Frequently appearing on black and white film screens and hanging on the necks of older ‘ladies who lunch’ today, for many trendy millennial women, pearl jewellery is synonymous with tradition and a bygone era. But Faten Ebrahim Mattar paints a different picture.
The 28-year-old Bahraini is a descendant of the Ibn Mattar family, who has been in the natural pearl trade business for over 160 years. Beginning as tawaweesh or pearl merchants on the island kingdom in the mid-19th century, mainly selling pearls, pearl beads, and simple pearl necklaces, the family business expanded generation by generation, eventually encompassing luxury pearl jewellery with the opening of Mattar Jewelers in 2004.
‘We never had an established store. We were purely wholesalers in natural pearls, pearl necklaces, and very simply sold jewellery,’ notes Faten. ‘In 2004, we decided to take it a step further, and this also came because we felt that people were moving away from natural pearls and we wanted to bring them back to it and we wanted to change the perception that it’s only worn by the elderly.’
Faten and her three siblings, the sixth-generation of the Mattar family, now manage the boutique under the guidance of their father, Ebrahim Mattar, and they have been noticing some changes in their clientele in the last ten years. No longer are they just frequented by the older generation, many of whom grew up with memories of the country’s pearl diving days, when the water gem was considered the most valuable possession a person could have. More and more young ladies, who grew up with a wider choice of jewellery and an infatuation with diamonds and white gold, are becoming loyal customers of Mattar Jewelers nowadays, says Faten.
What attracts them is not only the elegant but modern jewellery designs the Al Seef-based jewellers offer, but also the accessories, which include leather bags, wallets, and collars, all of which have natural pearl motifs.
‘We try to make it [pearl jewellery] trendy,’ explains Faten. ‘We try to make it something that everyone would like to acquire, and wear on a daily basis as well.’
Through these unique innovations, the Mattar family works ‘with the aim of restoring these jewels to their former glory.’
The oldest gem known to man, archaeological evidence shows that pearls have been worn as jewellery at least since the 4th century BC. Pearl jewellery was considered the absolute status symbol in the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Rome and has adorned the necks of royals and the elites across the ages, from the east of the world to its west. For Muslims, pearls have an added significance, having been mentioned in the Qur’an in several instances as the jewellery the people of Heaven wear.
With the abundance of oyster beds in it waters, Bahrain has been at the center of the global natural pearl trade at least since the 19th century, earning it the nickname ‘the pearl of the Gulf’ in the Arabian Gulf region. The emergence of Japanese cultured pearls in the early 20th century, combined with the Great Depression, the discovery of oil in 1932, and changed tastes in jewellery that came with exposure and altered lifestyles, eventually led to a decrease in demand for natural pearls.
But for Faten and the rest of the Mattar family, pearls will forever remain the ultimate jewel.
Not only is it because natural pearls are rare to find, she explains, they are also one of a kind.
‘A natural pearl can never be repeated,’ says Faten. ‘No two pearls are the same in terms of weight, size, or colour.’
For that reason, ‘[it] can take up to 7, 10 years to make a one strand necklace.’
To view more of their jewellery designs, or to read about the family history in detail, visit http://mattarjewelers.com/.
Sharifah Alhinai is the Managing Storyteller at Sekka.