Anilu Anand, a middle-class Indian housewife, sports three
22-carat gold bangles on her right wrist, two 22-carat gold rings
on one finger, a 22-carat gold necklace with a 22-carat gold
pendant, and a pair of 22-carat gold posts in her ears.
"This is for rough use, day to day," she explains. "We need a
lot more heavy gold for weddings and festivals - and for our
Mrs. Anand typifies Indians' attachment to the yellow metal.
She owns more gold jewelry than she could ever wear. In fact, most
of it sits in a bank safe. But she continues to accumulate.
"You can never have too much gold," according to Anand.
Never mind that gold is losing its glitter as an investment
worldwide. Central banks from Australia to Switzerland are dumping
gold because they no longer regard it as a safe reserve. In the
United States, wary individual investors are ditching gold as well.
Gold prices have plummeted from $873 an ounce in early 1980
to just above $298 an ounce Feb. 18.
But Indians' faith in gold appears to be unshakable. Despite
being a poor country with an annual per capita income of just $350,
India is the world's largest consumer of gold.
In 1997, demand surged 45 percent to 737 metric tons,
compared with 508 tons a year earlier.
India is the fastest-growing gold market in the world,
according to the Geneva-based World Gold Council, and demand is
unlikely to slacken.
"We don't have a gold culture, we have a gold obsession,"
says Rashmi Vaidyalingam, a New Delhi lawyer. India's obsession
with gold is centuries old. Gold and jewels cascade down effigies
of Hindu gods, such as Lakshmi, the goddess of good fortune.
The lure and importance of gold among Indian women cuts
across caste and economic boundaries. During the holiday season,
disheveled peasants wearing only a tiny gold nose stud as well as
matronly types dripping in gold line up outside jewelry shops to
buy gold across India, in villages and big cities.
In this society where most women don't hold property, bank
accounts, or other assets, gold is considered stree dhan, Hindi for
woman's wealth. For a woman to enter a marriage without it is
inconceivable. Most families will not marry a daughter until they
can give her a trousseau containing at least two gold bangles, a
gold necklace, earrings, a ring, and a nose pin, altogether worth
about $1,600 at current prices.
Though part of her dowry, gold jewelry is for the daughter to
keep:It is meant both to beautify her and to hold her secure.
"Gold is the savior of Indian women in times of crisis,"
explains G.S. Pillai, New Delhi manager of the World Gold Council.
"If her husband dies or throws her out of the house, she has her
gold. Nobody can touch it."
As Mrs. Vaidyalingam puts it: "This is my asset. It's my
buffer. I have complete control over it."
To most Indian women it's unthinkable to sell any of their
treasure even as they acquire new jewelry. Many form informal clubs
and throw "kitty parties," in which members pool money and hold a
lottery each month over lunch. The winner usually heads to the
Others, like Amita Sharma, use part of the monthly household
allowance they receive from their husband to buy gold. …