How a storied Saudi jewelry brand is keeping its sparkle

How a storied Saudi jewelry brand is keeping its sparkle
The survival of the industry may depend on retailers, manufacturers as well as governments modernizing the business model. (AFP)
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Updated 16 November 2020

How a storied Saudi jewelry brand is keeping its sparkle

How a storied Saudi jewelry brand is keeping its sparkle
  • Farsi has moved with the times to adapt to changing tastes, technologies and business disruptions
  • Sales of luxury items including jewelry have been hit by the pandemic as consumers tighten their belts 

DUBAI: Jewelry has been a passion in Nasser Farsi’s family for over a century, says the 34-year-old Saudi from Jeddah, who is keeping the tradition alive. The family jewelry brand, Farsi, is among the Kingdom’s oldest.

First established by his great-grandfather Mohammed in 1907, the store handles every stage of the jewelry-crafting process, but with a distinctive local touch steeped in history.

“I am the fourth generation in the business after my grandfather and father worked as jewelers in Makkah and Jeddah,” Farsi told Arab News.

As technology has evolved and customer demands have changed, so too has Farsi been forced to move with the times. “Every business needs to adapt through the year,” he said. “So, whatever my father did in the 1970s — the best at the time — doesn’t apply today. And what I’m doing today won’t be applicable in the future.

Nasser Farsi

“Every generation needs to come in and add to whatever makes their business adapt to the current times — manufacturing, branding and the designs of the jewelry are very different to before.”

Farsi should know. He learned his craft through the family and studied under some of the best gemologists in the world.

After finishing school in Jeddah, he first traveled to the US to study finance in Arlington, Virginia, before pursuing a master’s in finance in Miami, Florida. “I wanted to have managerial skills to be both the jeweler and the one operating the business,” he said. “My father did his undergraduate in general commerce and his master’s in accounting as well.”

Soon after, Farsi graduated in gemology and jewelry design from the well-reputed Gemological Institute of America (GIA) school in Florence, Italy — at that time the largest gemology school in the world — before returning to Jeddah in 2012.

“My father had to let the practice grow on me. I had to pay for anything I wanted when I was younger by working in the shop,” he said. “He wanted to make the most out of my free time and I am glad he did — because it became a passion.”

Now that he has inherited the family business, Farsi is out to make his mark. Pearls were the mainstay of the brand in the early days, later growing to include diamonds. Finer metalwork techniques were adopted as technology improved, allowing the business to create the lighter and more delicate designs favored by customers today.

“What was impossible 10 years ago by hand is possible today, so it made everything lighter and easier for the consumer,” Farsi said. Heavier gold pieces in particular seem to be falling out of favor.

Pieces of Farsi’s jewelry

“People are more into change. They don’t want to get any long-term commitments when it comes to big sets. So, they go and invest their money in a top-notch diamond instead of a piece of jewelry they may not use in 10 years.”

Despite changes in taste and technique, Farsi has sought to maintain the spirit and the essence of traditional Arabian design — even launching his own Nasser Farsi collection in 2015, primarily aimed at the male jewelry market.

“It started as a hobby,” he said. “I turned Arabic calligraphy into jewelry pieces. I have some iconic designs that people can recognize, mainly men’s bracelets. I started designing for women as well, but being a man I wanted something that I could use and I found this gap in the market.”

Timelessness is important. “Jewelers are not salespeople,” Farsi said. “We care about the quality of the stones and the value of the piece, rather than push a simple design that may be worthless in a few years.”

Farsi therefore embraces a little of the old and the new — keeping the classics alive while exploring the creative space that change has opened up. Although the marketplace is fierce, he is impressed by some of the fresh new designers joining the industry.

“It’s beautiful to see a lot of young names coming up. In Saudi Arabia alone, there are tens of people in the business or who have their own lines. It’s also rarer to find a male jewelry designer than a jeweler.”

Pieces of Farsi’s jewelry

In such a competitive marketplace, it is certainly an advantage to have an older, trusted brand backing you up. That is why Farsi is impressed by the number of upstarts achieving success.

“When you say jewelry, people mainly think about the name, the quality and the reliability of whoever they are working with,” Farsi said. “So, to come up with a name and start and make it is something to be proud of. There are a lot of people coming up and they’re making it. It can be quite challenging in the first few years, but they’re making it.”

Luxury items are by definition non-essentials, meaning the jewelry industry’s vitality is to a large extent dependent on purchasing power. Retail-industry research drawn from around the globe suggests customers are becoming more cautious with their spending — a change that retailers themselves must adapt to. Add the COVID-19 pandemic to the mix and the picture gets muddier still.

Lockdown measures forced stores across Saudi Arabia to close temporarily, including Farsi’s branches in Jeddah and Makkah. Besides, with wedding celebrations called off, fewer bridal jewelry pieces are being sold. The crisis has called the jewelry industry’s longevity into question.

“There aren’t as many weddings anymore, so the whole dynamic is fluctuating,” Farsi said. “It’s still not stable, but we are prepared for the worst and working for the best. I do hope I will pass this onto my children.”

There is also limited data available for a detailed industry health check. “Jewelry is an industry that’s barely been tapped into, but it’s taking a big share of cumulative retail reports,” Farsi said. “You don’t see as many detailed or specified reports in the jewelry industry, especially in Saudi Arabia or the Middle East.

Pieces of Farsi’s jewelry

“It’s mainly run in an old-fashioned way in most of the shops. It’s not just in the Kingdom, it’s everywhere. It’s very hard to get information from jewelers.”

The survival of the industry may therefore depend on retailers, manufacturers and governments communicating better — modernizing the business model, sharing expertise, determining best practices and creating regulations collectively.

“We are in continuous meetings with colleagues to try to figure out ways to boost business again around the area and in Saudi Arabia specifically. Everyone is really working hard to implement a change,” Farsi said.

If the industry’s problems are not addressed soon, Gulf countries risk losing a distinctive part of its precious heritage. Fortunately, people like Farsi refuse to let that happen.

“A lot of people in many different fields are working on keeping the culture and the language alive, from artists in the art scene, fashion and jewelry designers, and the whole young generation,” he told Arab News.

“There is this very big hype around putting the culture out there to the world, especially as Saudi Arabia is opening up to the world. There is a pride that everyone has to show the rest of the world.”


Twitter: @CalineMalek


Palestinian singer Rasha Nahas discusses her long-delayed debut album

Updated 04 December 2020

Palestinian singer Rasha Nahas discusses her long-delayed debut album

Palestinian singer Rasha Nahas discusses her long-delayed debut album

AMSTERDAM: In May 2019, life was looking good for Palestinian singer-songwriter Rasha Nahas. She had begun to establish herself in Berlin — having moved there from her hometown of Haifa in 2017; her debut album — wrapped in 2018 — was just weeks away from being released; and she had a prospective tour of the Middle East and Europe lined up. 

“I feel like a lot of exciting things are happening and hopefully the album will bring more,” she told me then. “I’m not in a hurry, but I’m going full-power with all of my will and passion.”

Fast-forward to today and that debut album is still just weeks away from release. Not long after we spoke last year, Nahas began to experience pain in her wrists and hands. It quickly became serious enough that she went to see a doctor who diagnosed her with repetitive strain injury. 

Her debut album (cover pictured) is just weeks away from release. Supplied

“It was really hardcore,” she says. “Both my hands and wrists had very, very bad inflammation. I couldn’t type emails or hold my phone or carry groceries and stuff. It was basically from overplaying. It had been a very busy time with shows and traveling, and a lot of stress. That was good, in some ways, because it meant things were happening for me, but the mental stress also wasn’t good for my body. I just had to stop everything, take a break and focus on getting better.”

Having psyched herself up for the release of her album, the necessary postponement — and cancellation of her tour plans — was something of a comedown. 

“Everything was a big frustration,” she says. “And I couldn’t really let that energy out in music, because I wasn’t able to (play).”

That last part, especially, was a huge blow to someone for whom music has been “a place of escape and expression and dealing with things and understanding myself” since her early teens and has become the thing from which she makes her living — an impressive feat for any artist, but particularly an independent musician from the Middle East. 

Nahas first picked up a guitar – which actually belonged to her sister – when she was a kid. Supplied

Nahas first picked up a guitar when she was a kid. It actually belonged to her sister, who “took a few lessons then stopped.” 

“I would tune it in very weird ways and strum it and sing out of tune,” she says. “Then I decided to study guitar. The only available option that my parents liked was classical music. So for nine years I did classical guitar and theory. I wanted to drop it (often), but I’m glad I didn’t.”

Music was popular in the Nahas household — from classic Arab artists including Fayrouz (“My mother’s a big fan”) to Western artists. Nahas chose to listen mostly to the latter. “We had a massive collection of CDs in the car and every Saturday we’d drive to the Galilee with the windows open and very fresh air and listen to John Lennon. That’s my main memory of music from my childhood,” she says. As a teenager she branched out into hard rock, pop, jazz and more. Oh, and Avril Lavigne (“That’s a bit embarrassing now,” she admits). 

Music was popular in the Nahas household — from classic Arab artists to Western artists. Supplied

She estimates she wrote her first original song around the age of 15. “It probably sounded like a normal indie-rock song, but I think the (lyrical) content was quite different,” she says. “It was about life as a Palestinian girl understanding her identity, and asking questions — about the political situation too. Looking at it now, I think, ‘Woah! That’s what I was dealing with at the age of 15?’”

It took a few years before she felt she was developing her own identity as an artist, though. She played her first gig as she finished high school, aged 18, by which time she had about an hour’s worth of original material. 

It makes sense that Nahas had classical training and listened to a wide variety of genres growing up — and that she composes music for the theater professionally. Her songs, and particularly her vocal delivery, have a definite theatrical vibe, and there are hints of several influences — pop, indie rock, jazz, rockabilly, surrealism, punk, spoken-word, and more. The result is something that seems entirely organic and entirely honest. It’s not necessarily easily accessible, but it’s certainly some of the most interesting work you’ll hear from a contemporary Middle Eastern artist, at least in the English language. 

A still from the “Desert” music video. Supplied

The two singles released from the album so far — “The Clown” and title track “Desert” — are good examples; both showcasing her distinctive style. The former was written a month after Nahas moved to Berlin, aged 21 (because “I just needed to be away, make music and take time to just be and understand things”). “It came from a few days of thoughts that were gathering and piling up — about being away from home, about artists getting on stage and getting labeled as Palestinian or as Israeli, about the political situation that never really leaves you.”

The latter, released in November, was written around the same time. “It’s a very personal song talking about searching and the things that are changing around us,” Nahas explains. “In the video (shot in Haifa), we played a lot with metaphors and images — we have kids with guns, we have a dancer crucified on an olive tree to symbolize the ties to the land. We have an old, abandoned building in Haifa contrasted with the big glass buildings to ask ourselves where our identity — as Palestinian 48ers — fits between tradition and modern colonialism.”

“The Clown” is the first single from her debut album. Supplied

The search for identity is a central theme of Nahas’ debut album, which will finally see the light of day on January 29. “It was very influenced by the relocation from Palestine to Germany,” she says. “So it deals with questions of identity and of what our responsibility to our identity is. I come from this place that has a certain political weight, traditionally. So how do I deal with that weight? How do I sing about it? Who am I in it?”

The end to the record’s long delay will doubtless come as a huge relief to Nahas, after what she describes as “one of the heaviest years for me.” Her almost-complete recovery from injury all but coincided with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the year also included the death of a close friend — one of the dancers in the “Desert” video. 

The search for identity is a central theme of Nahas’ debut album, which will finally see the light of day on January 29. Supplied

“That challenged my relationship with the (record). He was part of the creation, in a way. And the release was postponed because of the injury and the pandemic. I wished it had been finished and that he could have seen it, because he really put everything into it. So it just added another layer to everything.”

That heavy year hasn’t been entirely without positives though, she stresses. “Even though it’s been very unsettling, with my injury and the pandemic, it did ground something in me. It forced me to look inward more, but also to look at what’s around me and appreciate it and grow from it.”

She played her first gig as she finished high school, aged 18, by which time she had about an hour’s worth of original material. Supplied

Given the years between the album’s completion and release, I wonder if Nahas still feels as connected to the work. Her answer is a definite yes. 

“It captures a period in my life that I needed to capture and I’m really happy I did that. The songs came from a very honest place. That’s the most important thing — I feel like that doesn’t get old,” she says. “ So, it doesn’t matter when it comes out, because it’s real and it’s truthful — and I’m sure that will be reflected in the interaction with the people who are going to listen to it.”