The man of the moment, quite contrary to his actions, has been described by many as a soft-spoken, shy and introverted man. But clearly, as the proverb goes, “Do not judge a book by its cover”.
Modi, who was born in India but grew up in Belgium, is a man for whom diamonds were dinner table talk, for his father took his family business from Singapore to the diamond capital of the world—Antwerp, Belgium. Modi comes from a Jain family from the Gujarat-Rajasthan border city of Palanpur. His grandfather Keshavlal Modi used to trade diamonds in southern India in the early twentieth century, and then moved to Singapore.
Though 47-year-old Modi came from a family of diamond merchants, he had initially decided against joining the family business. Instead he went to Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, where he studied Japanese and finance. But, he dropped out after a year. Soon after, he decided to join his maternal uncle, Mehul Choksi, at Gitanjali Gems, one of the largest diamond companies in India, in Mumbai. It was here that he learnt the different facets of the jewellery business. He worked with Choksi for nearly a decade and in 1999, he started his company, Firestone Diamond Pvt Ltd, which later became Firestar Diamond. He has always insisted that he didn’t borrow from his family or parents to begin his business. He claims he began it from his own investments made over the decade of his working with Choksi.
He began by selling diamonds in bulk to manufacturers in UK and the US, but that wasn’t enough to stay afloat. He realised that once the jewellers bought diamonds from him, they would then engage a team to sort these out according to size, colour and shape. He offered to do the sorting for his clients. Once he made some money, he began to offer manufacturing of jewellery for US clients, who would then sell them to retailers. Soon enough, the market began to decline as wholesale Indian and Chinese jewellery manufactures began to sell directly to retailers.
He then acquired the wholesale division of Frederick Goldman, a US diamond retailer in 2005 for $25 million and two years later, he bought Sandberg & Sikorski, the largest jewellery supplier to the US Armed Forces, and A Jaffe, a 120-year-old luxury bridal jewellery label, for $50 million. Now, Modi has boutiques in London, New York, Las Vegas, Hawai, Singapore, Beijing and Macau. In India, he has stores in Mumbai and Delhi.
So how did Nirav Modi break into the scene and become so famous? It all began with an auction. In 2009, he was persuaded to design a pair of earrings for a friend. He enjoyed the process and decided to venture into jewellery-making. By 2010, he began to work towards creating a luxury jewellery brand. In his own words, he had a very old diamond from a royal family in Golconda and a lot of pink diamonds. He decided to create a modern piece for his launch, but Christie’s heard about it and convinced Modi to let them auction it for their Hong Kong auction in 2010. It sold for a whopping ₹16.29 crore ($3.56 million). It also helped that they put his creation on their catalogue cover.
This auction created the man. The auction house had until then only featured renowned jewellers such as Harry Winston, Cartier and Van Cleef and Arpels. Modi had said in an interview to CNBC that nobody knew him until then, he was a ‘zero’ and then he became a sensation overnight. Soon after, in 2011, an Orchid Ainra Necklace was sold at a Christie’s auction and the same necklace sold for over ₹13 crore (a 71% price rise over its 2011 price) in 2015 at the same auction house. In 2012, at a Sotheby’s auction, a Riviere diamond necklace sold for $5.1 million.
Modi’s jewellery pieces have been worn by Hollywood actors such as Kate Winslet, Dakota Johnson and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, and Indian actors such as Aishwarya Rai, Lisa Hayden, Priyanka Chopra, Kareena Kapoor Khan, Jacqueline Fernandez and Sonam Kapoor.
The pieces in his jewellery collection ranges from ₹5 lakhs to ₹50 crores. And he ranked 85 in Forbes’s India’s billionaires list for 2017, with financial worth of about $1.73 billion.
There was industry talk about Nirav Modi going bankrupt in 2015 owing to the recession, but he had dismissed such talk as vicious gossip in an interview with Fortune.
Called the diamantaire to the stars, Modi is married to Ami, a US citizen, and has three children. His younger brother Neeshal married Mukesh Ambani’s niece, Ishita Salgaonkar, daughter of Mukesh’s and Anil’s sister Deepti Salgaonkar and Duttaraj Salgaonkar, in December 2016. Their engagement was hosted at Antilla.
He has never counted jewellery designers as his close friends and has said that most of his friends were chartered accountants. The bent of mind was what they had in common, he would say, in a report on reddiff.com.