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Barry Randhawa examines some diamond jewellery set in gold gold in his Toronto jewellery store, Randhawa Jewellers. (JENNIFER ROBERTS/JENNIFER ROBERTS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Barry Randhawa examines some diamond jewellery set in gold gold in his Toronto jewellery store, Randhawa Jewellers. (JENNIFER ROBERTS/JENNIFER ROBERTS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Even tradition can't withstand bullion's lofty ascent Add to ...

Barry Randhawa holds a glowing 22-karat gold bangle, tilted to show the inside. It's concave, something he calls "negative space," a subtle effort by the manufacturer to make it lighter and keep the price down.

It still costs about $500. Skyrocketing prices, combined with economic worries and changing tastes, are driving consumers away from traditional gold ornaments. Many jewellers in Canada's South Asian community say business has been unusually slow as some buyers delay purchases in the hope that prices will eventually ease.

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"November and December have been dead," said Mr. Randhawa, who runs Randhawa Jewellers, a 20-year-old business, with his brother, father and two uncles in northwest Toronto.

He is now offering necklaces with lighter chains, and hollowed-out bangles. His store is surrounded by 16 other jewellers in strip malls at the intersection of Islington Avenue and Albion Road, and competition is ferocious.

Across the road, his competitor at New Maharani Jewellers echoes his observations. "Business is slow due to the high price of gold," owner Sanjeev Bassi says. "No one knows, even the economists don't know, when the prices will come down."

Gold has for centuries been a central purchase for many South Asians, an insurance policy against life's upheavals and an heirloom passed down through generations. Ornaments, both intricate and chunky, are a common wedding gift, and many save for decades to ensure they can afford to present jewellery. For all but the poorest, gold is an inherent part of daily wear.

But that tradition is changing: Price-conscious consumers have watched the price of bullion surge. Gold traded around $300 (U.S.) an ounce 10 years ago - it is now close to $1,400. The price has climbed 27 per cent this year alone, and it's affecting retailers and consumers alike.

In Toronto's Little India, Satish Rudhra, who runs 22K Gold Jewellers, says sales have fallen 85 per cent in the last few years.

Part of the change stems from costs. Many people are sticking to wedding budgets of, say, $4,000 (Canadian), but that doesn't stretch nearly as far as it did a few years ago, says Pravin Jogia, owner of Calgary-based Sungold Sonali Jewellery.

The other shift is generational. Yellow gold, the good stuff at 22 karats (meaning it's 91.6 per cent pure), has traditionally been a mainstay for weddings, Diwali - the Hindu festival of lights - or to celebrate the birth of a baby. Now, jewellers and consumers say, more young people are turning to cheaper white gold, pieces adorned with semi-precious stones and costume jewellery.

Not only are customers not buying as much gold, a growing number are actually selling it, or have it melted down to trade in for more modern pieces, store owners say.

Demand for gold has not, by any stretch, disappeared. Buying in India, the world's biggest consumer market, which is in the midst of wedding season, has largely recovered after a dip in 2009, according to the World Gold Council.

But tastes are changing there, too, particularly in urban centres. Some are buying 18-karat pieces rather than the traditional 22-karat items. Scores are turning to more affordable silver, both for adornment and as an investment, says Deepa Shah of Anmol Designer Silver and Stones Jewellery in the western city of Ahmedabad.

In northern cities, "there has been a trend towards more "Western" styles, and lighter wedding sets, as well as diamond-set pieces," the World Gold Council said in a recent report.

Salima Syerah Virani was raised in Mumbai and married there in 1991. Gold was an intrinsic part of her first marriage. "Families are saying, we recognize our country's volatility as far as the economy goes. If we gave you money, we know it's going to be devalued. If we give you gold, that is the most secure way for a family to give a gift to their child."

The lawyer and editor arrived in Toronto in 1998. Over the last decade she noticed a shift in consumer taste. First and second-generation Canadian brides were being exposed to other types of fashion, mirrored in Bollywood movies, which favoured ornate costume and semi-precious jewellery. Pieces got smaller, more affordable and more versatile, easily worn with different outfits.

The rising popularity of costume and period jewellery "coupled with the fact that gold is more expensive, and more people are investing in real estate or stocks … means, as a result, gold is definitely on a downward trend," says Toronto-based Ms. Virani, who is editor-in-chief and chief executive officer of MyBindi.com, a website on South Asian culture, art and lifestyle.

Last year she remarried. This time round, she wore semi-precious jewellery. The money saved by forgoing expensive ornaments let the couple take a honeymoon to England, Turkey and India.

Gold has deep roots in India's history, as a current exhibit on India's Maharajas at the Art Gallery of Ontario shows. It was used in paints and ink, threaded through intricate textiles, incorporated into robes, slippers and tent hangings, into the handles of swords and the blankets on elephants. It showed an exalted status, and was an integral part of gift-giving and forging alliances.

As Canada's South Asian community swells, numbering 1.3 million in the 2006 census, any shift in buying habits has a profound impact on the retail sector. The proportion of the Canadians who were born in Asia and the Middle East, another region where gold is popular, has surpassed the proportion born in Europe for the first time.

In Vancouver, wedding planner Pardip Bedi, who runs Big Phat Indian Weddings, says most traditional parents of brides still want to give gold as a gift "even though most modern brides don't wear it."

Instead, they're opting for diamond or costume jewellery. Brides nowadays want pieces they can wear more frequently, for various occasions, "and not store it in the bank box."

Mohammed Noorani has been a jeweller for the past decade, and he, too, has seen a massive shift away from yellow gold and towards more unique, affordable and versatile pieces.

The owner of Noor Jewellers in Mississauga typically travels to Dubai and Kuwait several times a year to buy handmade jewellery studded with emeralds, smoky topaz or tourmaline.

The younger generation is increasingly calling the shots over wedding purchases and wants to be less showy and more practical, he says.

By way of example, he says his mother in Pakistan typically wore 16 solid gold bangles every day. His wife only wears eight. And his daughter, who is studying in England, will only wear two.

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GOLD THROUGH THE AGES

The precious metal has captivated people for thousands of years

The ancient world

Most ancient cultures regarded gold as a symbol of prestige. In ancient Egypt, gold was considered a divine and indestructible metal, associated with the brilliance of the sun. Egyptians ingested gold for spiritual, mental, and bodily purification.

The Middle Ages

In 1284, Venice introduced the gold ducat. It soon became the most popular coin in the world and remained so for more than five centuries.

Modern times

A metal that has figured prominently in modern technology, gold's more technical uses were on display during the first space walk in 1965. A gold-coated visor was used to protect astronauts' eyes from direct sunlight, a feature which today remains standard.

75 Percentage of all the gold ever mined that has been extracted from the earth since 1910.

Source: Reuters, World Gold Council

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