Opinion and Editorial

The long read: Demystifying the gold rush

sushmita@khaleejtimes.com Filed on April 23, 2021
File photo by Ryan Lim

What is it about "precious" jewellery, rooted in tradition, that still gives most of us an unexplained high, a sense of wellbeing?

One of Indian Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s Bengali short stories written (way back) in 1898 — Monihara — deals with an obsessive love for gold jewellery (okay, if you want to split hairs, you may argue that monihara translates into “lost jewels” — but what gets lost in translation is these were jewels set in gold: gold being the bulwark of everything precious, and I mean that metaphorically). A young woman, besotted with ornaments in her lifetime, comes back in spirit (after she’s murdered by a family member who wants to lay hands on her accumulated treasure) to haunt her marital home, looking for her “lost” jewellery, including a necklace her husband had purchased for her while on a business trip.

By the time he returned, she’d already been killed; so, since she did not have a chance, in life, to check out this final gift, her spirit is desperate to clutch it in its disembodied grip.

Monihara was also one of three parts of ace auteur Satyajit Ray’s celebrated anthology Teen Kanya (Three Girls), made in 1961 — possibly the only time when Ray delved into the realm of the ‘supernatural’.

Many cultural narratives have it that Monihara, and its subsequent cinematic avatar, is a telling commentary on greed. My grandmother, who had told me the story when I was a kid (much before I read it for myself or watched the movie), had a different point of view — one that I immediately agreed with (she only had to say something for me to become an endorser). “It’s the allure of jewellery, gold jewellery, there’s something unreasonable, irrational about it — a mystique that shrouds the sheen, which probably does not have anything to do with it being expensive… it’s inexplicable, like a mystery that cannot be solved.”

My grandmother spoke eloquently about the metal’s beguiling power when in the shape of handcrafted “body art”, but she was surprisingly sparse in her affections for it. She possessed three modest sets of gold jewellery that she passed on to her three daughters-in-law, and was quite content being gold-free for the remaining part of her life.

I may have inherited her trait. I’ve been singularly averse to the gleam of gold all my life. But there was a point in time when I bought (what I considered) a substantial amount of gold jewellery in Dubai. The trigger was Bollywood films of the 1970s and 80s that I was watching on my DVD player. Those bits when the broke hero’s harried mother would take her last remaining gold bangles or chains to the local pawn shop to exchange them for hard cash while the hero would swear on his father’s grave that he would reinstate them back on her wrists/neck the moment he hit pay dirt.

They could definitely be a good investment in case bad times ever befell me, I reckoned.

Someone had mentioned that straightlaced bangles are always calamity’s best offset: the gold is solid, no room for dainty sidetracks that get lost in value. I bought a lot of bangles over my gold-shopping sprees that, today, lie desolately in my locker.

But as it turns out, jewellery did put up a rescue act during the pandemic, when many lost jobs and looked for liquidation of asset value. “A lot of people came to cash out,” says Vinay Jethwani, partner, Meena Jewellers. For their part, the company ensured that customers got the true value of their customers’ “investments”. “Gold continues to be considered a safe and high-yield investment choice, attracting renewed interest from customers of all ages as people understand the value of investing in gold in trying times,” adds Vandana Bhalla, Marketing Head – International Business Division, Titan Company Ltd, that handles the Tanishq (jewellery) brand.

What women want: A emotional investment

Shanthi Nair* is a saleswoman at one of Dubai’s most popular jewellery chains. She, literally, has an inventory of priceless anecdotes that point to the human factor at play while one is engaged in gold purchases. Once, a mother-daughter duo walked in; the daughter was getting engaged, and wanted a heavy set for the ceremony — “she was very clear” — with filigree work. She tried out at least 10 different sets, shortlisted three and finally zeroed in on one that “spoke to her”. “Her body and mind, she claimed, reacted in a good way when she tried out that particular set: there was a rush she felt.” Shanthi remembers keeping a straight face; they’ve been trained to be poker-faced when customers interact among themselves.

Another time, two women (“they were obviously good friends”) tried out various earrings. One of them wanted to buy a pair for her niece who was turning 18. She didn’t like anything she saw at the counter Shanthi was manning but the other woman loved a 22-carat temple design set. “She told her friend she wants to buy it for her daughter’s wedding. The friend seemed surprised: ‘Isn’t your daughter 14?’ ‘Yes, but I’ve already started collecting jewellery I may need to give her in 10-12 years’.”

There’s clearly a great deal of emotional heft to be found in the golden pickings. Shabna Abbas, a friend’s friend tells me whether a piece is gifted to her by her husband or dad or mom or sibling, “when I wear it, I feel more attached to that person”. Sreena Balan says she feels an emotional connect when she wears her mother’s gold. Dhanya Mohan Velloli, a banker based in India, sees gold as a way to respect and honour time-tested traditions, a way to connect to her roots. “I love traditional gold jewellery especially kaashimala and manimala — in fact, for my wedding, I made my family run around for the perfect manimala, and I didn’t budge till I got the design I wanted. I felt rich, regal and divine wearing that necklace,” she says. Its subtle shine brings out the beauty in every woman, there’s so much pride and power associated with gold, points out Anu Shravan, another gold loyalist. “Whether it’s a small stud nosepiece or a grand necklace.”

“There is a clear emotional bond that women have with jewellery and whilst they may inherit pieces from family, women love buying what resonates with them and what enables them to express themselves,” adds Vandana. According to her, the intricate designs are a way for women to express themselves while in some cases they stay rooted to their family’s legacies through heirloom jewellery. “Tastes may have changed dramatically across generations, but the love for gold and gifting gold remains steadfast.” With gold prices falling in recent weeks, and the upcoming occasion of Akshaya Tritiya, she is anticipating more foot traffic in stores.

The new-gen gold benchmarks

Social media has been a trend-setter, notes Vinay. “For instance, younger customers follow celebrity weddings, and they, many times, request for similar designs.” If affordability is an issue, they opt for scaled down versions that fit into their budgets. And often, they exchange old jewellery with designs that showcase current celeb trends.

Millennials and Gen Z love their jewellery too, says Vandana, but they have different expectations than previous generations. “They want pieces that will work throughout the day whether it is in the boardroom, for a holiday, or a Friday night out with friends.” She also points out that they have observed “self-purchase on the rise with our younger customers buying jewellery for themselves to celebrate personal milestones rather than just for special occasions or gifting”. “Understated and elegant” is what they hear most often when younger customers walk into the Tanishq store in the traditional hub of Dubai’s Meena Bazaar. But while the younger generation mostly buys contemporary pieces, weddings, Vandana maintains, remain the inflection point for them to start buying heavier gold jewellery and traditional sets. “Even though would-be brides opt for modern pieces for receptions, they look for traditional designs for their main wedding day. From mixing and matching colours with gold to oversized gold sets inspired by the palaces and the royalty who lived in them, not to mention the multi-layered jewellery trend combining chokers and long-length necklaces, we are seeing some interesting trends emerging and have incorporated these in our latest collections.”

While there has been a lot of reinvention for the new generation — lightweight, minimalist Italian designs are quite the rage — whenever it comes to big-ticket events like weddings, “traditions come rushing back” agrees Vinay. The only difference is that whereas “earlier — till even 20 years ago — there was the family jeweller. These days, there are brands.”

Life lessons from gold

While growing up, we had a part-time house help whose only mission in life was to make enough money to buy a sizeable corpus of gold jewellery for her daughter’s marriage. Apparently, potential grooms’ sides needed the commitment of “x” amount of gold jewellery, in tola terms, before any wedding date could be finalised. “But why do you need to work extra just to buy gold jewellery? What’s the big deal?” I had once asked her.

“Gold is a matter of honour,” she replied. “But don’t worry: we will also get our share of it when my son gets married.”

Former Dubai resident Rita Roy Massey exchanged some of her legacy jewellery with more contemporary stuff, but regrets it today. “I feel like I gave up on a slice of history — you know, the hands that created them, the craftsmanship that was evident in that period of time, those are priceless touchpoints.” She agrees that wearing a piece that belonged to a beloved family member from an earlier generation is incredibly comforting, “it’s like you’re carrying her on your being”.

The traditional gold jewellery she has is what her mother gave her when she got married. “When I bought my own gold, I opted for lighter white-gold pieces since I’m not a big fan of heavy stuff. In fact, whenever I see someone wearing clunky jewellery at a ‘special occasion’, I don’t take it too seriously because half the time they are fakes — very good fakes maybe, but fakes nevertheless!” For her, it works the other around. “If I see someone wearing something daily — even if it’s something unobtrusive — I know it’s genuine gold because its sheen doesn’t die from overuse.”

Rita makes an interesting point when she says that if she’s wearing a gold chain or earrings, she doesn’t need to take them off. “Even if I am having a swim or taking a shower, I know nothing will happen to them”. Talking about the golden sheen, she feels what makes it cast a spell is how gold always complements the complexion.

One of my favourite aunts is a gold jewellery lover like no other. She buys incessantly and has, over time, racked up a formidable collection. Come Diwali or her birthday (kept in databases of myriad jewellers), or any other seemingly red-letter occasion which calls for a golden celebration, she is inundated with text messages and at least half-a-dozen calls — for purchase. Most times, she obliges, “even if it’s something small”.

She’s the first one to admit she hardly ever wears them, unless she is attending a wedding. “But it feels good to know they are with me.” Some of her stuff is in the bank locker, but much of it is at home, in her wardrobe’s safety box. So, once every week, she closes her bedroom door (“don’t want the house helps to find out what I’m up to”), and spreads out her collection on her bed. She then picks up every single piece, holds them lovingly, rubs off imaginary dust specks from them with a specially sanitised duster, before putting them back in carefully-catalogued boxes. “I’d know if there is even a ring missing.”

Her only son is married to a European, who obviously doesn’t comprehend the subcontinent’s love and longing with gold jewellery. “I never buy gold with the intent of ‘passing it on’, you know,” my aunt laughs. “I buy it for myself, makes me feel good.”

“You don’t understand, do you?” she’s asked me at times, whenever she’s seen the disbelieving look on my face. Then, she’s quoted my grandmother: “It’s inexplicable, a mystery.”



Sushmita Bose

Sushmita, who came to Dubai in September 2008 on a whim and swore to leave in a year's time (but then obviously didn't), edits wknd., the KT lifestyle mag, and writes the Freewheeling column on the Oped page every Friday. Before joining Khaleej Times, she'd worked for papers like Hindustan Times and Business Standard in New Delhi, and a now-defunct news magazine called Sunday in Calcutta. She likes meeting people, making friends, and Facebooking. And even though she can be spotted hanging out in Dubai's 'new town', she harbours a secret crush on the old quarters, and loves being 'ghetto-ised' in Bur Dubai where she is currently domiciled.

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