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East India Company relaunches as luxury brand

From Jim Boulden, CNN
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East India Company reborn
  • Indian-born entrepreneur has relaunched The East India Co.
  • It now sells luxury food and gifts
  • The East India Co. began as a trading monopoly in 1600

London, England (CNN) -- It was the world's first multinational company, a trading giant during the colonial rule of the Indian subcontinent.

This week, The East India Co. is being reborn as a luxury brand -- under Indian ownership.

Sanjiv Mehta, an Indian-born importer and entrepreneur, bought the intellectual property rights to the company in 2005, after they had lain dormant for a century. His goal was to create a global luxury brand.

His dream is realized in a new store off London's high-end Regent Street, where the new East India Co. now sells gourmet tea, chocolate, coffee and gifts.

"Its name has a huge relationship with all that is high-end products," Mehta said.

The East India Co. began as a trading monopoly under Queen Elizabeth I in 1600 to ship commodities to the West from India, China and the Spice Islands, countering the clout of the Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese.

It brought all the exotic foods from the East to the West.
--Sanjiv Mehta

At various times, the company controlled the trade in indigo dye, cotton, silk, opium and tea.

The "tea library" at the new store features more than 100 different types including green, black, herbal, and flavored teas.

"There would not be tea on the tables of London but for The East India Co.," Mehta said. "So, in a way, we own this category."

In time, the company and British colonialism became one and the same. It was the company's tea that was dumped in Boston Harbor in 1773, and the company once controlled Singapore and India.

"It brought all the exotic foods from the East to the West," Mehta said.

That idea is infused in the goods for sale at the store, from Japanese mustard to chocolate and biscuits flavored with sea salt and red peppercorns.

The British crown slowly took control of the company's routes, ports, currency and military, becoming the symbol of the British empire.

In 1874, the company ceased trading, prompting an obituary in The Times newspaper now inscribed in a marble table at the new store: "It accomplished a work such as in the whole history of the human race no other company ever attempted, or is ever to attempt in the years to come."

The company's name may also remind some of the illegal opium trade from China, and oppression and wars in India. Mehta, however, sees another side in his native India.

"The English language, the ports, the railway system, the civil system ... the bridges -- all was built by The East India Co.," he said. "So there's a huge relationship between The East India Co. and various walks of life. It is not just food products."

Mehta said he has invested around $20 million in the company so far. He hopes to open more stores and launch leather goods, jewelry and home interiors, plans that will take an additional $100 million, he said.