NEW DELHI With two silver rings dangling from each ear and sporting a topaz bracelet that matches a shimmering blue shirt, 33-year-old Ashish Singh saunters into a jewellery shop to pick another bauble for his collection.
A businessman from western India, Singh trawls his favourite retailers every week on the look out for bargains -- but nothing excites him like a new piece of shiny silver.
"I have got a big box of them, but I just love silver," says Singh as he scans the shelves at a south Delhi store.
"And this bracelet, I just had to have it because it's what Salman bhai wears," he adds, an admiring reference to Salman Khan, a macho Bollywood superstar.
He's not alone.
Rapid economic growth over the last few years has created a thriving 60 million-strong urban middle class increasingly willing to splurge for pleasure.
As a result demand for fashion jewellery in affordable silver -- priced as low as $1 and up to $100 (50 pence and up to 50 pounds) --- is rising sharply in a market where purchases were traditionally in gold and for most were an investment as much as a style statement.
Buying gold would set you back ten times as much.
Silver prices currently trade at around $11.8 a troy ounce, while spot gold stands at around $665 a troy ounce.
Though there is no accurate estimate of the size of India's silver jewellery industry, some manufacturers and analysts estimate it at $3-$4 billion and add that this year it could grow by between 5-15 percent.
"Nowadays, people are spending on swanky mobile phones to computers," said Jaipur-based jeweller Pramod Derewala, who had focused on exporting silver but is now looking closer to home.
"Silver jewellery is another fashion accessory, which can be worn comfortably to work or at home," he says.
Ruby-centred earrings, ankle bracelets with tiny bells and belly-button rings vie for attention as customers of all ages throng silver sellers.
GOLD HERE TO STAY
Silver bangles as thick as a thumb, heavy plates and coins have always been popular in India's villages as a safe way to save for a rainy day, but gold reigned in the richer cities.
Traders say a new found love for all things silver is unlikely to cut into demand for gold, which still maintains its investment allure for the more cautious and carries that extra cachet.
India imports 750-800 tonnes of gold a year, about a fifth of global output, and 60 percent of that is used for jewellery.
Many women in particular feel safer wearing less valuable silver and like the fashion statement made by the metal.
"I like wearing jewellery that matches with my outfit every day. Silver gives that option to choose, gold is too expensive," said Anahita Dutta, a 28-year-old designer.
Total annual silver consumption is estimated at 2,500 to 3,000 tonnes, of which jewellery accounts for about 20 to 30 percent. Industry uses most of the rest.
The silver industry is made up of high-end fashion jewellery -- also called sterling jewellery and often gold plated -- which is at least 92.5 percent silver, and cheaper alloy pieces, which contain 30-40 percent silver mixed with metals like brass, copper and steel.
To tap the expanding demand for silver, jewellery makers are changing their sales' tactics, too.
Mumbai-based Hemant Shah -- whose new "Vibrant" brand of jewellery is his first foray into silver after a decade in the business -- is rolling out a fleet of six trendy sales vans or "V-mobiles" which will hawk their wares at strategic points.
"We are treating this like a fashion product. We want our customers to buy a piece for every outfit," Shah said. "Within a year, we are hoping to be in six metros across India."
Many women are even switching over to silver for their bridal trousseau.
Rashi Dewan, a 26-year-old chartered accountant in Ahmedabad, said rather than wear gold jewellery at her wedding, she opted to invest in gold bars and coins and adorn herself with imitation gold jewellery made from a silver alloy.
"No one can say they are not made of gold, they match with my wedding attire and I can afford them," she said.
(Additional reporting by Rupam Jain Nair in AHMEDABAD))
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