Dipak Chokshi says the demand came first.
“The first request came last month when a couple requested masks to match their lehenga and sherwani to be able to sit at the mandap,” Choksi told VICE News.
For the jeweller in Surat, located in the western Indian state of Gujarat, it would be the beginning of a new business model during a pandemic-hit wedding season. “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 now, we created a special range ready to be sold.”
Chokshi’s D Kushalbhai Jewellers has since been selling face masks laced with diamonds, gold and silver. The masks, he said, use the cloth material “in compliance with the government directives”, and use everything from American, white to real diamonds. They’re priced between INR 150,000 (USD 1,990) to INR 400,000 (USD 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 it sterilised after use,” he said.
Surat, also known as India’s diamond hub, is home to nearly 5,000 diamond polishing and cutting units. The city had the highest personal household disposable income in Gujarat, and fifth in the country, at INR 1.8 million (USD 14,323.50) per annum in 2018.
Surat, with 8,372 total infections, is also the worst-hit district in terms of the novel coronavirus cases in Gujarat. The city also accounted for the biggest share—3,286 cases, or 32.3 percent—of COVID-19 infections in the state between July 1 and July 13.
Chokshi said that sellers like him are only seeing 10 percent of the clientele. “Cases in the city are rising, but the wedding season is still on,” he said.
The city’s diamond industry has been reporting huge losses and unemployment due to the government-mandated lockdown since March. Surat also saw multiple violent protests from migrant labourers for being forced to work by the 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 gold mask made up of nearly 55 gm of the yellow metal. It was custom-made and cost him INR 289,000 (USD 3,834). The mask was drilled with holes for Kurhade to be able to breathe. He still claimed that the mask protected him from the virus.
Another lavish gold mask was reported in Pune on July 14, where a couple wanted gold lacing to be woven over an N95 mask. It reportedly cost them INR 650,000 (USD 8,623). In May, a jewellery shop in the Belgaum district of the South Indian state of Karnataka went viral for adding silver masks to its wedding collection. Weighing between 25 and 35 grams, the masks were priced at INR 2,500 (USD 33) to INR 3,500 (USD 46).
On March 28, just a few days after India went under one of the world’s strictest lockdowns, the country felt the effects of what was a global shortage of face masks for healthcare workers, leading to a ban in its export. India was estimated to require 38 million masks to cover a potential shortfall. The ban on the export of the material used for manufacturing face masks was lifted only on July 13, when the Indian government removed it as an essential item last week, citing the fact that there are no more reports of shortages.
The early days of the pandemic saw inflated prices of surgical masks due to panic buying, post which the Indian government began to endorse homemade face masks made of cotton cloth. Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself appeared in homemade masks during video conference meetings. Various institutions such as the Indian railways and prisons have been manufacturing reusable cloth masks for the public.
Globally, large fashion brands and luxury goods manufacturers developed masks made of expensive fabrics such as silk de chine or cotton poplin. Analysts, in fact, say that masks could potentially go from being a specialised product to mainstream accessory, or even an “it” item.
In India, various fashion brands are jumping in on the trend to sell functional yet stylish masks. On July 14, the popular fashion app Myntra threw up 2,239 options against a search for “outdoor masks:” Almost all are cloth masks usually priced between INR 50 - 200 (USD 0.66-2.65) per piece.
Chokshi said he is now getting “more affordable” orders that cost around INR 70,000 (USD 928) but is also looking at catering to “high class” orders that exceed INR 400,000. “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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This article originally appeared on VICE IN.