Cover A devotee lights a traditional clay lamp during the festival of Diwali at a Hindu temple (Photo: Getty Images)

Kickstarting Diwali with gold jewellery purchases has been a tradition that is widely observed by South Asians worldwide. We dig deeper into where the practice began and how buying jewellery has evolved

People all around the world buy jewellery when celebrating Diwali, the festival of light. The first day of Diwali, observed on the 13th day of the eighth month of the Hindu calendar, has long been considered an auspicious time to buy gold in particular, thanks to an ancient legend, but new trends are emerging among younger South Asians who are stepping away from tradition.

As the story goes, there was once a young prince whose death by snakebite was augured to take place four days after his wedding day. Upon learning of her husband’s predicament, his new bride forbade the prince from getting any rest the night before the prophesied death by decorating their sleeping chamber with jewellery, gold coins and silver items, and flooding the palace with lamplight and singing.

The god of death, taking the form of a serpent, was so blinded by the treasures on display that the prince escaped his misfortune unscathed. As a result, South Asians celebrate the start of Diwali by investing in their own dazzling trinkets on a considerable scale: last year’s sales in India totalled 50 tonnes, according to the India Bullion and Jewellers Association.

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The custom of buying gold is adhered to by East Asia’s large South Asian population, for whom wearing expensive jewellery is a way to make a fashionable statement at large-scale Diwali functions, such as balls, so there are a number of jewellers in the region who cater to the tradition.

Niyati Kapadia moved to Hong Kong from India 17 years ago and founded Niya K, a bespoke fine jewellery boutique, in 2015. She reports that her average customer makes a minimum investment of about HK$20,000 (US$2,500) each Diwali, but some are willing to spend more than HK$500,000. Kapadia offers a ready- to-wear collection, but as is tradition, nearly all pieces sold around Diwali are custom-made—even customers with smaller budgets look for bespoke pieces.

Despite the widespread economic downturn that has accompanied the pandemic, Kapadia has noticed that when it comes to luxury purchases, spending has been unaffected, or even increased. “I definitely saw a trend of bigger budgets from customers during Covid,” she says. “Because [they] haven’t gone to restaurants or travelled as much, they have [more] disposable income.”

In India, Diwali jewellery tends to be more traditional—gold coins embossed with an image of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, for example—and the decision as to what is bought is shared by the family. “The entire family, across generations, participates in the decisions. If you go to a store to purchase gold for a special occasion, you don’t go alone. You take your family members with you to make a collective decision,” explains Khushboo Ranawat, director of Swarnshilp Chains and Jewellers, one of the leading manufacturers and wholesalers of gold in India, which exports all over the world.

However, South Asians who live overseas have the opportunity to create new traditions for Diwali. Yellow gold is no longer the norm, with white gold and platinum becoming increasingly popular, while in Singapore, younger Indians are no longer purchasing pure gold coins. “They are becoming practical while adhering to traditions. This way, they wear the gold [jewellery] instead of storing [traditional gold] coins in their lockers for years,” says Vihari Poddar, founder of Vihari Jewels, a Singapore- based, fine jewellery boutique whose flagship store is on Orchard Road, with branches in Thailand and Hong Kong. She adds that the average South Asian customer in the city has a budget that ranges from SG$5,000 (US$3,500) to SG$25,000 during the festive season.

In Hong Kong, younger customers—wealthy, cosmopolitan and well- travelled—have more influence over the jewellery that is bought, and are increasingly looking to international luxury brands instead of traditional Indian jewellers. Kapadia says, “I see this a lot: the kid may just want to buy a branded piece of jewellery. This is the next generation, and they have already grown up with solitaires [diamonds], so they want to visit a Cartier or Van Cleef & Arpels and walk out of there with a box that they actually want.” 

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Despite younger people looking to international brands for status and versatility, there is little being designed by these brands that caters specifically to the Diwali market. Poddar says western brands such as Cartier have a ready-to- wear collection of gold bangles, earrings and rings which cater to the South Asian demographic, while Kapadia refers to Swarovski’s release of traditional items such as Ganesha idols; but there is plenty of scope—and demand—for other brands to follow suit. “It is a big opportunity for the big brands to tap: coming up with jewellery collections for the wealthy Indian community [in East Asia] who are looking to stick to their culture and roots,” Kapadia says.

Jaipore is one brand taking advantage of this gap in the market. The luxury Indian jewellery brand was established by Ritu Aurora in 1985 with headquarters in Singapore. Aurora—who earned the title of Dato, the highest state title conferred by Malaysian royalty—and her son Nikhil Aurora, who helms brand operations in Southeast Asia, are designing Diwali pieces with younger customers in mind. “In Singapore and Malaysia, they [young people] are earning well and making their own decision when purchasing [jewellery]. We’ve seen an uptrend in purchases within this segment in the past three years ... a noteworthy shift from the “quantity” to “quality” mindset,” says Nikhil Aurora.

And this trend seems set to continue.

“For the past 20 years I have developed many collections of western jewellery produced in India [for the Singapore and Malaysia markets] inspired by the likes of Harry Winston, Cartier and Bulgari: these brands help elevate overall profile of this segment, which can only be beneficial to all”.

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