It is a battle for supremacy which has been playing out since 700 BCE, albeit in fits and bursts. But even today, there is no clear winner in the face-off between gold and platinum, two of the world’s most coveted metals. Be it in terms of optics as to which is more precious (platinum is 30 times rarer than gold but can’t beat gold’s value as a liquid asset) or even the price they are sold at (at the time of writing, platinum sold at a little over Rs 27,000 per 10 grammes while gold was vending for Rs 38,049 for similar grammage), both gold and platinum have played a never-ending game of catch-up.
Over the last decade though, platinum has been trying to beard the lion (gold) in its own den by making inroads into the Indian jewellery market, one of the most evolved in the world and also bound intricately, by tradition and culture. India’s consumption of gold, even today, remains one of the highest in the world. In 2018, for instance, the gold demand in India was 760.4 tonnes. To put it in perspective, 3,332 tonnes of gold were mined globally in 2018. “For Indians, gold is auspicious, it is traditional and it is our safeguard against bad times. There are many layers to unpack when it comes to gold and all of this informs our jewellery buying,” says Shantibhai R Patel, the president of the Gem & Jewellery Trade Council of India. But even though India’s gold demand remains high, there is a distinct attitude shift as acknowledged by even Patel, an otherwise traditional jeweller. “Young people today don’t like heavy jewellery. Minimalism is the key,” he says.
It was in 2000 when the Platinum Guild International, a marketing organisation which aims to develop a global platinum jewellery market, entered India. The country, as Vaishali Banerjee, the managing director of the Platinum Guild of India, describes it, was a “start-up market. It did not exist in any significant way, we built it.” It was the dawn of a new century and the impact of the economic reforms of a decade ago were beginning to be visible in India, not just in terms of increasing disposable income but also a cable TV-exposed generation with an international outlook. “The jewellery market was evolving from a mom-and-pop store into a more organised retail set up, and since the early 1990s, diamonds had started coming up, so the consumer was willing to look beyond gold,” says Banerjee over the phone. The Platinum Guild spent the next nine years researching the Indian market as well as the consumer and it was only in 2009 that the guild started rolling out platinum jewellery.
In India, there is a jewellery investment pyramid with attitudes dictated by a family’s net worth. “Even the poorest of poor will buy silver. Then once a family has some money put aside, they buy gold. Diamond, emeralds, polka, kundan, all these are post-investment, indulgence buys, when people are not worried about re-sale and have enough money and savings stashed away,” explains Patel. Between 2014 and 2019, the mutual fund industry in India has reportedly added 44.2 million folios, the bulk of it in the individual investor segment. On an average, the Indian mutual fund industry has grown at more than 10 per cent annually as more and more Indians have started looking beyond traditional investment options, like gold. As India’s young population booms (34 per cent of the country’s population will be in the age group of 15 to 35 by 2020), its aspirations and its ideas of what constitutes savings and financial security are changing. “For me, jewellery is purely an indulgence buy; it is about me rewarding me. I accepted sometime ago that I do have a cultural affinity with it, I mark all big occasions by rewarding myself with jewellery but it doesn’t take the form of elaborate neckpieces, bangles or even rings. I would buy solitaires, perhaps a tennis bracelet, even a bejewelled watch. For my parents, jewellery purchase, even when an indulgence, is always gold because for them it is a mindset. I invest my money in more fixed assets and don’t really see gold through that lens,” says Samira Kumar, a 35-year-old social media consultant. She describes her style as “low key” and “minimalist” as “I dress mostly in Westerns. My jewellery has to reflect my standing in life, not my net worth,” she laughs. For her 35th birthday, Kumar gifted herself a one-carat diamond solitaire set in platinum.
Kumar hasn’t shopped at Kalyan Jewellers yet but Ramesh Kalyanaraman, the executive director of Kalyan Jewellers, has her profile down pat. “A lot of young people today see jewellery as a fashion statement, something
that will suit their attire, go with their sense of self. Now jewellery has become a very popular gift for new occasions, like Valentine’s Day, Father’s
Day, Mother’s Day.” And the younger generation, according to him, prefers platinum.
Platinum was categorised as a precious metal only in 1751 with French Emperor Louis XV’s endorsement—he is believed to have said it was the only metal fit for a king. Cartier’s mastery of the metal in the late 19th century sealed its fate. Platinum’s neutral colour serves as the best foil for a diamond, teasing out its whiteness far more than a yellow gold setting ever can. It is, however, a denser metal than most, and as such, requires inordinate skill to work with. The Mumbai-based Viren Bhagat, widely considered one of the greatest jewellers of our time, works only with platinum. ‘He uses platinum because its density allows the settings to be minimal, to the point of invisibility, which only makes the stone more prominent,’ a 2012 Vanity Fair profile on Bhagat reported.
Platinum’s ability to withstand high levels of tension means that there is greater design potential (think thin threads), almost filigree-like appearances. Gold, by its very nature, does not lend itself to such delicacy.
“Today, when couples get married, they will ask for something in platinum, though it is only for one occasion. For all the big ones [ceremonies], they prefer gold or kundan, polka, etcetera,” says Sidharth Bafna, Director, RC Bafna Jewellers. The brand introduced a platinum jewellery range two years ago when they realised there was a demand for it in the market. “And we are a tier two city-based brand with stores in Pune, Kolhapur, Aurangabad and Nashik. So no way is this a big-city phenomenon,” he says. According to Sidharth, social media has played a pivotal role in shaping people’s perceptions about jewellery. “Earlier, you would go to a jeweller and see designs and options but now all of it is on social media.” A lot of the demand is not just driven but also shaped by what are perceived to be trends. So for the Bafnas, platinum chains, earrings and bands are very fast moving products, but there is no demand for bangles or necklaces.
Most of the world’s platinum is still mined in South Africa and near the Ural mountains in Russia. Its current downward swing in prices notwithstanding, platinum has always been associated with exclusivity. That is the reason why all high-end credit cards are labelled platinum. It is thus coveted not just for the sake of aspiration but also self worth. “Its [platinum jewellery] feel is understated and elegant, it goes well with Westerns, suits, etcetera. It is not flashy at all and they [the customers] prefer that. If it is two-toned, like rose gold, it sells very fast,” says Kalyanaraman. His family’s brand, Kalyan Jewellers, has seen a distinct growth in the platinum jewellery sales over the past two to three years but with an interesting caveat. “Over 90 per cent of our revenue in platinum jewellery comes from men, though from north India. In south India, men still wear jewellery in the form of thick gold chains, etcetera, but in north India, more and more men are picking up bracelets, rings, weddings bands. And these people were not gold wearers at all. It is an entirely new segment that has developed in response to this jewellery.”
This is probably music to Banerjee’s ears. Currently, they are running an ad campaign targeted at men, titled ‘Men of Platinum’, which equates the wearer with strength of character. “A lot of thought went into [the campaign] thinking what could be the dominant position of platinum in this country,” says Banerjee. The guild set out to target the young, urban, highly educated Indian who was open to “new metals, new ideas but more importantly, their jewellery purchase had to have meaning, it was a purchase done after a lot of research and consideration,” she says. All of the guild’s ad campaigns have pushed forth the idea of a consumer who balances both the world of tradition (values such as family love) and modernity (leadership qualities with compassion). The entire campaign is reminiscent of the one run by the New-York based ad agency NW Ayer on behalf of De Beers in the 1930s and 1940s, which eventually led to the creation of the diamond engagement ring market in the US, and subsequently, the world. It was in the late 1940s that the famous De Beers tag line—‘a diamond is forever’—was conceived, and has been in use ever since.
In 2018, platinum imports in India were at a reported six tonnes. The guild expects the market to grow in double-digits this year despite the slowdown. “We are projecting growth between 15 to 20 per cent,” says Banerjee. The market, in fact, the guild claims, has grown 25 to 30 per cent every year since 2009. Many established brands, including Tanishq, have a platinum range now. But in spite of such robust figures, gold still has nothing to worry about when it comes to India’s choice of metal. Platinum remains an occasion buy with gold still being the preferred metal for milestones, even though people are looking beyond 22 and 24 carat. While all Platinum Guild-issued jewellery in India comes with a quality certificate, some concerns do remain about the buyback standard of platinum. Bafna Jewellers, for instance, do buy back platinum but only if it comes from their stable.
This year, the jewellery industry is expecting the festive season to be a little lukewarm given that there is a tightening of purse strings everywhere. “But the wedding season always sees an uptick in sale. This is India, people always come back to gold,” says Patel. But it is also very clear that the demand for platinum is on the rise.