There's little left to say about the lure of gleaming gold. Suffice it to say that other than the visceral desire the metal seems to awaken in people, in a culture such as ours, where a man's measure is often the weight of his wife's jewellery, gold has even more significance as a marker of status.
But the profile of gold jewellery and its buyers is now changing. For one, the consumption of wearable gold is no longer restricted to the elite, but is also finding a market among middle-class consumers. For another, many of these new buyers are demanding more fancy work in their jewellery, albeit in a lighter form than used to be the norm. The business of goldsmithing itself is being affected by these changes, and also by the entry of new players into the jewellery segment, and by the narrowing of traditional avenues of business, like the underground gold trade between Nepal and India.
Goldsmiths are not a particularly happy lot these days. "There has not been as much business as was expected, and this during the marriage season," says Jyotsna Shrestha, proprietor of Marigold Jewellers. The influx of Indian businesses into the gold jewellery market, once dominated by traditional Newari goldsmiths, is changing the face of the sector. Indian goldsmiths and jewellery businesses have succeeded in penetrating the Nepali market not just because they have more capital to invest. They're also offering a restless clientele greater choice-more "modern" choice. "Most of our clients today prefer modern designs, especially those with a little Mughal or Bengali touch," says Shrestha.
Until not very long ago, gold was an investment, an index of economic security, and so, when ordering jewellery, the aim was to have heavy pieces, which required lots of gold. But times have changed, and gold is increasingly being seen as a fashion accessory rather than a statement of long-term financial well-being-not everyone wants to walk around weighed down by half their family fortune at social and religious occasions. More want jewellery that comes a little cheaper and lighter, for reasons of personal finance, taste and variety. Admittedly, though, many "modern" jewellery designs are as, if not more, expensive than traditional designs, because of the clamour for the ornate look. Heavier traditional jewellery is still bought, especially during the marriage season, but there's no shame now to be seen wearing lighter pieces, and people are finding fewer opportunities to appreciate the work of traditional craftsmen whose skills have taken years to hone, and been handed down many generations.
Nowadays people proficient in making a lot of frills out of a little gold are in demand-incredible though it may sound, the Nepal Gold and Silver Dealers' Association (NSGDA) claims that over 60 percent of the craftsmen in jewellery shops in town that sell more contemporary styles are from India. Many of the Valley's traditional goldsmiths see this as an "unhealthy encroachment" on what is traditional their territory, one the government has done little to stop. "The idea of a free market economy with healthy competition is not bad, but what the Indian businessmen can invest here in comparison to Nepalis is not healthy," says a frustrated Tej Ratna Shakya, who has a traditional gold jewellery store. Shakya is also chairman of the NSGDA, an umbrella group for people who deal in the metals, whether wholesale or as jewellery for the retail market. "Besides, there have been cases where Indian shops have fraudulently sold relatively impure gold to customers." (None of the five Indian dealers we approached wanted to talk to us.)
The NGSDA is putting up quite a fight-membership to the Association is restricted to Nepali citizens and consumers are welcome to register any complaints.
Not everyone is as alarmist as the NGSDA. Nirmal Shrestha, proprietor of the Gems Ornaments Emporium, believes it is a level playing field, and says: "The arrival of Indian goldsmiths was an eye-opener. It showed the true potential of the market to Nepali goldsmiths. Modern designs are expensive compared to traditional ones even though they use less gold than traditional designs. We did not know that there were people who wanted and could afford such designs."
24K on New Road is another well-established gold jewellery shop that has kept up with changing trends. "Only tourists demand traditional jewellery-although they do make up about 25 percent of our sales," says proprietor Devendra Shrestha, who is also moving in to stones and other valuable metals. "Profit margins in gold have been stagnant, and even decreased over the last six years. Consumers are looking towards stones and other valuable metals not just because they're fashionable, but also because they are equally expensive."
Prem Bajracharya of Thimi is one goldsmith who is dealing with change in his own way. His family has been in the business for ten generations, and his sons seem to be following in his footsteps, but with a little innovation here and there. Unlike Kathmandu and Lalitpur consumers, most women in Thimi and nearby areas still prefer traditional designs with just a touch of the modern. Bal Kumari Maharjan has come to Bajracharya's shop to improve her set of gold earrings. She gazes at the gleaming new necklaces on display and says: "I still prefer the old ones." But there is also 15-year-old Sita Kafle begging her grandfather to buy her a pair of gold earrings, and she wants one of the newer designs.
There are plenty of people, especially in rural areas who, like Maharjan, still go for traditional designs, as their purchasing power continues to operate within the notion of investment and financial security. It is in these rural areas that traditional craftsmanship will probably survive, with a few changes, and for Nepali buyers, rather than as a symbol of ancient, unchanging Nepal to be taken back by tourists. "From the business point of view I have to also think about clients' interests, but personally I am only interested in making traditional jewellery," says Prem Bajracharya. He's even helped foreigners learn about his traditional skills. One of them, Hannilore Gabriel, has already published a book, Jewellery of Nepal, and is planning another book dedicated to Newari jewellery.
Nepal's land is not especially rich in gold-panning for the yellow metal in the hills and on riverbeds like the Kali Gandaki, the Rapti and the Trishuli yields only around 50 kg annually, and much of this never makes it into formal circuits of exchange because it is not pure enough. Historically, the major part of the gold used in Nepal has been imported, usually from India but now also from other places like Hong Kong, Singapore and Dubai. According to the NGSDA, an average of 12 tons of gold is imported annually, of which 60 percent is said to be consumed in the Valley. An average of Rs 163.85 million worth of gold jewellery has been exported since 1993-1994.
These figures, however, do not take into account the small amounts people are allowed to bring in after extended stays abroad. Nor does it consider the gold that is smuggled in and then out, although this has become significantly less profitable due to the prices levelling off in the international market and easier access to supplies. It is said that many made their fortunes illegally selling gold imported into Nepal in the Indian market. In the heyday of gold smuggling, the profit margin on a tola of gold (1 tola =11.664 gm) could exceed Rs 2,000. But NGSDA officials deny any knowledge of smuggling. "We hear that smuggling has decreased considerably," says Tej Ratna Shakya.
These factors, combined with the easing of import restrictions on gold in India, have put something of a damper on a sector already facing new difficulties. How Nepal's gold and jewellery business will handle these transitions is anybody's guess. The NGSDA can't really do anything about changing tastes-people will buy what they want to-and blaming the Indians cannot be the answer. Possibly the best way for goldsmiths to remain in business is by finding innovative ways to sell what they're best at. They can't just sit around waiting for the tide to turn and for their styles to become retro-chic.
There will be interesting developments in the industry if the trend towards modern styles goes on its logical trajectory, and gold jewellery truly becomes a fashion accessory. Then, consumers will stop insisting on 24K or 22K gold, and won't object to, say, 14K jewellery. This isn't as far-out as it sounds. In India, which is where Nepali customers and jewellers get their inspiration from, it has already happened. Traditional jewellery is seen in a different context, as serious stuff that needn't necessarily be abandoned to indulge in one's taste for the contemporary. The two are just bought and worn in different contexts.