Colin Shah: The Man Who Scripted His Success Story

Leaders are not always born; sometimes they are self-made through stellar qualities – hard work, perseverance, dedication and the will to succeed. That, in a nutshell, defines COLIN SHAH, the newly elected chairman of the Gem & Jewellery Export Promotion Council (GJEPC), India, and the founder and managing director of Kama Schachter, one of Asia’s largest manufacturers and exporters of diamonds and diamond jewellery.

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In a freewheeling chat with me, Colin Shah speaks about his rewarding journey and shares what he knows best – how to market diamonds. He puts bundles of energy into his work to fan his entrepreneurial passion, besides managing affairs at the GJEPC.

You come from a family of doctors. What made you decide against joining the ‘family profession’?
I’d say it was destiny’s way of steering me away from the medical profession. While I was in college studying for a Commerce degree and simultaneously I was trying out different fields — like electrical trading, cotton yarn business and working with a statutory auditor; but nothing seemed to engage me.

How did you land into the world of diamonds?
A chance meeting with Navin Jashnani, an educator and diamond jewelry manufacturer, led me to enroll for a course in diamond grading at the International Gemological Institute (IGI), Mumbai. He pursued me to join the course assuring me that I would love to explore my entrepreneurial skills.

I instantly liked the people in the diamond industry – it was a bonhomie that pulled me to the trade. After the IGI course, I learned polishing and assortment at R.P. Sheth; and for two years I worked at Gembel’s diamond manufacturing unit. I worked for a year at Tristar.

After graduation, I enrolled for an MBA course, but while I was studying I had started my own small B2B diamond manufacturing for retailers in India. My first office was set up in my father’s clinic, which was close to Opera House, then the hub of diamond manufacturing offices.

It was sheer hard work — my day was packed; I studied during the day, and I would concentrate on my business at night — visiting karigars to get the work done. Once in 10 days I would go on business tours across southern India to cities like Chennai, Bangalore, and Hyderabad, to meet my clients, and seek new ones.

Colin Shah

What did you learn from your MBA?
Actually, I never completed my MBA. After my first semester, I was at a crossroads – either I do my MBA or continue with my now flourishing diamond business. I chose the latter, and became a diamond jewelry manufacturer.

The journey was tough initially. I had no family connection with the industry, and no “godfather”. Step by step whatever money I made in the initial years, I invested it in my factory and started Kama Jewellery at the age of 24 — a small unit with just two karigars. It took me a year to set up the factory — and then, I participated in trade shows in Tokyo, Munich, Vicenza, Basel and Las Vegas to try my luck in different markets. Since money was always a bit of a constraint, I shared booths with a friend from the industry. I was lucky to get business from Japan and America in the initial years. One thing led to another, and the company kept growing, but I really don’t know how. 

What would you attribute your success to?
I think a little bit of luck, focus and hard work. Those days, we were hands-on in doing all the work on the shop floor—right from grading, cutting, polishing, sorting, casting, buying diamonds, manufacturing, wax model making … except for designing, for which I don’t have the attention to detail and patience required to design a piece of jewelry.

What fascinated you most about the diamond industry?

It’s all about the good people I have met in the industry. I am not from the industry, and yet there were people who trusted me and gave me credit during my initial days when access to finance was difficult. The faith they reposed in a rank outsider, helped me flourish.

I remember when I landed for the first time in America, my very first customer on Fifth Avenue gave me an advance to buy raw material! When she placed the order, I told her that I didn’t have the money to buy gold to execute the order. She immediately wired the money to me.

I was lucky to have met many such people who trusted and helped me. Above all, it is about the good people who run businesses in the diamond industry. It’s a trade where a deal worth millions is sealed with a mere handshake.

What learning did you adapt while setting up your company Kama Schachter?
I think our professional team, fine quality and good design and the ability to manufacture high volumes.

Colin Shah and team

What do you like about diamonds?
Since I have learned to cut and polish diamonds, there is that added fascination of how to plan the cutting of a rough stone, get its brilliance right, and finally see it set into a beautiful piece of jewelry. I truly believe a diamond is the ultimate gift of love.

So, what did you gift your wife Vaishali when you got married?
I gave her a ring set with a pear-shaped diamond. 

Does she like diamonds?
She loves diamonds. That’s the reason why she started her own diamond jewelry store, Rivanna, a few years ago.

How do you unwind?
Since taking over as Chairman of GJEPC, I have a packed schedule. But I do find time to squeeze in my hobbies. I am an amateur singer, and I used to love playing squash, until a number of injuries forced me to stop. I’m an avid reader – I read a book a week. I love to travel, and fortunately, our business involves a lot of traveling.

What’s the secret of your success?
It’s very difficult to say. But I have always lived by the adage ‘Satyamev Jayate’ (Truth always triumphs). I believe honesty is the best policy. I am also of the opinion that a single man/woman can make a difference.

As the new chairman, what is your vision for the GJEPC going forward?

The Council is a key facilitator between the industry and the government, and we would like to work together to make India an easier place to do business.

I would like to give more thrust on digital transformation. There’s a lot to do, and with an efficient and able team at the Council, we will be able to achieve our goals.

What’s next for diamonds?
We should improve our image with all stakeholders, and do a much better job of marketing the romance of diamonds! Once we emerge from the Covid crisis, there will be renewed focus on personal bonds and family ties – and diamonds will once again be at centrestage as the ultimate gift of love.

How has the industry given back to the community?
This industry is not all about business … The people are magnanimous and have supported many causes over the years by looking after the upkeep of diamond workers. The Council has been holding a charity dinner annually since 2014, and donates $135k to one or more causes that support the underprivileged. 

The Indian gem and jewellery industry employs over five million people, and the GJEPC has implemented health insurance schemes for the organised and unorganised workforce; the Council has also been engaged in upskilling and educating artisans.

In general, too, the Indian diamond industry has been regularly lending a helping hand by building schools, orphanages, old-age homes, hospitals and medical camps. I would say philanthropic activities are synonymous with the business ethics of the Indian diamond industry!