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On the rocks

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Nirav Modi grew up in a family that discussed diamonds over dinner. That's probably why he's one of the world's most sought after designers of exquisite jewellery

Nirav Modi says he has diamonds in his genes. And the 41-year-old has lived up to his sparkling family lineage - three generations of his family are in the diamond business - by creating unique pieces and cuts that have won him global acclaim.

Late last year, when the Riviere of Perfection diamond necklace went under the hammer at Sotheby's auction house in Hong Kong for Rs 27 crore, Modi was dubbed 'the perfectionist with the tantalising rocks'. He's the owner of some of the world's rarest pink, blue, white and yellow diamonds and the creator of the 385-carat Emerald Cuff and the 100-carat Constellation necklace.

Modi's grandfather was one of the earliest Gujarati traders from Palampur to enter the diamond business in the 1920s. Modi grew up in Antwerp, the world's biggest diamond trading hub, where his father has been trading in rough diamonds for over 50 years. "Dinner-time conversation was usually about rare and important diamonds. My interest was piqued subconsciously. In fact, when I started working, most diamond terminology was second nature to me, " he says.

The Belgian city also exposed Modi to a lot of art and design - from 16th century paintings by Rubens and art nouveau architecture to modern-day fashion designers. "My aesthetics are strongly influenced by what I saw around me, " he says. Visits to India made him conscious of dexterous craftsmanship. "Much like my knowledge about diamonds, I didn't consciously study jewellery design but imbibed a lot of what I saw, " says Modi, who enrolled at Wharton to major in finance and Japanese. A year later, he called it quits and decided to join the family business.

Modi was 19 when he touched down in Mumbai to work with his uncle at Gitanjali Jewels, which "is honestly where my real education began as I learnt different facets of the business, from diamond grading, jewellery design and retail to marketing and management".

The transition from uncut diamonds to fine jewellery happened when a friend asked him to design a pair of earrings. His initial reaction was a no. When she persisted, Modi agreed and started by sourcing the best quality diamonds.

It took him six months to make the pair. "I couldn't find matching polished diamonds, so I got my brother to look for them in Russia. Only after I found the perfect pair did I get them cut and polished at our factory, " he says. The pair is amongst his friend's most prized possessions. "I read somewhere that the power of art lies in its ability to create a connection between an author's imagination and his reader. The day I gave the earrings to my friend, I think I made a similar connection, " he says.

There's been no looking back since. Despite having designs that have been on the covers of catalogues of auction houses Sotheby's and Christie's, Modi takes pride in one particular pair of earrings - the bunny rabbit earrings his fouryear-old daughter asked him to make. "She was delighted when I gave them to her. She asked me to create a line around it, " he says.

Modi's inspiration "comes from everything around, especially nature". That's evident in his Fluire collection, which uses lots of designs of leaves, flowers and clouds. "I love unusual things. I once created gold elastic bangles, and the inspiration came from the plastic ones my daughters loved. I've even drawn from mythology - the Shalimar ring has Lakshmi coming out of a lotus, the Arabian Nights, and the art deco movement. Inspiration can come from the most unexpected sources, " he says.

He feels that a lack of a formal training has been a blessing in disguise. "It frees me from the trap of following a norm, " he says. Modi evolved the 'ainra cut' and 'endless cut' techniques that focus on the stone and not the metal used. "My idea was to create jewels with minimal metal, pieces in which diamonds would remain conspicuous and undisturbed. Although everyone around me was sceptical, I kept pushing and we now have two unique, patented diamond cuts, " says Modi.

In 2010, his 121. 99-carat Golconda Lotus Necklace was selected by Christie's for the cover of its catalogue. "The necklace was not finished at the time. They had seen a work-in-progress and asked if they could have it for the next auction. Of course, I agreed, " he says.

He's glad his work is not viewed in the 'ethnic' segment that most Indian work tends to get placed in. "I want my creations to be worn across time and space, " he says talking about Riviere of Perfection. "It took me over two years to source the finest diamonds for the necklace that weighs 88. 88 carats, which in Chinese mythology is an auspicious figure that signifies wealth and prosperity, " he says.

With the market in India opening up, Modi's suggestions for those who look at diamonds as both a style statement and good investment is to keep track of the 4Cs - cut, colour, clarity and carat weight. "It's always good to read up about diamonds on sites like Gemological Institute of America, " he says. "A jewel is meant to be worn, so remember to look for an everlasting design that can be paired both with Indian and Western attire. "

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