BY ANAAM IKRAM
The opulent gem, the pearl, has played a vital role in drawing attention to the Kingdom, and making it the prominent business hub it is today. Deeply rooted within Bahrain’s history, the pearl was solely responsible for thriving its economy in ancient times by making it a necessary destination for those seeking the finest quality stone. Bahrain is home to these well-reputed natural pearls, which are scattered in the depths of the sea surrounding the island, awaiting their destiny. Once plucked from the sea they can be handcrafted into extravagant, elegant, and timeless jewellery pieces at the hand of experts who, through their creations, display a stunning combination of sophistication and ancient cultural influences.
In 2012 Bahrain’s Pearling trail was recognized as a Unesco World Heritage site, thus cementing the importance of this traditional occupation which shaped the island’s economy as well as its identity. The route, which is located in Muharraq, consists of 17 buildings and spans 3.5km. It has buildings, which were listed as the residences and majlises of the rich pearl merchants, as well as the home of Shaikh Isa Bin Ali Al Khalifa (ruler of Bahrain between 1869-1932). Of the 17 houses on that route, one of the most famous houses is that of the Mattar family, Bahrain’s oldest and most renowned pearl diving merchants.
The Beginning: A brief history of the Mattar patrimony
The legacy of the Mattar family began when founder of the family, Salman Bin Mattar, left his hometown of Najd, Saudi Arabia, and travelled to Bahrain, accompanied by his son Hussein, and settled in then-capital Muharraq in 1852. Initially starting out in the timber industry, in the late 1850s Hussein Bin Salman Bin Mattar decided to make the shift to the pearling industry, which allowed him to acquire large date palm orchards and various properties around the Kingdom. Hussein’s eldest son, Salman Bin Hussein Bin Salman Bin Mattar, took over the family business and through his broad interests had become the major pearl merchant in the entire Gulf region during the late 19th and early 20th century. His expertise in his industry drew foreigners from all over, especially the French and Indian, for advice before purchasing pearls. He strived to protect the natural-pearl trade and thus founded the Natural Pearl Protection Society in 1936. The Bin Mattar House, which was built in 1905, served as a majlis for Salman Hussein bin Mattar in which the respected merchant not only dealt with Mattars of pearling, but also aided his community and men with issues related to inheritance, properties, and even personal disputes. Salman’s brother, Mohammad Bin Hussein Bin Salman Bin Mattar, was also a widely recognised individual and was often aptly referred to as Jawhariji, the “jeweller”, for his unmatched skills in jewellery creation.
Continuing in the path their forefathers had paved for them, the fourth generation of Mattar family worked diligently in the pearling industry and became the most celebrated merchants in the business. Salman Hussein Bin Mattar’s sons, Yousif and Khalifa earned themselves a coveted spot at the top of the pearling trade. Khalifa’s passion as a merchant and, collector of the finest pearls, resulted in his title of “Jiwan Collector” (Jiwan is the derivative of G1 or ‘Grade One’ ranking given to pearls of the highest quality). After the passing of Khalifa Bin Salman Hussein Bin Mattar in 1997, his son, Ebrahim was passed the family torch to further their pearling empire, making him the fifth generation of Mattar family member in the industry. As their tradition follows, Ebrahim’s children, the sixth generation of Mattar family, joined him in the 150-year family business, which prospers to this very day.
Foundations in the sea: the business of pearling
In the early days, the Mattar family was not only notorious for being excellent pearl merchants, but also provided many facilities for the divers. Their expansive fleet of ships and dhows allowed them to support the smaller merchants in their diving expeditions. Their business savvy technique also earned them the first right to purchase the pearls that were accumulated from the smaller merchants before being sold to the market.
Over the years the Mattar family was able to build a generous stock of a variety of pearls to keep their business booming. The presence of stock, which is inherited from previous generations and is built upon by the next generation, is a crucial part of being in the pearling business; otherwise it can prove to be impossible to compete in the industry.
After the death of Khalifa Bin Salman Hussein Bin Mattar in 1997, his son, Ebrahim Khalifa Bin Salman, opened an office, located in Manama, through which they dealt with selling loose pearls and pearl strand necklaces. In 2002, Ebrahim’s son, Talal, joined the family business and introduced the idea of opening a retail store in the hopes to expand their business and clientele. Inaugurated in 2004, the family opened their eponymous store in Al Aali Mall, which caters to customers who are interested in pearls as well as other jewellery items.
Standing out from the rest due to their shape and high lustre, the pearls in Bahrain, especially those found at Mattar Jewelers, are known for being the best in the world. Staying true to their beginnings, Mattar Jewelers focuses mainly in working with natural pearls of the finest quality. Commitment to the business over the years has allowed members of the Mattar family to come across rare finds not many have witnessed. A necklace consisting of 79 of the rarest pearl in the world, the Mushayyar pearl, which took around 14 years to complete at the hands of Khalifa Ebrahim Mattar Bin Salman Hussein Mattar, is a fine example of that.
The value of the precious stones lies within the fact that it takes years to collect similar pearls and the need to have enough of a stock to complete one necklace. After the pearls are collected, they are brought back to the laboratories where are put in solution to clean off any excess oyster remnants. They are drilled and sorted into categories based on their quality standards of Jiwan, Golwa, Badla, Fusoos and Khashrah. Pearls such as the Jiwan, Golwa and Badla are then further categorised based on their shape, size, shine, weight, softness, and lustre. The pearls are carefully assorted during the ‘colour separation’ method under the sun’s natural light and at a specific angle to ensure the accuracy of their colours; as pearls come in 12 colours, each of which have a ‘dark’ and ‘light’ variety. Their sizes are measured using the tasat scales, and in order to complete a full necklace there must be a big centre pearl and smaller pearls – as per Bahrain’s own graduation standards – that have to equalise the weight of the centre pearl to create a perfectly balanced necklace. Along with pearls in a necklace being of the same colour and lustre, it is important to make sure they are of the exact same shape and texture, for example, the first grade pearls, G1 or Jiwan, are ones with the highest value as they are completely round, have a high lustre, and a completely smooth surface will be grouped together to make a necklace. Imperfect pearls, such as the golwa, which are semi-rounded, or pearls that have a rough surface will be put together. Pearls most difficult to find are those that fall in the G1 category, therefore taking anywhere between 8-10 years to complete a necklace.
The patience required and the laborious challenge put forth by the industry has not stopped the Mattar family to produce a myriad of classic and decorous pieces honoured around the world. What was once considered a shame to create, pearl enthusiasts now appreciate the multicoloured pearl necklaces such as those created by the Mattar Jewelers, a rarity in today’s times. The one-off pieces may be a combination of different-coloured, perfectly round pearls, and are carefully organised making sure there is perfect symmetry and harmony throughout the necklace. Meeting the standards to ensure the right kind of pearls are strung together are a key element in deciding the necklace’s worth and the buyer’s desire to invest in this luxury.
Mattar Jewelers: expanding the Mattar client base
The love of pearling is in the Mattar blood, making them an eminent part of Bahrain’s history and encouraging the new generations to keep their heritage close to their hearts. Over the years, Mattar Jewelers has worked with the crème de la crème of pearls to create exquisite, delicate, and ornate pieces that have an everlasting feel to them.
The family’s unfaltering dedication to the craft can be seen not only through the steady yet rising success of their business, but also through all of their meticulous craftsmanship resulting in their sophisticated and individual designs. In addition to the rare Mushayyar necklace, the Mattar family immersed themselves in the project of creating the rare 18-strand jiwan pearl necklace. Consisting of 6095 fully- circular pearls, the remarkable necklace weighs 1576 chaw, with the largest pearl being 8.8mm in diameter. The pearls are almost all of uniform Nabati colour, with the longest strand being 164 cm and the shortest 116cm, set with carefully measured tennis-bracelet type brackets that prevent entanglement. Another pearl necklace that showcases the family’s calibre of work is one made from champagne coloured jiwan pearls with a pink overtone. What makes this necklace truly valuable is the amount of time dedicated to completing it as collecting pearls of such precious nature can prove to be a true challenge.
Where pearls have commonly been associated with being worn by older women, Mattar Jewelers have diversified their style, while staying true to their core, and created intricate and elegant pearl-based jewellery that appeals to a younger audience as well. Attracted mostly to the smaller pieces, the younger generation has found a gateway to classic style with a youthful feel to it.
As the younger generation of the Mattar family comes into the business, they have brought with them an array of modern and novel designs that have elevated their already luxurious pearl pieces. The 9-strand Badla necklace is a fine example, as it contains over 140cm of pearls weighing 2394 carats, detailed with a carved gold set piece. Paying close attention to detail, the gold piece is decorated with 9 Baten pearls and 19 carats of diamonds.
Enhancing their necklaces with precious stones such as emeralds and rubies, the Mattar family has carefully embedded elements from their culture into their designs, making sure that the pearls remain the centre of attention.
Expanding into versatile jewellery lines, Mattar Jewelers has also delved into incorporating baroque or ‘irregular pearls’ and created the Tassel Collection. Taking inspiration from Bahraini culture, the Ameela pieces are created in mind keeping the traditional piece of jewellery that holds together a cloak, and is embellished with multiple strands of pearls, diamonds, and precious stones. The multipurpose collection also features pieces that can be used as a belt or a wrap-necklace as per the wearer’s requirements. The innovative and creative line allows for the tassels to be removed and they are attachable to other jewellery items.
Taking it one step further, Mattar Jewelers has introduced the concept of ‘useable jewelry’ through their signature line Bahar Wa Naqsh in 2014, which offers one-of-a-kind accessories encrusted with pearls. Working with wooden and leather goods, the jewelers looked to the traditional Arabesque carvings found on old doors and windows for the designs on the delicately engraved, hand-made accessories. Finished off with pearls, gold, and other precious metal detailing, the items were first introduced in the form of a wooden clock laden with pearls and then expanded into corporate gifts and home accessories for both men and women. The exquisite items are imprinted with eleven different designs that proudly represent their Bahraini heritage. The designs are: Nisif Da’era, Warda Mfloola, Shjri – Ra’as Rimh, Mqabis – Mbakhir, Silsila Mfloola, Silsila, Dawa’ir Mostatila, Baithana Mshbika, Mathloula, Baithana Muraba’a, Wattay Al Hamam.
From the Shahs of Iran to the Maharajas of India, the pearl has been a significant part of history and especially that of Bahrain’s. The Mattar family, like the pearl, has played a prominent part in Bahrain’s antiquity and prosperity. Their hard work, passion, and devotion to the art of pearling, matched with the arduous attitude of each new generation to further and evolve the business has obtained them tantamount success over the past 150 years in the industry, which continues with great ferocity till today. As part of being famous pearling merchants in the region, the Mattar family name is forever etched in the foundations of Bahrain’s culture, heritage, and history.
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