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  1. Wealth
April 19, 2011

Arabia Adorned

By Spear's

Jewellery has an important role in Arab culture, yet Middle Eastern jewellers are increasingly torn between pursuing traditional styles and embracing Western ones, says Katie Trotter

Jewellery has an important role in Arab culture, yet Middle Eastern jewellers are increasingly torn between pursuing traditional styles and embracing Western ones, says Katie Trotter 
UNTIL THE RECENT disturbances in the Middle East, elite members of society provided a crutch for the luxury-goods market. Yet now, with the possibility of an expanding middle class, regional consumerism as we know it may be dramatically altered. At the moment it is impossible to predict an outcome, but Michael Burke, chief executive of Fendi, part of the LVMH luxury conglomerate, hinted at positive change when he recently stated: ‘For every dictator, we could have one million customers. Traditionally, we do well when the many are integrated into society.’

While there is no doubt that conspicuous consumption existing alongside extreme poverty will continue to play a role in the Middle East for some time, recent political changes could open doors for a new generation of creative artisans. Clearly the market is striving to internationalise, and interest is deepening, yet one question remains: Is the taste for jewellery in the Middle East ready to let go of tradition in order to break into international markets, and if so, is this the right thing to do?

To get a better sense of the market, it’s important to ask who’s buying and why. Traditionally, when markets panic, investors, globally, have flocked to gold. At a time when it is considered a wiser investment choice than other, more traditional assets, the demand for gold continues to climb. After the United States, China and India, the Middle East is the fourth-largest jewellery market in the world — 10 per cent of all jewellery made is sold there. Christie’s, which has been holding regular auctions in the Middle East since 2006, reported regional sales of $51 million last year, while sales of gold in 2010 in Dubai and Abu Dhabi were roughly 15 per cent higher than the previous year.

So why the continuing thirst? An important factor to consider is the emotional response that gold generates. In large parts of the Middle East, gold is both the most important economic resource that women can have access to and a valuable means of expression. According to Islamic family law, when a woman marries, gold is the central item of the dower. She is free to use this property as she pleases — neither her husband nor her father may exert any control over it. With 70 per cent of newly mined gold still going into jewellery, the underlying factor remains clear: with marriage comes business.

Victoria Tryon, a London-based jeweller whose designs reflect the distinctive architecture and geometric shapes seen in textiles and interiors associated with Middle Eastern design, has based her new collection, Alia (which translates as ‘sublime’ or ‘noble’), on the Bedouin traditions of the region, with particular focus on the dome shape attributed to portals, architectural decoration, ceramics and mosques.

‘The offer of jewellery is a great way of marking one’s appreciation for another,’ she says. ‘And while the gift of jewellery often marks special occasions all over the world, in the Middle East it is of traditional importance for a wedding, where jewels are presented to the bride-to-be.’

‘Jewellery is quite simply a part of our culture,’ explains Lama Hourani, who has designed jewellery for Queen Rania of Jordan and Queen Sofia of Spain. ‘Traditionally, when a woman gets married she receives a gold coin from her husband and a set of gold jewellery from her husband’s family to be worn on her wedding night. Regardless of age or background, there is always a shared love of jewellery.’

Previously the Middle East tended to imitate Western spending habits, paying big money for internationally acclaimed luxury brands instead of investing in Middle Eastern design, which created problems when it came to marketing. To succeed in the East, one was pushed toward Western ideals, which in the process meant the market was left with neither cultural reference nor Western finishings. The first step was letting go of the focus on the item’s weight in grams and carats, and turning to its design aesthetic.

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Hourani, the daughter of a prominent Jordanian political scientist, says that while most of her inspiration derives from the social and geographical landscape of the Middle East — its wonders, cultures and people she is keen to explore — she also bases her designs on symbols associated with prehistoric art. She has a knack for combining the unexpected with the traditional and is keen to carve an individual style.

Each piece, meticulously created, reminds us that taste is in fact evolving. ‘Fashion now is all about the unexpected, about originality,’ she says. ‘Sometimes what might be considered defective to some, with inclusions or cracks, may well become a magnificent centrepiece in my collection.’

Renowned Egyptian jewellery designer Azza Fahmy agrees that in order to break the international market it is imperative to provide jewellery that’s relevant. Opting to train under the master craftsmen in Khan el-Khalili, Cairo’s ancient jewellery souk, instead of the more common route of studying Western techniques abroad, opened her up to a whole new design concept: launching a brand that was deeply rooted in Arab and Islamic tradition, incorporating calligraphy and Arabic poetry in its design.

Fahmy’s Culture line is the fruition of her time in the workshops: ‘I believed it was the best place to train,’ she says. ‘It was there that I learnt ancient techniques that helped me begin perfecting my own designs. Initially, it took a long time to be taken seriously, but persistence and diligence paid off. The Culture line sells very well across the Middle East — we found that these pieces conveyed a personal message to the wearer and hence demand grew.’


Illustration by Sonia Hensler

As the demand for Middle Eastern art and design increases outside the region, it can’t be long before Arab jewellery designers become big names in the international field. But with the market still favouring conventional pieces that hold their value, it’s a testing time for creativity. In times of dramatic change and uncertainty, people are likely to cling to traditional practice, which could be exactly what is needed. In order to succeed, Arabic designers at the forefront must try to embrace and reinvent their own craft industry, to find the beauty in the traditional and not strive to follow Western techniques with which they can’t compete.

To carve out a place in the centre of the global fashion market, the new generation of emerging designers must look inward, especially in a time of such social and political upheaval, which is exactly what Fahmy has in mind.

‘The new collection that we are working on is inspired by the strength and unity of the Egyptian people,’ she says. ‘We are now working on launching a new collection dedicated to my beloved country, Egypt, which will carry Egyptian poems and inspiring words that evoke unity.’ 

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