x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Solid gold links and family bonds

Unlike many at the helm of a multimillion-dirham public company, Tawfique Abdullah, 52, can still work the factory floor.

Tawfique Abdullah, the chairman of Damas, in the company's production area at the Dubai Multi Commodities Centre.
Tawfique Abdullah, the chairman of Damas, in the company's production area at the Dubai Multi Commodities Centre.

Tawfique Abdullah weaves between workstations at the Damas Jewellers workshop floor in Dubai, and tilts his tall frame over a goldsmith's shoulder to offer a quiet word of advice. Unlike many at the helm of a multimillion-dirham public company, Mr Abdullah, 52, can still work the factory floor. The goldsmith-turned-chairman was just seven years old when he began visiting his father's workshop, then in Dubai's Gold Souk, after school. Initially, he toyed around with scrap metal. When he was trusted with real gold, he created pendants. One, in the shape of a passage from the Quran was his first finished jewellery piece. "I was this little child intrigued with these machines," he says. "Basically, it was like going to art school or art class." Jewellery making was a family tradition that started with his grandfather, Mohammed Tawfique Abdullah, who founded a design and manufacturing business in Dubai before moving it to Syria in 1907. His son, Mohammed Taher Abdullah, joined the family business and by 1955 had moved it back to Dubai. This time, under the name Al Abdullah Jewellery Traders, the business focused on wholesale jewellery sales. The company opened its first retail store in the Gold Souk in Dubai in 1959, 100 metres away from the family home. Fifty years later, the small Dubai jewellery store has become an international chain serving clients all over the world. Yet one aspect about the business remains constant: the tight bonds of the Abdullah family. Back in the 1960s, Mr Abdullah and his two younger brothers, Tawhid and Tamjid, regularly dropped by the workshop after school. During those afternoons, jewellers would take the boys through the step-by-step process of making pendants, earrings or necklaces. They learnt how to hold the blade at the right angle and how to handle the metal. "What's unique about jewellery manufacturing is it combines a lot of trades," Mr Abdullah says. "A jeweller is a mechanic, a carpenter, a designer and a welder." Tamjid, the youngest Abdullah son, says that even as a teenager his oldest brother showed a keen eye for jewellery design. At just 13 or 14, he says, his brother was already sketching designs for bangles, and had learnt how to use the company's first diamond-precision cutting machine. "He sketched some things, then adjusted the machine to do these patterns. And the designs came out so beautifully," Tamjid says. Although the elder Mr Abdullah never forced his sons to learn the family business, the boys found the workshop was a childhood playground where they could engage their curiosities. The token dirham they received in payment for each completed piece did not hurt either. In the late 1970s, the Abdullah family introduced the Damas brand to market its jewellery products. The family took the name from the Greek word, adamas, which means diamonds or indestructible, says Tawfique Abdullah. Damas was also easy to pronounce for people across many languages, he says. He continued to work after school at the Damas workshop until he graduated from Dubai Secondary School in 1975. Enrolled at Portsmouth University in the UK, he decided to branch out and studied computer science. "But I never finished it," he says. "Always, the jewellery pulled me back." As did family. He craved the daily interaction with his brothers, so he switched majors to gemology and returned to the UAE, completing his diploma via correspondence. Damas's business was booming then, and the extra help was essential. Mr Abdullah rejoined Damas's workshop, creating and repairing jewellery and watches. "Normally when people start a job, they do the boring routine stuff," he says. "Repairs was one area where you don't get two things that are the same." Mr Abdullah was soon working behind the counter selling mainly to Emiratis and Arab expats. During his 15 years behind the counter, Damas grew. In 1985, the jewellery retailer began selling international brands, and launched its own branded jewellery line three years later. The elder Mr Abdullah was the head of the business, but stepped back when the three brothers were in their late teens to let them run the show. He then appointed them to different jobs based on their talents, Tawfique says. To keep the family spats to a minimum, his father clearly defined each brother's role. Tawfique Abdullah's niche was to manage human resources and IT functions, and manage customer relationships; his younger brother was designated the managing director, and the youngest brother became the deputy managing director. Under their direction the company expanded further into the Middle East, and by 2000, had opened stores in Qatar, Oman, Lebanon, Kuwait and Bahrain. Five years later, the group expanded its network to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Libya, Sudan, Italy, India and Japan. In 2004, Tawfique Abdullah became the chief executive of the Dubai Multi Commodities Centre. He was also knighted by the Belgian government in appreciation of the amount of diamonds Damas had imported from the country over the years. Shortly thereafter, Damas opened a 30,000 sq metre workshop in the DMCC and the company launched an initial public offering, which raised US$270.6 million (Dh993.7m) on the NASDAQ Dubai stock exchange last year, helping to fuel its growth to more than 450 stores in 18 countries today. Amid all this growth, his father died in 2005, and Mr Abdullah became the chairman and long-term strategist of the company. Damas's success has been a joint effort, he says. The Abdullah brothers remain close, living with their families in adjacent houses in a compound in Jumeirah. "When we were bachelors, we lived in the same house. When we got married, we moved next door. Not far away. Not another street even. Next door," he says. Tamjid Abdullah says everything is shared among the brothers. For example, he has their house and car keys in his glove box. "The way we have been brought up in this family is, what is good for you must be good for your brother." That tight bond also makes it easier and faster for Damas to adjust its business strategy, especially in tough economic times. "Our organisation can really deal with the situation because we are not such a hierarchy," Tawfique Abdullah says. "We can meet and make a decision on the same day." He would not talk about Damas's performance or expansion plans, but says the company has not been immune to the slowdown in consumer spending. He says he prefers not to get lost in figures and targets. "It is more than that. Because you're dealing with luxury - and with luxury, things are related to emotions, special occasions. You're dealing with people at the end of the day." These days, Mr Abdullah spends most of his time on corporate strategy. He no longer has the time to tinker in the workshop. Of the hundreds of pieces he's designed over the years, though, one remains his favourite. In 1995, he created a gold heart pendant, with a design that is more symbolic than decorative. The piece consists of a half-inch thick solid 24-carat gold heart that comes with a separate necklace. The necklace has a loose clasp made of a thin gold band that fits around the edge of the heart and keeps it in place at the end of the chain. The recipient of the gift gets both pieces and can decide how it is worn. "If your partner accepts your pure heart, and your pure love and your pure commitment to the relationship, then they ask for the rest of the pieces, which is the lock," he says. Only about 50 limited-edition pieces were made, and he does not know how many were sold. The numbers do not interest him, as it was more a labour of love, he says. Mr Abdullah gave one of them to his only daughter, Justine. aligaya@thenational.ae