Mumbai: Nirav Modi, the man at the centre of the alleged $1.77 billion banking fraud at Punjab National Bank (PNB), is a regular on the pages of some of the world’s leading international financial dailies and fashion magazines, advertising for stores on glamorous high streets. There’s 31 Old Bond Street in London and 727 Madison Avenue in New York. In Mumbai, his store will soon replace the iconic Rhythm House at Colaba which shuttered in 2016.
Billboards with brand ambassador Priyanka Chopra are plastered all across India’s commercial capital.
But, for some years now, life for the 47-year-old billionaire has been anything but glamorous. Since 2014, a year after he first appeared on the Forbes billionaire list, Modi has been under the scanner of law enforcement agencies—the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and Enforcement Directorate (ED)—as well as the tax department for alleged illegal transactions and 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 inquiry for allegedly cheating PNB of Rs280 crore. The ED, meanwhile, has registered a case against him for money laundering, and is conducting multiple searches on properties owned by him.
Modi did not respond to emails seeking comment.
Born in India and raised in the Belgian city Antwerp, the diamond capital of the world, Modi is a third-generation diamantaire.
Growing up in the thick of the diamond business, dinner table conversations at home would often be about the size and cut of the latest rock the family had acquired. Yet, this was not his first choice of profession. Modi, described as a soft-spoken and unassuming man by those who know him, aspired to be a music conductor.
That explains his love of hi-fi music systems—he would scout the world for the best offerings from top 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 after dropping out the of University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Uncle Mehul Choksi, chairman, Gitanjali Gems, is one of the four accused in the ongoing CBI investigation, although he has denied being associated with any of Modi’s companies.
It was his initial nine years at Gitanjali Gems in the 1990s that laid the foundation for Modi’s own jewellery business.
According to a caution note sent by PNB 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 7 February, Gitanjali Gems informed the stock exchanges that Choksi had no dealings with the Modi firm in the centre of the scams and that he had retired as partner in one of them in 1999.
Modi’s tryst with jewellery design happened by chance, in 2009, when he was persuaded to design a pair of earrings for a friend.
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 a 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.
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 star Kate Winslet who wore diamond creations by the jewellery designer for her red-carpet walk at the 2016 Oscars. In addition, many of India’s biggest business families have been buying diamonds from him for years.
Modi is ranked 1,234 in Forbes’s 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 nurturing family customs and tradition, he 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.
“I am naturally shy,” he told Mint in 2016.
For all this, his future for now looks clouded and heavy.