The story of gold in Lebanon is one tainted with war, bloodshed and massive population exodus. According to Boghos Kurdian, president of the Lebanese Syndicate of Goldsmiths and Jewelers, jewelry production was historically limited to traditional pieces in gold, including bracelets, necklaces and earrings. During the First World War, the systematic deportation and annihilation of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire forced the population away from its hometowns and into Syria and Lebanon. Many Armenians, known to be skilled craftsmen, chose Lebanon as their new home and introduced the art of jewelry, altering the face of local production. “The metamorphosis of the jewelry industry was nonetheless gradual and witnessed another phase in its evolution after the 1950s,” added Kurdian. “The Syrian state nationalization [in the 1860s] of all industries forced Syrian jewelers to immigrate to Lebanon and today many families dominating the sector share Syrian roots,” said the head of the syndicate.
Before the civil war, Lebanese jewelry was as its height. “Jewelry was distributed from Lebanon to the region, as well as to Africa. It was an international scene for the gold trade, one comparable to Dubai today,” underlined Berge Arabian, member of the Swiss Business Council – Lebanon. The price of gold traded in Beirut reflected on international markets, with the Lebanese capital often receiving plane-loads of gold from Soviet Russia, added Arabian.
The jeweler explained that Lebanon had more recently established close ties with Switzerland, which bought Lebanese finished products as well as scrap precious metal. However, with the beginning of the civil war, commercial relations ebbed as chaos took over the streets of Beirut.
“Today, Lebanon still exports scrap gold to Switzerland. Usually scrap gold is exported and exchanged against gold ingots, against a premium fee for processing,” pointed out Kurdian.
According to Mohamed Chamsedine from the research house Informational International, Lebanese exports to Switzerland accounted for $187.3 million in 2004, $125 million in 2005 and $451 million in 2006, though in the last two years figures have been decreasing: to $308 million in 2007 and $264.6 million in the first eight months of 2008. Kurdian believes, however, that the export jewelry figure to Switzerland is actually higher as many Lebanese jewelers fail to disclose the real value of items exported. “Jewelers are neither compelled to register with the chamber of commerce or required to present a certificate of origin, a process which previously provided us with more accurate estimates in terms of the value of goods exported,” Kurdian said.
He also signaled that Lebanon had been witnessing of late an increase in export levels, in terms of finished jewelry items. “Lebanon is not only exporting scrap gold anymore but fine jewelry pieces as well,” he added. Swiss- Lebanese relations have been sewn over the years by prominent Lebanese jewelers who have set up shop in Geneva, Europe’s luxury hub. Names such as Mouawad, De Grisogono and Chatila adorn luxury boutiques of the Helvetic capital, whether at the Noga Hilton on the posh Quai du Mont Blanc or the elegant Rue du Rhône.
“Today, exports to Switzerland of jewelry pieces are constituted mostly of private exports by Lebanese boutique owners located in Geneva, with a small percentage going to international buyers as well as special orders,” explained Kurdian. In terms of items sold to Switzerland, the head of the syndicate insists that no regular gold items are exported but mostly large parures or jewelry sets decked with diamonds or precious stones, often worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. “Saudi nationals owning stores in Geneva are among some of the international clients of Lebanese artisans,” underlines Kurdian. Other items, such as watches, are re-exported to Switzerland after they have been set with diamonds and precious stones in Lebanon.
Land of the craftsman
“The quality of craftsmanship in the Land of the Cedars is unbeatable when it comes to price quality ratio and Lebanese artisans are sought after for their talent in stone setting,” said Kurdian. “Although they might be more expensive than Thai or Chinese craftsmen, they tend to produce items of superior quality, while being still more affordable then European artisans.” He added that the tight quality control imposed by Switzerland on imported products has allowed the Swiss industry to preserve its reputation and standards as well as forced Lebanese producers to improve their designs. Swiss demand for jewelry also differs from other countries in the region as it has witnessed a growing interest in diamonds and platinum.
Potential problems for the jewelry industry in Lebanon come principally from the new Asian competition. “Some Lebanese jewelers have established factories in Thailand and taught artisans the trade. Today, these new craftsman are sought after by the West. However, one main forte for Lebanese jewelers is their talent for design innovation, which can’t be matched by Asian artisans,” concluded Kurdian.