The importance of the Middle East as a jewellery and gem market dates back to antiquity and it is clearly still in evidence today in places such as the Gold Souk in Deira, Dubai. Since the twentieth century oil boom in the Gulf region, the industry has gone from strength to strength and more recently Sotheby’s have opened their first office and gallery space in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
David Bennett, worldwide chairman of international jewellery for Sotheby’s, stated that from the 1970s to the 1990s the region was home to the biggest gem and jewellery collectors in the world. Sotheby’s have recorded a 46% increase in spending by its Middle East clients between 2015 and 2016 and a 30% increase in buyers from the region over the past 5 years, justifying the establishment of a permanent presence in the Gulf state. Bennett stated that: “jewellery, contemporary art, impressionist and modern and Old Master paintings have driven the growth.
There has been a 16% increase in buyer participation from the Middle East year-on-year, which is very healthy and encouraging. I love coming to the Middle East because I find that people are genuinely enthusiastic about gemstones and jewellery.
It is part of the vernacular to admire and have jewellery, to wear it and enjoy wearing it.” Of particular interest to many Arab collectors of late are coloured diamonds (the new world record for a vivid pink being recently surpassed) and increasingly other coloured gems, principally the ‘big’ three: ruby; sapphire & (Colombian) emerald.
One intriguing local business that is setting the Middle East ablaze at the moment is Mahallati Jewellery. The Gulf is often referred to as the “jewellery capital of the world,” but the large international brands, although commonplace in the region, do not have it all to themselves and this family run local business has been growing at a far faster pace than many of its larger competitors.
Mahallati was founded in the souks of Iraq by the father of the current owner, Mehran Mahallati, growing from a small shop to the vibrant business that it is today. Mahallati have positioned themselves in the mid to upper echelons of the jewellery market, largely due to intense competition from the Far East when it comes to the lower end. They have also recognised the importance of Dubai as a regional hub in the jewellery and gem industry of the Gulf.
The UAE is one of the strongest performing economies in the Middle East and its burgeoning luxury sector seems to go from strength to strength. Dubai is blessed with some of the most fantastic shopping centres in the world, including the Mall of the Emirates and the Dubai Mall, not to mention planned future developments such as the Mall of the World. All of this, dovetailed with the scores of 5-star hotels (and even some that purport to be as many as 7-star), is aimed at developing Dubai as the global centre for luxury retail and the super rich.
In Middle Eastern culture jewellery, precious gems and precious metals have long been revered as the most solid investments of all, in much the same way that ‘bricks-and-mortar’ are regarded in many Western societies. This viewpoint pervades to the present day in many Arab societies and this is most clearly apparent when two families are conjoined in marriage and women are gifted gold, diamonds and coloured gemstones to serve as a form of financial security.
Gems and jewellery are still largely regarded in these cultures as the principle way in which to maintain and display wealth, in both literal and symbolic terms. The UAE is in the top five global markets for gold jewellery consumption, according to the Middle East Gems and Jewellery Forum. This is quite remarkable considering the population of this country stands at just 9 million but it spends in excess of US$2.5 billion annually on luxury jewellery.
It comes as no surprise that the Middle East now hosts a wide variety of prominent jewellery shows and exhibitions each year. These include: the Doha Jewellery and Watches Exhibition, drawing the likes of Cartier and Graff; Jewellery Arabia, which displayed almost US$1 billion of gems and jewels last year; and the Vicenz Oro Middle East show, hosted in Dubai in April.
Dubai’s eccentricity extends into its gem and jewellery sector and many of its jewellery makers have created some fantastical pieces, just to prove they can! One such example was that of the Malabar Gold & Diamonds company, who created an 18 carat replica of the famous Dubai landmark and tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, which weighed in at 22.65KG.
Other ostentatious creations include a solid gold (fully functioning) laptop, temporary tattoos made from 24 carat gold by Marbella Paris at the 7-star Burj al Arab hotel and Lussory Gold, Halal, alcohol-free sparkling wine infused with flecks of 24 carat gold available at Bystro Dubai. Despite this hedonism, there is some evidence to suggest the rise of ethical luxury consumerism in the Gulf region. Recent research by the Chalboub Group, a specialist management consultancy practice offering advice for brands looking to penetrate the Middle East, concluded 83% of high-end consumers in the region expect the companies behind the brands they purchase to practice sustainable supply chains and business models.
This is part of a broader trend towards sustainability in the region, which is after all home to two of the world’s largest low-carbon, zero-waste, eco-cities: Masdar, Abu Dhabi; and the Desert Rose in Dubai. The Middle East does not exist in a bubble and its consumers in the one of the world’s largest luxury markets are increasingly demanding Fiartrade, Fairmined gold and gemstones from countries such as Canada, where environmental and social protections are paramount.
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