"My great-grandfather was a pearl dealer and my grandfather was an auctioneer," says a 32-year-old Vihari Sheth as she recounts her family lineage. Sheth's family hails from the city of Palanpur in western India, the birthplace of India's diamond trade. Recent reports show that diamond traders from Palanpur have come to dominate the Antwerp diamond industry.
"Almost all diamond traders in India [were] from Palanpur — it was ruled by a very prominent Maharaja [ruler] back when the British occupied India," Sheth explains. These families who worked for the maharaja possessed sharp business acumen and sold polished diamonds abroad.
One of these cities was Singapore, where Sheth's grandfather used to visit. "He used to come to Singapore back in the 1930s to auction unique jewellery from the maharajahs [rulers] in Hilton Hotel with a local partner," Sheth continues. Back then, her grandfather tended to "all the jewellery shops in Singapore. He offered them fine gems from India which included Basra pearl, Moghal emeralds, rubies, and diamonds."
From left, a yellow-green diamond ring in 18k white gold, a signature 12.84 carat ruby ring.
Like the majority of other diamond trader families in Palanpur, Sheth's family moved their business to Bombay (now Mumbai). It "was a very big move then as Bombay was the dream city and the place to grow back in their era. It was the New York of [India]."
Sheth's father was then born in Bombay. In an Indian diamond traders' family, it seems like the business is not so much of a choice, but a birthright. Sheth's father, Rajesh Sheth, joined the family business. And when he eventually came of age in 1978, he moved the business to Singapore — where it remains today but the baton has been passed on to Vihari Sheth.
Even as a child, Vihari Sheth found herself sitting in the office watching her father work. "I used to be allowed to help him count the diamonds. It was the best thing ever," she recalls. "I would get some pocket money from him when I worked on holidays." In this part-time stint, she learnt how to "grade colour and clarity, and sieve sizes."
An intense blue diamond ring in 18k white gold.
Eventually, she was taught the history of her family's involvement and origins in the Palanpur diamond trade. "I used to read the history of how the Maharajahs acquired most of these important gemstones," Sheth recounts. These rulers of Indian districts and states had the front row seats to rare gems of the world. They would buy them and have some polished and sold by traders in the likes of Sheth's family. Vihari Sheth knew that she, along with her father, were middlemen who could share these rare gems with her friends and clients. "I am allowing Singapore as a nation to be able to view the [rarest] stones the world has to offer — many, at times, they are the only piece available."
Sheth pursued a business degree at the Gemological Institute of America's (GIA) campus in Carlsbad, California before moving on to jewellery design and enrolling herself in the graduate gemologist programme. Later, she learned the ropes of the business in Italy and came home to Singapore in 2006 to start her own label, Vihari Jewels.
When it comes to the design process, Sheth has few words to say. To the purist in her, the stone dictates design. "The stone is always the attraction. The design is merely a little bit of 'make-up' to bring out the lovely specifications of the diamonds," Sheth explains. "I allow the gems to come and speak to me."
It is an intuitive process that requires a seasoned eye. To Sheth, other gemologists may have spent decades training their eyes on diamonds and gemstones for decades. Yet, that's barely enough. For her, she has inherited a century worth of experience from her great-grandfather till date. "You have to be born into a trader's family to have it within your bloodstream," says Sheth. "It's a gift which you are born into."
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