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A sterling business

Anuradha Kapoor | July 26, 2003

Will your precious little baby sleep better in a silver cradle that costs about Rs 10 lakh (Rs 1 million)? Or, how about buying a slightly less expensive sterling silver dinner set, complete with punch bowl and salad dishes -- a steal at Rs 400,000.

All these and more are available at a clutch of new-age silver shops that are doing roaring business. Take Silverne, for instance, which opened two months ago in Delhi's Khan Market.

Its owners Sangeeta and Yuvraj Narain already had a flourishing business selling furnishings and retail under the Bandhini brand.

But they discovered that customers always snapped up the few silver pieces that they displayed in their stores. So they figured it would be smart to branch out and offer a range of silver products.

Now, they have a workshop in Chattarpur and have hired designers from NIFT who came up with 50 to 60 designs, ranging from napkin rings to trinket boxes and vases.

The Narains aren't by any means the first to discover that Indians have developed a taste for stylish silver products. Take Chanda Narang who, six years ago gave up a film-making career to run silvermaker Frazer and Haws.

The company has three stores currently and will open two in Mumbai and one each in Bangalore and Coimbatore this year. Narang plans to have 10 stores by 2004.

Deepak Wohrra of Episode has equally ambitious plans. He's planning a mix of stand-alone stores and shop-in-shops in department stores.

Episode has already opened a counter at Folio in Bangalore and plans to have 10 stores in 2004.

The next Episode will be ready in Gurgaon this year before Diwali. His next target is west Delhi (a cash-rich market). Then, there are plans for two stores in Mumbai and one each in Hyderabad, Kolkata, Ludhiana and Chandigarh. Says Wohrra: "Silverware is aspirational and those who have money will buy it."

Wohrra started out as an exporter before he re-discovered the domestic market. He used to export silver-plated ware to international companies and department stores such as Joop, Sabatini, Peter Jones and John Lewis. He opened Episode to test the waters but didn't really think it would become very big.

He was pleasantly surprised when, in its first year of business, Episode had a turnover of Rs 2 crore from one outlet in New Delhi's Greater Kailash. This year it is targeting a Rs 5 crore turnover and he's realised that it was a mistake to underestimate the domestic retail business.

Then, there's entrepreneur Ishpinder Kochchar who retails the IK brand. She's also doing brisk business, but has decided to open counters in big department stores. IK products are already selling in five outlets in Delhi and one in Chennai.

By year end, IK hopes to have 14 shop-in-shops and about 20 by end 2004.

IK believes that stand-alone shops won't bring in enough cash.

"You would need to invest Rs 2 crore (Rs 20 million) and get a turnover of Rs 4 crore (Rs 40 million) to make it a feasible project," says Ruchi Rai, IK's business development manager.

Like big fashion houses, these silversmiths have to constantly innovate and bring out new collections. For example Frazer and Haws brings out new collections for Diwali, Christmas, New Year and even for festivals like Rakhi and Valentine's Day.

Though Narang would like to push her contemporary products, her biggest seller is Ganesh. "Ganesh is forever -- the more gods we make the more money we make, but at the same time we don't want to loose our identity as a contemporary silversmith," says Narang.

Narang came into the business after her family bought Hennell, a jewellery store in London's Bond Street which specialised in silver products. She was handed the task of making jewellery and silver products in India.

Narang says that Frazer and Haws has grown steeply since it started retailing in India six years ago. This year it hopes to register a post tax profit of 25 per cent.

Narang employs 120 craftsmen at her 5-acre workshop in Delhi's Civil Lines area but she admits that people are the key. Her workmen come up with about 1,200 original designs in a year but only about 130 are finally put up for sale.

"This business is completely people driven. You need very creative people who must have an eye for design, detail and quality. But then you also need to deal with their egos," she says.

Wohrra, a veteran of the export business, says he has two regular designers and generations of craftsmen, "I can pull them out of a hat, whenever I need them," he says.

Wohrra's family owns a store in Delhi's Connaught Place.

Narang uses the net extensively to stay ahead with manufacturing techniques and says rather smugly, "I've beaten the Italians. I used to buy intricate silver objects like ships and trains from there but now I can see technical flaws and make better and cheaper products in India."

The key difference between these new silversmiths is that they are producing 21st century designs for the Indian middle class. And they are thinking up new ways to expand their business swiftly.

The Narains, for instance, are working on turning out a corporate collection and they are planning to come up with office accessories.

They are also hoping to team up with franchisees in a string of countries including Spain, Dubai, Canada and New Zealand.

Certainly, the wares sold by the new generation of silversmiths don't come cheap. At the bottom end of the scale are bookmarks for around Rs 250 and paper knives for about Rs 700. Zodiac signs for about Rs 1,500 are extremely popular.

Wohrra's family has been in the silver business for five generations. They started in 1882 in Peshawar by supplying the British army and air force.

He says its important to expand and open more shops, because the fixed costs are high. He and the other new generation silversmiths will have to move quickly if they want to shine in the business.

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