The winter wedding season is here and the glittering souqs of Dubai and Sharjah are busy with prospective brides and future in-laws, selecting the best pieces of jewellery for the wedding day and dowry.
Yet many of the radiant necklaces and bangles destined for slender necks and henna’d arms come from a neighbourhood of faded low-rise concrete buildings off Sharjah’s Al Mareija Street. It’s an unassuming quarter of tailor shops and South Indian restaurants where a plate of rice and fish curry costs Dh5. Every so often, the pavement is blocked by a cluster of sandals, strewn outside the doors of goldsmith shops.
Al Baroon Gold Factory is one of scores in Al Mareija, not far from Sharjah’s famed central market gold souq and a wharf where dhow captains once carried gold from the Trucial States across the ocean to India and Pakistan.
Inside a humble concrete three-storey, gold wholesalers from the Gulf’s best known jewellery brands come and go with plastic bags of silver and gold. They are here for Faisal Chakkala, the managing partner who has built the workshop’s reputation since his arrival from Kerala in 1993.
Mr Chakkala’s uncle Abdul Jabbar founded Al Baroon in 1988, after launching a successful textile business in Dammam, Saudi Arabia. Uncle Abdul Jabbar never lived in the Gulf, exactly. Instead, he moved between Dammam, Sharjah and Kerala.
When Mr Chakkala came in Sharjah in 1993, he was unsure of a permanent move. “At that time I thought just to come and see if Sharjah is good. Everything was very cheap and best. Silent, no traffic jam.”
He knew little about gold but soon earned the traders’ trust.
“He’s well connected,” says an American jeweller for one of the Gulf’s largest brands. “He became known in the street and he offers many services like manufacturing, repair, design. He’s one of the top ones here. The small and the big, they’re all connected, really.”
Majid Yasser, 29, a Yemeni at Al Rumaiza Gold and Jewellery company, has also relied on Mr Chakkala for years. “Their work is good. Just try other shops. This one is number one.”
While Mr Chakkala meets with traders, nine men are at work in the back room, moulding gold and silver into jewellery that will become treasured heirlooms.
Each smith works at a desk cluttered with pliers and tweezers, hammers the size of pencils, clay cups for molten gold, and cups of tea for sustenance. The smiths peers through spectacles, each at work on a different item: one fastens silver bands onto a cane, one polishes a baby’s spoon, one bends red-hot gold strips into bangles, another fastens diamonds onto a ring. A Malayalam radio station plays over the din of hammering and welding torches.
Above them on a low-ceiling mezzanine are three more smiths, including Michalle Mamo, an Ethiopian silversmith who was renowned in Sharjah’s free zone and recruited by Mr Chakkala four years ago. The wooden floor shakes every time his hammer comes down.
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Mr Mamo began apprenticing with his father at about age 14. African jewellery is a growing business in the Gulf and Al Baroon began producing Ethiopian, Sudanese and Somalian jewellery 20 years ago. Ethiopians and Somalis carry Mr Mamo's work abroad after buying it in Sharjah and Dubai souqs.
“Heavy items and big, big items,” says Mr Chakkala.
But Mr Mamo’s specialities are delicate filigree crosses and finely layered bridal pendants.
When Mr Chakkala arrived, traditional Arabic jewellery was the fashion, dangling mortasha necklace of discs and Abu Showk, a bangle of thick spikes. “Heavy things, you know.”
Today, it’s all white gold and diamonds. “You know, lightweight design,” says Mr Chakkala. “Now people don’t like the heavy things. Every two three years the fashion is changing.”
Gold sales hit a 19-year-low last year due to low oil prices, falling salaries and more conservative spending by tourists. That, and millenials just don’t have the same love for gold as generations past.
But a bride is not a bride without some sparkle and Al Baroon’s business is as good as ever, says Mr Chakkala. “Al Humdullilah.” He believes the number of workshops in the area is growing, not fall.
The secret to success? “Truthfulness,” says Mr Chakkala. “Everything is true. You know, correct. Perfection.”