When Nirav Modi opened his first jewellery boutique on New York’s Madison Avenue in 2015, the launch night was attended by the likes of actress Naomi Watts, the Canadian supermodel Coco Rocha – and Donald Trump Jr. To mark the occasion, the shop displayed a “special” piece – a Maharani diamond necklace and earring set valued at $1.65m (£1.25m).
It will all seem a long time ago to the 48-year-old diamond trader who on Wednesday was due to appear before Westminster Magistrate’s Court, arrested by police in London following an extradition request by India.
Born in Palanpur, Gujarat, in the third generation of a diamond-selling family, Modi studied in Belgium when his father Deepak moved to Antwerp to be at the centre of the 1960s gem trade.
According to a Forbes biography in 2013, when he was still described as an unknown jewellery designer breaking onto the international scene, Modi enrolled at the private Ivy League business school of Wharton in Pennsylvania before he “had to drop out due to financial problems”.
In 1990, Modi entered the employment and mentorship of his uncle Mehul Choksi, before striking out on his own with $3m to set up Firestar Diamond, the firm that made him one of India’s richest men with an estimated $1.8bn fortune and 26 subsidiaries around the world.
The big leap for Modi was to move from simply buying, processing and selling diamonds to designing and marketing his own jewellery. Independent auctioneers at the time said Modi certainly had a flair for innovation – even patenting designs that replaced metal links with interlocking crescent-shaped diamonds.
Modi opened his first flagship store in Delhi’s upmarket Defence Colony and has gone on to see his designs worn by the likes of Watts, Kate Winslet and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. The Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra became a brand ambassador in 2017.
It’s not quite rags to riches, but Modi certainly ascribes to the image of a self-made man. Recalling how he started out, he told Forbes: “In those days, successful diamond merchants in India had large families, substantial resources and big factories. Those were the vital factors for success, but I had none of them.”
Modi had his first brush with investigators in 2015 when customs agents accused him of avoiding $5.4m in taxes by importing high-quality, duty-free polished diamonds while using low-value gems to make jewellery for export to Hong Kong and the UAE.
Firestar Diamond settled that case, which a spokesperson dismissed as a “difference of opinion with the authorities”, and even the customs officials who investigated him admitted they were impressed by his demeanour.
“Modi came across as someone who was very suave, cultured, humble, willing to accept a mistake,” one official, who was not named, told The Indian Express.
In 2017, the state-owned Punjab National Bank accused Modi and his uncle Choksi of involvement in one of India’s largest-ever bank frauds, totalling some $2bn (£1.5bn). PNB said Firestar and other firms used fake guarantees written up by rogue PNB staff to secure loans from other banks and lenders.
Modi has previously denied the allegations. He left India in early 2018 and has not returned since. Choksi has been in Antigua since the allegations emerged.
In March, The Daily Telegraph tracked down Modi to an Oxford Street apartment and filmed him, wearing a $10,000 ostrich-hide jacket, declining to answer questions while struggling to hail a cab.
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