Opinion: Bvlgari To Tiffany, All Want A Piece Of Indian Men's 'Maharaja' Dreams

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While it may still be some time before Indian men go all Timothée Chalamet in donning Cartier necklaces while stepping out, luxury jewellery brands are leaving no stone unturned, or uncut, to woo them. And why not? India is the second-largest market for jewellery, after China. Indian men are buying more jewellery than ever, and they are just following a global trend. The global value of the men's luxury jewellery market is approximately $6.5 billion, according to Euromonitor International. In 2022, the men's luxury jewellery sector grew at 8% as against women's at 5%.

What does this tell us about Indian men (the wealthy ones, obviously)? Trade pundits are seeing it variously as a new phenomenon, an offshoot of growing global exposure, a return to the traditional ways of life, a post-pandemic zeitgeist or some such. It is nothing but an iteration of status signalling, securing or reinforcing class collaborations. This is nothing new. 

Luxury Jewellery Is The New Pyramids

“The basis on which good repute in any highly organized industrial community ultimately rests is pecuniary strength; and the means of showing pecuniary strength, and so of gaining or retaining a good name, are leisure and a conspicuous consumption of goods.” Thorstein Veblen wrote this 125 years ago in his sociological treatise The Theory of the Leisure Class. Luxury jewellery is the new pyramids. Or palaces. Men, and some women who held pursestrings, have indulged in self-fashioning as ‘not like everybody else' by using their wealth. This dissociation from the perceived plebeians has always been important for the assertion of power.

Power comes with employing all four forms of ‘capitals'—economic, cultural, social (as formulated by Pierre Bourdieu, a French sociologist) and erotic (proposed as an addition by Catherine Hakim)—in an optimal fashion. It has never been easier to access all four, thanks to money. If you have made or inherited enough money, you can easily become an ‘insider' by getting your signalling right. And depending on who you want to associate with, the brand prominence of your material acquisition changes. 

The 'Out There' People

Wearing a Tiffany & Co. ‘Forge' bracelet, with no visible logo, a man sends a coded message of familiarity to patricians who “know” their luxury because they have been born in it and have the ability to read the subtle signals of quiet luxury. Donning a Bvlgari kada, launched this year exclusively for the Indian market, he is a little more “out there” for the other “out there” people.

Even in the luxury world, there is a class system that separates the really wealthy from the just wealthy and the newly wealthy. Everyone, of course, wants to be associated with the first category. 

The really wealthy—originally and generationally—have ‘taste'. The rest scratch their heads to decode it. Some are able to crack it partially. Like the Rockefellers. When the economy grows, the nouveau-riche become the patrons of art and fund the sciences to separate themselves from the new nouveau-riche. This nouveau-riche class may have traditionally lacked the connoisseurship of the really wealthy, but it is not backing out. So, out go the gauche gold chains that sit heavy, very heavy, on the neck and in come the Alhambra cufflinks of Van Cleef & Arpels. The subtle signal of their four-leaf clover motif forges connections.

Old Is The New New

But before graduating to the clover, the rites de passage involve several experiences with ‘white gold' bracelets, diamond-in-platinum rings, conspicuous Cartier bands et al. Each piece embodying a step in social, cultural, economic, and erotic capital. It'd be fallacious to believe that Rani would have fallen for Rocky if he didn't come with mind-boggling wealth under his ‘tasteless' display of brands.

Once upon a time, cars used to be the obvious phallic symbols. In the era of environmental consciousness, carbon footprints are not sexy. Craftsmanship is. Stories of sustainability are. For luxury products, stories also capitalise on history. The older the brand, the sexier the wearer. It is not just about the price tag. Old is the new new. Donning a grandfather's commissioned handcrafted watch will trump any expensive timepiece bought at Place Vendome during your last foreign trip. The former has a history of taste, the latter is still trying to piece that history together.

For A 'Favoured Few'

Is it just metrosexuality? Perhaps not. The body is the repository of erotic capital. Men are taking care of employing their erotic capital since women are making their presence felt in the capitalist world. They are using their bodies in an uninhibited manner. Bodies, after all, are the locations of “social, political, cultural, and geographical inscriptions, production, and constitution.” As per Elizabeth Grosz. 

Indian men are no strangers to body adornments. Indian couture was globally acclaimed long before the present-day, mostly talentless couturiers with fancy stores at expensive addresses opened their doors to flaunt overpriced kitsch. The luxury jewellery market, therefore, is betting on reigniting the aspirational ‘maharaja' in them. Population and inequitable distribution of wealth here ensure that the favoured few are enough to keep the business going and growing for a long time. 

(Nishtha Gautam is a Delhi-based author and academic.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.