of relentlessness, a desire to “create something that the world has not seen.” India has an illustrious history of fabulous jewelry with a distinct style: lustrous 24-karat gold, intricately carved stones, vividly colored enamel work. All of which are noticeably absent from Modi’s designs. In his core collection, color is limited to the occasional yellow or pink diamond. “But this is modern India,” he says, explaining how his country represents a mindset more than any specific aesthetic. “Everybody in India is smiling. That is luxury.”