Dipak Chokshi says the idea came to him in the form of a request.
“The first request came last month when a couple wanted masks to match their lehenga [skirt] and sherwani [coat] to be able to sit at the mandap,” Choksi told VICE News, referring to the altar used in Indian weddings.
For the jeweller in Surat, located in the western Indian state of Gujarat, this one sale inspired a new business model catering for mid-pandemic weddings. “We got our people to create masks with diamond patterns and designs on them. Since then, we’ve been getting more requests for weddings. So we created a special range.”
Chokshi’s D Kushalbhai Jewellers has since been selling face masks laced with diamonds, gold and silver. The masks, he said, are made from materials “in compliance with the government directives”, and are priced between INR 150,000 (US$1,990) to INR 400,000 (US$5,306).
Chokshi added that his masks are reusable and washable. “I installed UV-ray machines and dry cleaning services for those masks so that people can get them sterilised after use,” he said.
In India, this city of Surat is known for its diamonds and is home to nearly 5,000 diamond polishing and cutting businesses. In 2018 the city's residents also enjoyed the state's highest household disposable incomes, and fifth in the country, at INR 1.8 million (around US$14,000) per annum.
But now in 2020, with 8,372 total cases of COVID-19, the city is also the worst-hit district in the state of Gujarat.
For this reason, Chokshi said that sellers like him are only seeing 10 percent of their clientele. “Cases in the city are rising, but the wedding season is still on,” he said.
The city’s diamond industry has also reported huge losses due to COVID, while Surat says that he's seem multiple violent protests from migrant labourers who are being forced to continue work by India's diamond and textile associations.
In a country obsessed with gold, Chokshi is hardly a pioneer. Last week, Shankar Kurhade, a businessman in the western city of Pune, appeared on the streets wearing a cup-shaped mask made from nearly 55 grams of gold, and permeated with holes so Kurhade could breathe. Somehow, he still claimed that the mask protected him from the virus.
In the city of Pune, another couple purchased an N95 mask decorated with gold lacing. It reportedly cost them INR 650,000 (US$8,600). In May, a jewellery shop in the Belgaum district of Karnataka went viral after they advertised a collection of wedding masks made with silver. Weighing between 25 and 35 grams, the masks were priced at INR 2,500 (US$33) and INR 3,500 (US$46).
On March 28, just a few days after India entered one of the world’s strictest lockdowns, the country began to experience a shortage of face masks for healthcare workers, leading to a ban on their export. It was estimated that India would require 38 million masks to cover their shortfall. The ban on export was lifted recently on July 13, when India's government announced there were no more reports of shortages.
Globally, large fashion brands and luxury goods manufacturers have began releasing masks made from expensive fabrics such as silk de chine or cotton poplin.
In India, various fashion brands have jumped on the nascent market for stylish masks. On July 14, the popular fashion app Myntra threw up 2,239 options against a search for “outdoor masks.” Almost all were simple cloth masks priced around US$2.65 a piece.
Chokshi said he is now getting “more affordable” orders for less than US$1000, but continues to keep his eye out for “high class” orders exceeding US$5,000. “People see this as an investment,” he said. “When the coronavirus is over, we will turn these pieces into necklaces or bracelets, free of cost. Today, masks are a necessity, but we are prepared for when this tough time ends.”
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