After a slump in 2009, gold is back in vogue and how… In spite of soaring prices, Indians are buying it like never before, both as jewellery and as an investment. Sathya Saran on India's obsession with the yellow metal…

At his flagship store, designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee is helping a bride put together her trousseau. One resplendent ghagra after another is taken off the hanger and displayed, and finally the young woman settles for a rich red with thick gold embroidered creepers on the skirt and a green odhni with gold borders.

She takes a long look at herself in the mirror, and her eyes are at first appreciative, then turn thoughtful. What jewellery will go best with this, she muses.

The designer is quick to respond. He signals to one of the helpers, and is soon handing out a pair of gentle filigreed orbs in pure gold. They are like large crescents that taper as they reach closer to the ear lobe and when the bride tries them on, they add the gleam that only gold can bring, to her honey-tinted skin. Other designers might focus on shoes or bags or other accessories to match their clothes. Sabyasachi, with his uncanny ability to forecast a trend, started creating his signature line of jewellery with a partner, two whole years ago. “Gold works best for the Indian skin,” he says, “and my designs focus on the metal with a mimimal use of stones.”

Down the ages, women have always thought so. Gold works best, and gold has been the preferred metal for all occasions, from naming ceremonies to weddings and is displayed at every special occasion.

Indeed, mankind's obsession with gold is as old as the metal itself; from the first moment it revealed its ability to shine on regardless of weather and time, gold has been hoarded, traded, fought over, and been the cause of both great joys and severe sorrows. Other metals and even the glitter of precious stones pale in comparison. The diamond, thanks to Marilyn Monroe, might still be considered a girl's best friend, but when nations want to hedge themselves against a rainy day, it is to bullion they turn.

Yet, the 1990s were a decade when the Indian flirted with other precious jewellery. Platinum was creating a new awareness of possibilities, and magazines carried lush photos of beautifully cut diamonds nestled against the solid beauty of platinum in a design by Cartier or Harry Winston. Thanks to jewellers trying to keep abreast of fashion trends, gold itself was changing colour, acquiring shades that ranged from pink to white.

The trend pundits hinted that the common yellow gold was best worn by the woman on the street, who was gifted it as part of her wedding jewellery; the elite and the fashion conscious wore other metals, or at least gold that did not look like gold. Brands like Chopard and Bulgari added their perspective, emphasising that it was design and not carats that mattered, at least for the chic set that did not have to buy gold only as investment. All of which convinced the World Gold Council to set up a panel to track attitudes to gold in what seemed a fast-changing environment for the country's till then most preferred metal.

Bouncing back

The WGC need not have worried at all. This year, gold is back where it belongs, on top of the best-selling list. With minor changes in attitude and tastes, Indians, be they in Mumbai or Moradabad, are buying gold as if it is going out of style! (The figure for 2010 is 1,000 tonnes, January-December, and the demand has soared higher in 2011), and the rural areas are registering the most purchases. And that is not counting the recycling of gold that is a constant activity in India, which should amount to another 1,000 tonnes for the same period, if the WGC finding of a 1:1 ratio of import to recycling is any indicator.

The changes in taste are urban-led. Ishu Daswani of Anmol Jewellers finds his clients preferring gold with an oxidised look. “My clients come in asking for something unusual, and love the antique-look pieces we make with a blackish finish. There is no shine at all, and the design is a very important aspect.” “And at a pinch, we can wear it with both a sari, or a western outfit, ” says Neena Shah , a socialite.

However, all jewellers agree that when it comes to weddings, brides-to-be prefer the tried and tested traditional designs. Sabyasachi's designs hark back to the kind of jewellery on Ravi Varma's paintings, which include umbrella-like jhumkas, and Kashmir-ki-kali like balis. Rajiv Arora, co-founder, Amrapali, one of the first to invest heavily in recreating old designs, first in silver and now in gold, adds that design has come full circle, as old now has a double appeal if presented aesthetically: it is unusual, and has ‘ antique' conversational value.

According to Arora, gold is back in vogue thanks to a number of reasons, after a slump in 2009. “When prices rose sharply in 2010, people held back for a while from buying gold because they hoped prices would fall again to the original level. But as gold continued to rise, and political and financial upheavals in the world have caused the dollar to fall and other foreign currencies to fluctuate, suddenly there is comfort and safety perceived in buying gold.”

He adds that both gold and silver, which are now seen as a scarce metals with non-renewable sources, are favourite buys. “It's back to basics”, he adds, “like in the past, villagers invested in gold as insurance against a bad patch that they could encounter, today gold is being bought as security in an unstable world.”

Hallmarking gold has helped immensely too, says Neeta Bhosle, an avant garde jewellery designer. “Now people know they can trust the purity of the gold they buy. And they buy it more freely, as it has a buy-back value.”

But hallmarking is as yet a voluntary option for jewellery makers, and according to Umesh Gangam of Ganjam Nagappa, Bengaluru, a trend that has developed due to gold's rising price is the demand for sheet gold and machine-made jewellery. Of course, the one-carat gold bangles are another hot-selling item among the gold-hungry who wish to sport it but cannot afford the price.

For a rainy day

If gold was a common gifting choice at weddings, that is fast changing. Why gift something that will escalate in price is a common question buyers ask, might as well keep it for oneself. “I buy gold every time I have cash to spare,” says Preeti Mehra, a young executive, “It will be useful for a rainy day, or when I decide to tie the knot”.

Thus, the gold-buying spree encompasses gold coins, bullion, as well as 22 carat ornaments that have no stones so that, should the need arise, can be sold without any loss due to settings. Sabyasachi admits too that often he has seen “brides decked in very heavy, ugly gold ornaments that do not at all compliment my clothes, and that's because the gold is mainly given as investment, not as ornamentation.”

The WGC-created fanfare and the gold-laden bahus in soap operas on TV who also promote the idea of festivals being ideal gold-buying occasions, have caused a literal gold rush during Akshya Thitiya, Raksha Bandhan, and even Karva Chawth.

Banks and private companies like Reliance are selling gold bonds, and the inference is that as some of the buyer's money is invested into gold, it is sure to be safe, as gold prices only rise.

In other words, gold is the new metal of choice. Whether for personal ornamentation or for a safety net for the future.

Election time the temple at Tirupati receives the greatest number of gold gifts meant to persuade The Lord to listen to the donor's pleas. The idol of Sathya Sai Baba is proposed to be made of gold; perhaps with the unspoken hope that his aura will remain bright even as the years pass, and public memory of his physical presence grows dim.

Trends may change in jewellery styles as the years roll on, but gold is a sure player, whatever the style. Sabyasachi shows me a photo of his sister on his phone. She wears gold ornaments on her ears, her neck, her hair, and wrists. “She is getting married this week, and this is her bridal jewellery, it's old fashioned shiny gold in traditional design,” he says, “she plans to wear it all with a simple cotton sari.”

We buy a lot of gold. It's not only a tradition but it makes a great style statement too. One can accessorise using just plain gold bangles with an ethnic kurta to make it complete. My mum primarily shops for gold; we love her collection and taste so we let her do the shopping. I love matte finish for western clothes and like it glitzy for ethnic wear. I feel gold is the wisest investment option as it has the best resale value. I do buy diamonds but nothing can beat gold.

RAIMA SEN

I am very finicky when it comes to my jewellery. I go for silver jewellery dipped and done up in gold. I love gold as it looks good and I buy it for my daughter. Since the prices are soaring now, one can't indulge as much as one would like to. But it's for keeps and an appreciating asset so when I do feel like splurging I buy gold. It's the best investment option.

USHA UTHUP

Everyone likes gold. We all love to invest in gold as the price keeps rising. As far as styling goes, gold is the best to wear during marriages and family functions. Personally I like matte finish and also white gold. My mom is the best to select jewellery for me.

SHRIYA SARAN

AS TOLD TO ARCHANA SUBRAMANIAN

Keywords: yellow metalgoldjewelry

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