Legacy of Leadership

“GIA brought a scientific perspective to gemmology that was entirely different from what I’d learned within my family.”
Anil Sankhwal, Managing Partner, J. H. Jewellers, New Delhi

Before we explore other aspects of your career through this interview. Could you walk us through the history of JH Jewellers, from its beginning to the point where you took over?

My journey, filled with delightful twists and turns, has been driven solely by passion. Without a genuine love for this business, it would become nothing more than a mere chore. Fortunately, my upbringing in the heart of Delhi’s Chandani Chowk, where our family home and business co-existed, allowed me to play with gemstones from a very early age. Coloured gemstones were my primary fascination, and I owe my profound interest to my father, who was my key teacher. During my school years, I delved into our family business, nurturing a deep affinity for gemstones. Back in the 1960’s), diamonds were not as popular, and my focus remained on coloured gems. My education was a blend of lessons from my parents and insights gained from the people who visited us. This education was not just about gemstones, but also encompassed vital social values.

One of the challenges in a family-run business is to keep the business intact or separate amicably. Could you talk a little bit about this phase that your business went through? What were your learnings?

As in any family business, diverse opinions are inevitable. Just like how five fingers are not the same, every family member may have distinct visions for business’s growth.

I enrolled in GIA distance learning program that suited my goal of completing my education without prolonged absence from home. I juggled assignments alongside my coursework and worked night shifts to support myself, despite my mother’s initial reluctance.

GIA brought a scientific perspective to gemmology that was entirely different from what I’d learned within my family. The unique insights I gained through the programme have been invaluable. Combining this newfound knowledge with our family business provided a comprehensive understanding and enhanced my abilities – not only for learning but also for effectively serving clients.

The experiences at GIA allowed me to also meet exceptional individuals, including Richard T. Liddicoat, Jr. I still cherish my old GIA assignments and books preserving them as a testament to my journey. In fact, my roommate in the U.S. got inspired to enrol in GIA too, and he excelled in the programme and eventually he was managing a chain of jewellery stores. This only highlights how passion for jewellery spreads not only within the family but also to those beyond the trade, contributing to the growth of our industry.

At JH, there is a strong focus on exports to the Middle East market. What factors influenced this strategic focus?

It was in the late ’70s, around 1979, my introduction to the Middle East market was truly fascinating. An opportunity arose for us to participate in an exhibition in the Middle East, although we were initially hesitant due to a lack of suitable jewellery material. But I brought a variety of jewellery pieces to the exhibition, but the initial client reactions were far from positive. They regarded Indian jewellery as substandard, which deeply bothered me.

I was determined to alter this perception because India boasts a rich history of jewellery craftsmanship. It took around eight years of dedication to shift the Middle Eastern perspective. Slowly, they began appreciating and buying Indian jewellery. We demonstrated that Indian jewellery was not only exquisite but also reasonably priced.

Our journey from being dismissed as subpar to becoming a respected and sought-after jewellery maker in the Middle East has been an incredible achievement. India now is the largest and busiest contingent in some exhibitions. Passion, coupled with honesty in our dealings, has been the key. I continue to enjoy this journey, attending exhibitions, and witnessing the respect we’ve earned.

Before conflicts could arise, our wise father, a very understanding person, took the initiative to ensure a smooth transition. He believed that, within his lifetime, we should each have the opportunity to grow individually. It was his brainchild, and the remarkable aspect was that he entrusted my brother and me with the decision-making process, even down to determining the valuations. He made us truly independent.

In our journey, we faced inevitable ups and downs, but by the grace of God, we both flourished and earned respect in the market. The key takeaway is the importance of independence in learning and conducting business. Mistakes are part of the process, but by learning from them and making amends, we continued to progress. This is a vital lesson that should be imparted to the next generation.

Could you walk us through how your childhood fascination with gemstones eventually led you to pursue education at GIA and how it played a pivotal role in the early years of your business’s expansion?

Convincing my parents to let me study abroad in the early 1970s wasn’t a simple task. Nonetheless, my father gave his consent, understanding my desire to return and assist with our family business. It’s a bit hazy how I first learned about GIA, but I distinctly remember making a phone call in those pre-internet and mobile telephony days.

Establishing and maintaining consumer confidence is critical to the growth of a jewellery business. As a high-end diamond jewellery retailer, what are your thoughts on the role of gemstone grading and identification in building consumer trust?

Gemstone grading and identification used to be simpler in the past when there were fewer gem treatments . This reminds me of a significant moment when my brother and I, fresh from our studies at GIA, established Delhi’s first gemstone lab. At that time, there was no such facility in the area, so we felt the need to create one for the trade.

Back then, the gemstone identification process was relatively straightforward. However, today, it has become far more intricate due to the multitude of treatments and enhancements. This is where certification plays a crucial role. Responsible sourcing is often discussed, but we must also emphasise responsible disclosure.

In my early days during the ’70s, we operated a tourist store. I once sold a Kashmir sapphire to an American customer who returned with a complaint. He suspected it was synthetic and even involved the embassy, India’s ministry, and the hotel where our store was located. I said I would accept his claim if he obtained a GIA certificate confirming the stone’s authenticity. The stone was sent GIA in New York, and after three months, he wrote back with a sincere apology, acknowledging that the stone was indeed natural. It was a case of misunderstanding. This incident taught me the importance of sticking to our principles and accepting mistakes only when they occur.

You have balanced your business and industry roles – whether it is DJA, GJEPC, GJC, IIGJ quite well for nearly 40+ years. Can you talk a little about how you have managed to do so and what continues to drive you even today?

Passion is the one-word answer to your question. When you’re deeply passionate about what you do, you’ll always make time. I genuinely love it all. I believe that since the gem and jewellery industry has given me so much, it is my turn to give back to the community. I do not want to leave young, aspiring individuals unaware of the valuable lessons that both the pitfalls and successes have taught me. I’m still here, devoting significant time to the industry, despite the challenge of balancing responsibilities.

Excerpts taken from GIA India’s Legacy of Leadership Knowledge Series interview conducted live on Zoom. Attendance by invitation only. Register on collective.GIA.edu as GIA alumni to get notified about upcoming events.

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