Al-Ahram Weekly Online   12 - 18 February 2004
Issue No. 677
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'Get the ice, or no dice'

Fatemah Farag peruses the business of love

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Marilyn Monroe gives men the bussiness in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; Taking it all in at the JEM exhibit
"Diamonds are a girl's best friend" may be cliché, but women have been droning the chorus ever since Marilyn Monroe belted out the famous one-liner in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes back in the 1950s. Other close companions include precious gems, platinum and gold. Whether absence makes the heart grow fonder is debatable, but expensive jewellery certainly does. In Egypt's upper-middle class, a marriage should be accompanied by a diamond, of one carat and above -- besides of course the inevitable five-star wedding party.

Husbands, fiancées and serious boyfriends can do no less than expensive jewellery, designer or merely worth its weight in gold, for special occasions such as the new year and birthdays. As one young woman put it, "If a man really loves me he will buy me the most expensive ring possible. Otherwise, how can I know he really values me?"

Symbolic gifts of the single red rose or, heaven forbid, book of poetry variety are as passé as Formica kitchens and the Arab Socialist Union. In the shorthand language of romance VVS (denoting the colour purity of a diamond) is as telling as LUV.

"I have always wondered why romance and specially marriage are always associated with diamonds, and not emeralds, rubies or even simply a fur coat. I guess it's because diamonds are rare, they are like love at first sight, they are the language of hearts," noted Salma Barakat, managing editor of Jawaher, a magazine focussed on the jewellery industry, in her editorial in the Winter 2003 issue. So there you are.

With Valentine's Day around the corner, shops across town have been decking themselves out in red paraphernalia: big red hearts, teddy bears proclaiming their love and a great many other, often garish trifles. But the traditional flowers, chocolates and sundry whatnots are mere wrapping for serious lovers with serious pocketbooks. Real lovers bear real gifts.

Red roses are strictly "out", according to a local English-language glossy. So whether you express your adoration with yellow lilies, as the magazine advises, or any other "sentimental" offering, you need to remember that today's women (of a certain class, that is) have a decided preference for "a man who lives and gives expensive jewels" -- just as Marilyn put it.

And so in the end, the joys and torments of love and passion must come down to money, and money means business. And it was just such a business that exhibited its wares this week at JEM, the International Gold and Jewellery, Precious Stones and Luxurious Watches Exhibition for the Middle East and Africa held at the Cairo International Convention Centre from 7 to 10 February.

"At exhibits such as these -- the most important being that of Basel which takes place in April -- we exchange design ideas for the upcoming year," explained Sherif Sirgany, head of the Egyptian Association of Gold and Jewellers, and one of the sponsors of the event. "The design of jewellery is a nice puzzle. We [Egyptian manufacturers] either copy international designs or develop them to suit local taste," he explained to Al-Ahram Weekly.

Exhibiting this year were Sirgany, a few other local jewellers such as Ashraf Sobhi, as well as international houses, including the joint Egyptian/Saudi venture L'Azurde, the wholesaler Tahiti Pearls, and Felopateer Palace -- also a sponsor -- representing internationally renowned brand names such as Chopard, Patek Philippe and Raymond Weil.

As they perused the stalls of glittering jewellery, some of those in the business complained that the exhibit was too small. However, Ashraf Adly, managing director of Felopateer Palace explained that this year's display was "still a baby. In Egypt we have a lot of capabilities to develop this business. All we need now is to figure out how to do this, and this exhibit is one step along that path."

According to Sirgany the Egyptian jewellery business "had the rug pulled out from under its feet between the 1960s and the late 1990s". He was nevertheless confident that things were finally looking up. "Our craft is one possessed of a great heritage, and through concentrated efforts we can pull up the standard of the business."

According to Adly, it is all about globalisation. "People now travel, access the Internet and watch satellite TV, and know more. What did people now about Givenchi in past decades? They associated the name only with perfume. Today they know it is also about watches and much more."

And while you might be taken aback by some of the prices, everyone in the business assures you that you are getting a better deal buying in Egypt. Adly explains that for those buying international brand names "there is the great advantage of buying in local currency. Also the sales taxes on luxury goods are not as high as in other countries." Sirgany is also quick to point out that local products are not only comparable in quality, but also less expensive because of the difference in labour costs.

"The money has always been there. What was lacking was the awareness. The knowledge of what to buy -- and now people are finding out what there is, and that it can be bought in Egypt," said Ashraf.

So come Saturday the 14th, the bottom line is: love is in the air and he has no excuse.

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