x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Diving for pearls and heritage

q&a Gaiti Rabbani is the executive director of coloured stones and pearls at the Dubai Multi Commodities Centre.

Gaiti Rabbani and the DMCC aim to revive the pearling heritage of the UAE.
Gaiti Rabbani and the DMCC aim to revive the pearling heritage of the UAE.

Gaiti Rabbani is the executive director of coloured stones and pearls at the Dubai Multi Commodities Centre.

The idea is to revive the pearling heritage of this part of the world and to re-establish Dubai as a trade hub, which is what it was known as for years. Some of the best pearls in the world up to the early 1900s were found off the coast of the UAE, or the Trucial States as they were known, and Dubai was known for the trade too: a lot of the pearls would be brought here and people would come from India and Europe to buy.

No. The industry at that time was based around natural pearling and now it's all cultured pearls. We ran feasibilities and they tell us that we can produce the pearls in these waters, with the indigenous oysters, but it's not something we're interested in doing - and a lot of Dubai's water is taken up with offshore developments so you'd struggle to find space.

Dubai has a very strong jewellery retail market, and it's very well branded as the "city of gold" - people come from all over the world to buy gold because of its reputation, its quality, its affordability and the fact that you get gold jewellery from all parts of the world. The DMCC created the diamond division and that's reflected in the market today, and then we got into coloured stones and pearls, and if you go into the mall today and walk around you'll see a lot more colour and pearls being used in jewellery. My own vision would be to transform the city of gold into the city of pearls, because that's something that's closer to our roots and our culture here. There are a lot of things that have to take place for that to happen, and standards and reputation and certification and awareness and education are part of it, but I think there's a beautiful story to be told when it comes to pearls.

The pearl story is something that nobody's done particularly well anywhere. If you go to Japan, they've got Mikimoto Island, which is very difficult to get to, and it's more of a tribute and museum. You'll find the same thing in Tahiti, but nobody's doing that at a global level, which is where the Pearls of Arabia project on the World Islands comes into play. This will be an experience centre where people can learn about the history here and internationally, as well as what to look for when you're buying pearls.

No, the retail is very important, but there are standards that need to be brought into the market. As a consumer, what are you looking for, what do you ask for in a store? There's no universal system with pearls that you can adopt - it exists with diamonds, with gold, but with pearls each producer has its own system and certification. So we as government want to create a set of standards and endorse retailers who adopt these standards and disclose qualities and treatments. ­Dubai would be the first market worldwide to do this.

You have pearl auctions in Japan and some small ones in Australia, but they're mostly in Hong Kong, alongside the jewellery trade shows, and that's what we're looking to bring here to Dubai. It's much more efficient for westerners looking to travel less. Also, because there's minimal bureaucracy, it's an easier process to get your products here than in Europe.

We're working with international partners including the World Jewellery Confederation, which is a United Nations-backed organisation. The fact that we are neutral, because we're not producing pearls today, allows us to promote pearls from Japan, Australia and China. But we have to make sure that the ­criteria are relevant to this market. The awareness levels here, even among the traders, are quite poor.

Yes, education and promotion, which is where our design initiative Pearl Essence comes into play. We've gone out and invited 10 top international fashion brands to ­design a piece inspired by the heritage of pearling in Arabia. The ­designs will form part of a travelling exhibition around the world and ultimately be auctioned by Christie's in Dubai, and the ­proceeds will go to charity.