Jaywalking in India

Traffic in Mumbai (still called Bombay by many locals) is beyond the scope of imagination. More congested than Manhattan at noon or the 405 freeway in Los Angeles at 5:30 p.m., the cacophony of horns is deafening. Nobody in India signals, it seems; they just honk. It’s a special form of communication all its own, and I imagine you’d have to be brought up in it to understand the subtle difference between the “I want to change lanes” and “You’re about to hit my fender” honks. Of course, nobody pays any attention to lane markings anyway, so maybe it’s all one and the same. Traffic lights, too, are merely suggestive, and the only way to cross the street is to take a deep, fortifying breath and run for it.

Before my recent trip to India, a colleague said, “It’s utter chaos on a grand scale, but somehow, it works.” He’s right. It does work. And the eager, can-do spirit of entrepreneurialism among the diamond and jewelry sector is infectious.

Publisher Mark Smelzer and I visited the jewelry district in Mumbai prior to attending the inaugural JCK ~ New Delhi show. (New Delhi drivers, incidentally, are a different breed—lane designations and traffic lights actually mean something there.) We saw a wide range of companies, from diamond brokers to makers of commercial-grade diamonds and jewelry to branded manufacturers to a luxury retailer to an online specialist. What was common to all, however, was an amazing sense of positive energy, a willingness to invest, and, most of all, the patience to understand that growth takes time.

“We’re not expecting immediate results. We’re in it for the long term,” was the common refrain, and the principals of the companies we visited already have demonstrated their willingness to put their money where their mouths are and the moxie to seek out new, uncharted waters. For example, Mehul Choksi, chairman of the Gitanjali Group, saw the potential of brands more than a decade ago. Ignoring the traditionalists who said he was crazy, he built what’s becoming a jewelry empire by partnering with Damas, a well-known retail jewelry brand in the Gulf States. In a country where 99 percent of all jewelry is sold by small family shops, a company called The Rose bucked tradition and opened a sleek, modern, by-appointment-only upstairs showroom that would give Tiffany, Bulgari, H. Stern, and the like a run for their money. Cousins Ajesh and Samir Mehta, both partners of sightholder D. Navinchandra & Co., were eager to discuss the state of the American retail market. And Nirupa Bhatt, marketing manager of Rio Tinto Diamonds in India, led us through a fascinating and eye-opening review of her country’s burgeoning economy and future buying power.

How refreshing to hear people focusing on long-term strategy, not this quarter’s bottom line! How delightful to talk to people who believe in investing for growth, not cutting their way to profitability. How encouraging to talk to people who have positive attitudes and aren’t complaining about how tough things are or how they can’t make margins or the Internet is killing their business. How intoxicating to think about a domestic market 10 times the size of ours, that’s just beginning to awaken to its potential. It’s no wonder many Americans fear the Indians are going to eat our lunch—they’re certainly poised to, and unless we collectively stop whining and start focusing on innovation and long-term growth, they will.

This also drives home the point of how small our world really is and that people half a world away do matter, even if you’ve never met them and don’t think you ever will.

Separately, let’s not forget some other people who matter—the diamond diggers and miners and all those in Africa for whom diamonds have meant both suffering and survival. Last month’s issue held a riveting but sobering account of senior editor Rob Bates’s trip to Sierra Leone, and the industry is waiting with some trepidation for next month’s opening of the movie Blood Diamond. We fear the movie will hurt our sales, but stop for a moment and think about what would happen to Africa’s diamond-based economies if demand for the product suddenly dried up. I encourage every sales associate at every jewelry store in the United States to log onto www.diamondfacts.org or contact Jewelers of America, and be ready to talk intelligently about the good diamonds do, not just the atrocities they were once linked with.

These people matter. It’s up to us to help ensure their continued survival, just as their work in the diamond mines of Africa will help ensure our survival.