Manilal Chheda, 42, likes to boast that the only people unhappy with the success of his business are robbers and dacoits. "They won't find what they're looking for here," he said. This statement seems odd coming from a man who owns more than half a dozen jewellery stores across Mumbai. But Chheda's customers have little to worry about when they wear his jewellery. As his slogan says, "Sone se kam nahin, khone pe gam nahin' (It's as good as gold, but you won't feel sad if you lose it).
This is one reason that one-gram gold jewellery has caught on. And made Chheda's idea - which he's converted into the brand Swarg - click.
"Men come and thank us," said Chheda, "because we have made it easier for them to meet their wives' desires for jewellery."
Swarg entered the jewellery market in 2005 at a time when gold prices had gone through the roof, making the yellow metal unaffordable to the middle class. Prices of the metal have been oscillating between Rs 11,000 and Rs 13,000 for ten grams and are expected to rise further.
The son of a grocer, Chheda's is one of those success stories that started small, with a small idea in a small town on a small budget in the late 1990s. "We ran a dollar store in Nashik," said the 42-year-old Kutchi businessman, seated in his sparsely furnished office near Thane station. "Those were the days when gold prices were steadily rising. Gold was slowly going out of the reach of the middle class," said Chheda. "I told myself if people mix copper in gold jewellery why can't we make copper jewellery and mix it with gold?"
A random thought led to two years of research during which Chheda and his brothers, Vijay and Subhash, started experimenting with copper jewellery polished with gold. "I made my wife wear some of these pieces that we got manufactured to see how they react on skin," he said.
When he felt he had found a solid substitute for real gold jewellery he began building on the idea. The brothers travelled to villages in West Bengal looking for artisans who would make this kind of jewellery for them.
"Artisans in cities would work only with pure gold and charge Rs 30 to Rs 40 for a gram as labour," he said. He rounded up 30 artisans from villages and convinced them to work for Rs 3 a gram. With his team in place and Rs 30,000 as initial capital, the Chheda brothers launched 'Swarg' (Hindi for 'heaven').
"It was his dream, hence the name," said Vijay Chheda, the younger brother who sits at the outlet located in Dadar (West).
The first store came up in Nashik in 2003. After Nashik, it was Surat, Ahmednagar and Pune. "People would visit our outlets from Mumbai and Thane to buy our jewellery," said Chheda, sipping on sweet, cardamom-flavoured tea. "There were many housewives who purchased jewellery from us at Nashik or Pune and sold it from their homes in Mumbai."
At the Dahisar factory, artisans make necklaces, mangalsutras and bangles from patterns created by a team of a dozen designers. These designers create at least 40 designs daily. Their brief is to go back in time and create antique, traditional designs. Each day, fresh pieces of jewellery reach the showrooms.
"At least 1,000 people buy jewellery from our stores in Mumbai and Thane each day," said Chheda with a casual wave of his palm, the rings on his fingers reflecting off his crisp off-white shirt. "From the day we started in Nashik, everything we produce gets sold."
The brothers believe in interacting with their customers as much as possible. So if you were to dial the mobile numbers printed on their hoardings along the central railway line, either Vijay or his elder brother are most likely to answer.
Chheda also ensures his staff is trained well, not just in selling the jewellery but also in understanding customer preferences. "I have one man in each showroom only to interact with customers. Once I train my staff I don't interfere at all," he said.
All the people who joined the Chheda brothers when they launched Swarg are still with them. They are spread over all the showrooms and they, in turn, train new staff.
"Unlike others, I never insisted on employing people from my caste," said Chheda. "All my boys and girls are from lower middle class families. They need the money and work hard."
Prithviraj Kothari, director, Riddhi Siddhi Bullions, Mumbai, said the one-gram gold jewellery trend is likely to stay. "Prices of all base metals like gold and silver are increasing so much that people are getting diverted towards one gram gold jewellery," he said.
Snehal Dalvi, a Swarg customer, agreed. "Gold has become very expensive, with prices touching nearly Rs 13,000 for ten grams," said the 40-year-old homemaker who had travelled all the way from Malad to Swarg's Dadar (West) showroom to buy earrings. "That is why I prefer one-gram gold. I can buy more pieces and wear them daily without worrying about losing them."
According to Vijay, one-gram gold jewellery gained popularity because of a shift in choices. "Women invest in one or two gold sets and don't want to repeat the same set on every occasion. Since one gram sets are inexpensive they can buy pieces to match them with their outfits," said Vijay.
According to Vijay, Swarg's biggest competitor is Swarg itself. "We have to constantly strive to better our brand value and gauge well in advance what the market may need in future," he said.
Despite huge demand for Indian jewellery in international markets, the brothers are not keen on tapping the export potential of their product. "The Indian market itself is very huge and we are finding it difficult to get good labour to help us meet the demand," said Chheda.
The next stop was obvious. Swarg came to Mumbai two years ago and has seven outlets between Dadar and Thane all strategically located outside railway stations.
The Chhedas take pride in revealing that none of their showrooms are less than 1,000 square feet in area. Chheda is gradually extending his reach to the western suburbs too.
By the end of this year Chheda plans to open more than 80 outlets across Maharashtra. "Our designs, like our customer base, are purely Maharashtrian," said Chheda. "And from day one, we have sold everything we have produced."