For Nirav Modi, life took a turn with a pair of earrings
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For Nirav Modi, life took a turn with a pair of earrings

Jewellery designer Nirav Modi, accused in a Rs 280-crore money laundering case, is described as a soft-spoken person who wanted to be a music conductor. He is also known to be an avid traveller who loves visiting museums.

business Updated: Feb 20, 2018 17:06 IST
Sapna Agarwal
Sapna Agarwal
Livemint, Mumbai
Nirav Modi,PNB,Who is Nirav Modi
Jewellery designer Nirav Modi at his Mumbai office. (Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint file)

Nirav Modi, Haut Diamantaire, and the person at the centre of the $1.77 billion ( Rs 11,400 crore) banking fraud at Punjab National Bank, is a regular on the pages of some of the world’s leading international financial dailies and fashion magazines advertising for stores located at high street locations — 31 Old Bond Street, London, and 727 Madison Avenue, New York. In Mumbai, his store will soon replace the iconic Rythm House at Colaba which shuttered in 2016. Besides, billboards of the brand with brand ambassador Priyanka Chopra are plastered all across the maximum city.

But that was then.

In recent times , life for the 47 year-old billionaire has been anything but sunny. Since 2014, a year after he first appeared on the Forbes billionaire list, he has been under the scanner, chased by various law enforcement authorities — the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Enforcement Directorate (ED) and even the tax department for illegal transactions and alleged frauds. In 2014, the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) called him out for alleged diversion of imported, duty-free, cut and polished diamonds and pearls to the domestic market. The DRI called it a violation of import-export norms. Currently, he is the focus of a CBI enquiry for cheating Punjab National Bank (PNB) of Rs 280 crore. The ED has registered a case against him for money laundering.

Modi did not respond to emails seeking comment.

Born in India but raised in Antwerp in Belgium, the diamond capital of the world, third generation diamantaire Modi grew up as an integral part of the diamond business with the dinner table conversation at home often about the size and cut of the latest rock the family had acquired. Yet, this was not the profession that he wanted to be in during his growing up years. Modi, who is described as soft-spoken, and unassuming by those who know him, aspired to be a music conductor. That also explains his love for hi-fi music systems. He would scout the world for the best from companies like Bang and Olufsen.

Music, though, was not meant to be. He joined the family business of his maternal uncle at Gitanjali Gems Ltd, at 19 having dropped out of University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. His uncle Mehul Choksi, chairman, Gitanjali Gems, is also one of the four accused in the ongoing CBI investigation, although he has denied being associated with any of Modi’s companies.

It was these initial nine years at Gitanjali Gems that laid the foundation for Modi’s own jewellery business. According to a caution note sent by Punjab National Bank to the chiefs of 30 other lenders, Gitanjali Gems group companies used the same methods as the Modi companies to avail guarantee or comfort letters. On February 7, Gitanjali Gems informed the stock exchanges that Choksi had no dealings with the Modi firm in the centre of the scams and he had retired as partner in one of them in 1999.

Read: ED searches multiple locations over Rs 280-cr money laundering probe against Nirav Modi

Modi’s tryst with jewellery design also happened by chance. It started with the designing of a pair of earnings for a friend and that too after a lot of persuasion. This was in 2009. There has been no looking back since.

Within a year he went on to become the first Indian to feature on the cover of a Christie’s auction catalogue in 2010 for his Golconda diamond necklace that fetched $3.56 million at its auction in Hong Kong. In October 2012, his Riviere Diamond Necklace was sold for $5.1 million at a Sotheby’s auction in Hong Kong. In 2013, Modi entered the Forbes list of billionaires for the first time. Today, the brand manages to hold its own among rivals like the century-old Van Cleef and Arpels and Richemont SA’s Cartier and his clients include Hollywood actress Kate Winslet who wore diamond creations by the jewellery designer for her red-carpet arrival at the 2016 Academy Awards. In addition, many of India’s biggest business families have been buying diamonds from him for years.

Modi is ranked 1,234 in Forbes’ world’s billionaires list for 2017, and 85 in India. His financial worth is estimated at $1.73 billion through his jewellery design and retail businesses, according to the Forbes website. The Nirav Modi brand is owned by Firestar Diamond International Pvt. Ltd, a diamond trading and jewellery firm founded by Modi which also owns A Jaffe, another jewellery brand, and produces jewellery for other labels in the US.

The father of three speaks in Gujarati with his wife and children and is committed to family customs and tradition, he had told Mint in an interview in 2016. His interests include reading — about a dozen global newspapers every day, magazines, literature and poetry. An avid traveller he appreciates visiting museums, a habit inculcated by his mother, an interior designer.

For all this, his future for now looks clouded and heavy.

First Published: Feb 15, 2018 13:31 IST