Just a month back, a little-known Saudi prince sent the art world into a collective gasp when he bought one of Leonardo da Vinci’s rare paintings (estimated to be just around 20) for an astounding $450 million at Christie’s auction in New York, creating a record as the most expensive artwork ever sold. The 500-year-old painting, Salvator Mundi, which means 'Saviour of the World' in Latin, shows Jesus Christ blessing with his right hand raised and holding a transparent crystal orb in his left.
One of the very few connoisseurs who got to observe the painting from very close quarters was haut diamantaire Nirav Modi. “For half-an-hour alone, I was with the painting… it was something to look at,” says Modi, sitting out of his new 20th floor office at Peninsula Park in Lower Parel, Mumbai.
Born in Antwerp, Nirav is the seventh generation of the Modi family engaged in the diamond trade, who firmly believes that beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. “Jewellery has an intrinsic value; the value of diamonds, the value of gold, and the design. Art is seemingly different; it’s more about the artist and painting. It’s much more subjective,” explains Modi, who himself is an ardent collector of paintings.
Modi’s exposure to the world of art began at a very young age as his mother, an interior designer, made it a point to visit museums and galleries whenever the family went on a vacation, particularly to Europe. “Be it the Prado or the Louvre, as a kid I had no option but to accompany her,” says Modi smiling. But he is glad she did that. So much so that he has made it a point that even his children accompany their mother to galleries and museums as and when possible. Appreciating art has also made Modi the designer that he is. “I create the design, which is then crafted to perfection by my trained artists at our workshop in Mumbai,” reveals Modi.
Though exposed to art a very young age, it was only in 2000 that Modi took the first step towards becoming an avid art collector. It was a tete-a-tete with the late Jehangir Nicholson, an art patron, at his Mumbai home that saw Modi landing up with his first big purchase — a painting by Francis Souza. Soon the works of Amrita Sher-Gil, VS Gaitonde, Akbar Padamsee, MF Husain and the likes found their way into Modi’s collections. While Modi continues to a have special fascination for traditional Indian paintings, it was in 2008 during a trip to Beijing for Olympics that he got introduced to the Chinese art form of ink-on-paper. Inspired by what he saw, Modi ended up buying “End of the World” by Xu Lei and “Zitan Screen” by Zeng Xiaojun. Today, Modi has a 400-plus collection — including works of contemporary artists such as Bharti Kher, Raqib Shaw and Subodh Gupta — that not just adorn the walls at his workplace, but also his home.
If art imitates life, how can it not influence design? Quite a few jewellery collections from Modi have found their inspiration in some impressive artwork. Claude Monet's masterpiece ‘Water Lilies' led Modi to design the entire Lotus collection — finest quality sparkling diamonds, set in white and rose gold in a layered style to emulate a lotus. A Gond painting by the late Jangarh Singh Shyam was the inspiration behind the Mermaid Cuff collection, while Francis Souza's “Metropolis” inspired his Spring necklaces and earrings.
It’s not just art, even his daughter's innocuous plastic bangles resulted in the Embrace collection that feature fine diamonds set with millimeter precision to create the impression of diamonds being painted onto the jewel. Also intrigued by the stretchable function of the plastic bangles, Modi incorporated the same mechanism in the jewel that allows it to ‘stretch’ lithely over the wearer’s wrist.
Not surprising that his inspired pieces are appreciated even by the rich and the famous. A couple of years back at Nirav Modi’s lounge in Mumbai, walked in a gentleman named Steven Spielberg to pick up a bangle for his wife Kate Capshaw. Going through his collection, Spielberg remarked that the photos really didn’t do justice to his artwork. That’s when he asked Modi, “Can I take a video?” Not to let go of the opportunity, Modi replied: “Yes, sure, why not. I have heard that you are pretty good at it!” Whether Spielberg, who filmed the collection on his iPhone, ended up buying anything we don’t know for sure, but that he left the store inspired is enough endorsement that Nirav Modi’s penchant for art is paying off for good.