Jewel Thief

Upala Sen pieces together a portrait of Nirav Modi, the man whose fashioned diamonds stole countless hearts but whose alleged banking fraud now has the  nation crying foul   

By Upala Sen
  • Published 18.02.18
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Nirav Modi. Picture Credit: Gajanan Dudhalkar

Some of you might remember this TV ad from long ago - a man sitting at a restaurant with a drink and peering at the other patrons through a bottle of liquor. And what does he see? The pleasant-faced chubby young man on the table to his right is actually a sloth; the sour-faced lady to his left is a snake; the gentleman in the far corner with a high-pitched laughter is a hyena...

Of course it is easy to say now, but watching YouTube interviews of Nirav Modi even sans magic bottle, he looks a bit like a hamster. Those poky strands of hair on balding pate, beady eyes, pink nose. In one particular business segment of a foreign channel, he is seen twitching his lips, and darting his tongue in and out. Yes, definitely a hamster.

Now, hamsters are strictly solitary creatures, crepuscular or active primarily during twilight, excellent diggers and hoarders. A handy checklist.

Lisa Haydon

Let's see. Nirav was always known to be bit of a solitary figure. In a 2015 piece "Can Nirav Modi Win New York?" published in Fortune India, Pavan Lall writes, "In all of this, what is surprising is how so few people in the tiny diamond community - dominated by a handful of Palanpuri Jains and Marwaris - know Modi personally. 'Ask any jeweller in Mumbai if he has met me in the last decade,' Modi challenges me, 'and the answer you'll get is "no".' To make sure it isn't an exaggeration, I call three jewellery CEOs. Each had an opinion on Modi, but none had met him."

It appears he was also intensely private. Google, and you will not find very many photographs of him apart from those from his store launches in Hong Kong or New York or Dubai. In these he is not seen with any colleague or family, but either by himself and his flaming pocket square or flanked by lanky models and actresses. And for all the hue and cry about non-payment of dues to Priyanka Chopra - the global face of brand Nirav Modi - the image search throws up a generous number of photographs of Modi with model Lisa Haydon. Lisa at Umaid Bhawan Palace, Jodhpur; Lisa at La Biennale Paris; Lisa at Madison Avenue... One hopes there are no pending bills for the new mother. For the sake of family connections at least - Haydon's sister used to be Modi's daughters' ballet teacher.

Kate Winslet

Solitary. Check. Private too. The next box to tick off is crepuscular.

In a sense, Modi is a creature of the twilight. Flitting in and out of the shadows. Think about it, what do we know about his beginnings? Apart from the "three generations of diamantaires" prattle - grandfather Keshavlal is said to have left Gujarat's Palanpur or Surat for Singapore, father Deepak moved to Antwerp, Belgium - no two reports seem to even agree on the country of Modi's birth. At the University of Pennsylvania - Wharton School, he supposedly read Japanese and Finance. And while this might be an absolutely valid claim, nothing is known about what made him a suitable candidate. After all, it was a highly competitive space even in the 1990s and all one knows of his school days is that he wanted to be a music conductor and that his mother would force him to visit museums. Unrelated facts, that don't add up to anything.

Rosie Huntington

We don't know what made him drop out from Wharton after a year. Neither is it known why the 19-year-old came to or was sent to India to apprentice with mamaji Mehul Choksi of the Gitanjali group, when his own father - the second-generation diamantaire - was very much around. Of course, there is that entire story about the 1990s, liberalisation, opening markets, famed linkages in the power-backed Gujarati business community back home - sound reasons perhaps.

It has been said that while he did not get himself a degree from Wharton, Modi did get himself a wife from there. The couple has two daughters and a son. But if you are turning to Google, don't. There's nothing there save a passport-type photograph of wife Ami, that too from very many years ago.

 Priyanka Chopra

We know nothing of this promising jeweller's India stint for the next 10 years. He is a work in progress, a diamond mined but still uncut. And then in 1999, he sets up Firestone Diamond, which he later re-christens Firestar Diamond. The preliminary expertise was something called fluting or sourcing diamonds to suit customer requirements. The following years saw a flurry of retail-related acquisitions worth million of dollars, a lot of it in the US. Burrowing, the hamster was burrowing.

The transition from dealing in diamonds to designing diamond jewellery also has a twilight type of story attached to it. A nameless friend begs him to design something and he obliges. This is around 2007. It turns out good and fires a sleeping appetite and thus is born something called the Golconda Lotus Necklace and with it brand Nirav Modi. The Golconda Necklace fetches Rs 16.29 crore at Christie's in Hong Kong in 2010.

A Firestone Diamond ring. Picture Credits: Gajanan Dudhalkar

Vinod Nair, founder of VNA, a consultancy for fashion professionals and a veteran fashion editor, remembers Modi from a fleeting communication in 2012. Says Nair, "He was not big enough then. He shot to fame because he got the British actor, Rosie Huntington, to model for his brand." Nair, who has organised luxury conferences in India and addressed several abroad and is familiar with this world, says that while he never heard anything shady about the man, he did wonder where he had suddenly sprung from. "He catapulted from a normal jeweller to someone who could rope in a Huntington and a Priyanka Chopra as brand ambassadors and endorsers."

One thing is clear, here was a man who was thinking really big. Hamsters, you would be interested to know, have elongated cheek pouches extending to their shoulders, helps them bite off more than they can chew.

Top jewellery houses the world over take their name from their founders - (Louis-François) Cartier, (Sotir) Bulgari, (Alfred) Van Cleef & (Salomon) Arpels. But Modi gave his brand his whole name. Good thing too, after all, imagine the confusion if had called it just "Modi".

The designs are flamboyant. Have to be, to get the world talking. An Emerald Waterfall necklace, Flaming Star earrings, the Pear Celestial ring. His pieces are supposed to cost anything between Rs 5 lakh and Rs 50 crore, suggest reports. But we do know that the Mogok Ruby Suite is priced at Rs 105 crore.

He never tires of telling the media about how he came to design the stretchable Embrace bangle of 800 locks and 1,600 diamonds, inspired by his daughters' friendship bands. (Even Steven Spielberg is said to have tried it on.) Really clever design, except that the man who is said to be such an ace designer doesn't sketch at all. Something about him verbally communicating his designs. Would that be an euphemism for barking orders? Who knows. We know he hired American designer Jeff Kantra, the same who was previously employed with the French brand, Carvin French. In time, a lot of his immediate family got involved in his business in some capacity or the other - wife Ami, brother Nishal who also happens to be married to Mukesh Ambani's sister's daughter, and mamaji Mehul Choksi. All of them have now been named in the First Information Report or FIR for criminal conspiracy and cheating registered by the Central Bureau of Investigation.

From 2010 onwards, the years are a flurry of activity and plenty. The brand opens shops in Delhi, Mumbai, and also New York, Las Vegas, Hawaii, London - Bond Street, no less - Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Hong Kong, Macau, Beijing... Modi seems to be a man in a great hurry - his self-declared goal is to open a hundred stores by 2025.

In 2016, Hollywood actress Kate Winslet wears a Nirav Modi creation at the Oscars. She talks of the jewels being "statement pieces" and also expresses her gratitude to Nirav Modi for his generous donation to the Golden Hat, a not-for-profit organisation co-founded by her. Modi also has his own charity meant to empower youth and families from underprivileged communities.

In 2017, Priyanka Chopra is signed up as the global ambassador of the brand. The Quantico star puts out a statement about it being a "meeting of minds". In one of the commercials, she is seen being proposed to by Student of the Year Sidharth Malhotra. After a rough day, over dinner an exasperated Chopra is seen telling her beau how her propensity to say "yes" lands her in trouble. The tag line is "Nirav Modi Diamonds - Say yes forever". But the punch line lies elsewhere. Chopra says, "My colleague asked for a big loan and I said 'yes'. And he vanished!" God is a snarky scriptwriter.

In any case, for all the razzle dazzle, Nirav Modi the man, never stepped out of the twilight. Or even if he did, we were so blinded by the glitter, we didn't see. So all we are left with of the man is precisely those tidbits that he chose to dole out. How he shopped for clothes once in five years, but designed himself the Endless Cut diamond ring. Instead of looking like a cohort of chunky rocks, it is designed to create the illusion of a diamond halo, never mind the reported 90 per cent diamond waste it leaves in its wake. Why he wore fish-shaped cufflinks - after a newspaper headline that called him NiMo. A nod to the fish in Finding Nemo. Nemo in Latin also means nobody or no one. That he was an art collector with a 400-plus collection that started out with Amrita Sher-Gill's Boy With Lemons. He didn't speak Gujarati at home. Loved to read (Robert) Frost of miles to go, (Alexander) Dumas of Man In The Iron Mask, David Ogilvy's Confessions of an Advertising man. And slept with the Bhagwad Gita by his bedside.

Before he ran out on the Punjab National Bank, and the Indian taxpayer with Rs 11,000 crores and counting, NiMo, a self-professed watch-collector was planning to diversify - get into watches in a big way. Canny merchant that he was, he knew he would need to get into the business of buying and selling time. Who knows what he's planning next from his lofty-plush Manhattan refuge?

Hamsters, we have it on authority, have a way of slipping out of cages.