Indian master diamond cutter finds himself at the centre of the biggest banking scam in the country’s history
New Delhi: In 2013, when asked about his dream project, jeweller Nirav Modi said: “It’s all about putting India on the world map. And for that I am doing my bit.”
The master diamantaire, whose creations have draped Hollywood and Bollywood stars such as Kate Winslet, Priyanka Chopra and Dakota Johnson, has indeed lived up to his promise.
Indian investigators yesterday closed down a branch of the state-run Punjab National Bank (PNB) that is at the heart of Modi’s $1.77 billion (Dh6.5 billion) fraud — the biggest scam in the country’s banking history.
The allegations against Modi generated a flurry of coverage across TV screens and newspapers, with investigators saying the jeweller and his family had left India in early January.
Born into a Jain family from the Gujarat-Rajasthan border city of Palanpur in 1970, Modi grew up in Antwerp in Belgium and comes from a family of diamantaires — or master diamond cutters.
His grandfather Keshavlal Modi used to trade diamonds in southern India in the 1930s and 40s, before moving to Singapore.
Then his father Deepak Modi took the business to Antwerp in Belgium, the diamond capital of the world.
Modi’s interior designer mother ensured he went to every museum in every city they visited.
Like many other entrepreneurs around the world, he is a college dropout: at the age of 19, after quitting Wharton School, Modi joined his uncle Mehul Choksi in the family business — Gitanjali Gems in Mumbai.
At 47, before his alleged scam was unearthed, Modi was known the world over as the founder of an eponymous brand owned by the firm Firestar Diamond, a $2.3 billion jewellery company.
His clientele stretched across three continents, with stores in Mumbai, London, New York, Las Vegas, Hawaii, Singapore and Macau.
Modi made his foray into the Forbes list of richest Indians in 2013, ranking at 52. Last year, his ranking dropped to 85, but he was also on the Forbes’ list of billionaires across the world.
He dreamed of opening 100 Nirav Modi stores around the world by 2025.
The foray of Modi — no relation to Indian prime minister Narendra Modi — into the jewellery business began in 2009, after he designed a pair of earrings for a close friend.
A year later, his exquisitely designed diamond necklace with an embedded Golconda diamond of 12.29 carats, fetched $3.56 million at a Christie’s auction in Hong Kong — marking his entry into the ranks of big-time jewellers.
In 2012, his Riviere Diamond Necklace was sold for $5.1 million at a Sotheby’s auction in Hong Kong.
Modi became the first Indian to feature on the cover of Christie’s auction catalogue. In 2014, he opened his flagship store in New Delhi and a year later in Mumbai. His was perhaps the first Indian luxury brand to have a 90-square metre (1,000 square feet) store in the most luxurious address of New York — Madison Avenue — with Gucci, Prada, Chanel and Hermes as neighbours. The same year, Modi also walked the Red Carpet alongside Kate Winslet at the Oscars that year as the latter had adorned a Nirav Modi jewel. Thereafter, he set up stores in other luxury locations around the world, procuring rough diamonds from Russia, Sierra Leone and Armenia which were being sold in Belgium.
Married to Ami, a US citizen, the couple has a son and two daughters. Modi is known to shop for clothes once in five years, buying in bulk shirts in one go and a number of suits every few years. Known as much for his stunning pieces of jewellery as for his flamboyant parties and socialising, Modi said that he would have become a music conductor if not a jeweller to Hollywood and Bollywood stars.
Not having any regrets in life, Modi once said: “There will always be one comma here, a full stop there …” The world is now scrambling to figure out how his fledgling diamond empire has come to a full stop.
Quick facts on Nirav Modi
• At 42, Nirav Modi entered the Forbes list of global billionaires. He was ranked 52nd in the list of Indian billionaires in 2013.
• His brand, Nirav Modi, is owned by the firm Firestar Diamond, a $2.3 billion jewellery company.
• Modi’s net worth as of October 2017, according to Forbes, was $1.8 billion.
• Modi’s jewels have been worn by celebrities including Kate Winslet, Aishwariya Rai, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Naomi Watts, Priyanka Chopra, Coco Rocha and Lisa Haydon.