A typical display case at Jewellery Arabia, which this year was held in Bahrain on the 21st-26th November.

The 26th edition of Jewellery Arabia was held in the International Conference Centre of Bahrain from the 21st-26th November 2017.  This is the biggest jewellery show in the region, attracting over 50000 visitors from around the globe and is one of the very few that sells to the public as well as the trade.  Over 500 exhibitors took part, showcasing everything from loose gems to fantastic pieces of high jewellery.

There were prices for everyone too- with diamond set jewellery starting from as little as $100 to breathtaking unique pieces valued at several million.  The European jewellery contingent was well represented by big names such as Boucheron, Faberge and Boghossian.  The strongest representation of course was from the Middle East, with family owned Mattar Jewellers and Al Zain Jewellers nestling alongside independent Bahraini designers such as Azza Al Hujairi.  It was my first time exhibiting in the Middle East at the invitation of Azza.  The entire experience was a pleasure- the Barhainis simply could not have been kinder or more charming and there is a real sense of fellowship amongst the jewellery community there.  This is in marked contrast to London, where designers tend to be more reserved.

The economic climate was, however, challenging.  There were fewer big spenders from Saudi Arabi and those that showed spent cautiously.  This is no doubt a consequence of the anti corruption crackdown currently being conducted by the Saudi Crown Prince.  The sanctions against Qatar meant that they could not attend and there is general economic uncertainty created by the ongoing troubles in the Yemen.

None of this, however, deterred the exhibitors from putting on a magnificent display of colour and craftsmanship.  There were three designers in particular that caught my eye and my mentioning them is purely subjective- I just thought they had really lovely things. 

1.     Nikos Koulis

This was the Greek designer’s second showing at Jewellery Arabia.  His style struck me as very much neo Art Deco: beautiful, richly coloured stones with strong colour contrasts and clean lines. 

Emerald, diamond and black enamel earrings by Nikps Koulis.

Ruby, diamond and black enamel ring by Nikos Koulis.

2.     VAK Diamonds

This brand is the brainchild of Vishal Kathari, who is descended from a long line of jewellers.  I met Vishal at Baselworld earlier this year and was very much taken by the limpid, clear quality of his rose cut diamonds in their inventive light-as-a-feather settings.

Opal, diamond and pink sapphire ring by VAK diamonds.

Diamond jewellery by VAK in its signature light-as-a-feather setting.

3.     Mattar Jewelers

The pearl knowledge of this family is several generations old.  Of the current generation, four out of the five siblings are involved in the family business.  The eldest brother, Talal Mattar told me that he was encouraged to go and play with pearls in the family workshop from the age of 6- you cannot beat knowledge like this.  The sumptuousness and creaminess of their pearls is astonishing and cannot be captured in photographs.

Pearl and diamond tassel earrings by Mattar Jewelers.

Pearl necklace by Mattar Jewelers.  The quality of their pearls is impossible to convey photographically.


The Cascade of Dreams jewel, debuted by Al Zain jewellers at Jewellery Arabia 2017 in Bahrain last month.

At a jewellery show like Jewellery Arabia, held annually at Bahrain’s International Exhibition Centre, it is always going to be tough to stand out amongst 500 plus exhibitors.  However, this feat was pulled off elegantly and effortlessly by Al Zain jewellers and their show stopping piece the ‘Cascade of Dreams’.

The top part of the jewel is detachable to be worn alone as a choker.

The piece- and it is far too elaborate to call it something so mundane as a necklace- encompasses the whole body, in front and behind.  The more elaborate festoons can be detached, allowing the neckpiece to be worn separately as a choker.  The ‘Cascade’ is a magnificent example of more is more, set with 1970 Bahraini pearls, 12826 diamonds and eight perfectly matched, large important Columbian emeralds.  It took a cool 2700 man hours to make.  I did not bother asking the price. 

Theo Swart, CEO of Al Zain, explained that the company wanted to create a piece that was unashamedly Middle Eastern, a celebration of all that Al Zain is well known for.  In spite of its size, the ‘Cascade’ is a beautifully balanced jewel of Islamic inspiration.  The use of pearls celebrates the gem for which the Kingdom is renown and the craftsmanship is the epitome of skill acquired by a house which has been operating for over 80 years.

Al Zain Jewellers was founded in 1930s by the late Hassan Al Zain, already a figure within the Kingdom’s pearl diving industry.  His son, Abdulla Al Zain joined the business not long after in one of those rather perfect family combinations of business savvy with jewellery expertise.  Their flagship store opened in the 1950s in Khobar and their expansion in the region continued in the coming decades.  The company continues to be very much a family affair, with each generation honing their particular skills and using them to continue the growth of the company.  Al Zain continues to celebrate pearls, the gem that allowed them to flourish, whilst embracing new techniques and innovative design.

A necklace from Al Zain's ArabDeco collection.

A pearl, emerald and diamond ring from Al Zain's pearl collection.


A selection of conch pearls of various sizes, shapes and hues.

The shell of a queen mollusc, from which the conch pearl origanates.

As we have seen in previous posts, the market for natural gems is rising like never before.  Untreated precious stones are reaching record prices at auction and collectors are rediscovering the charm and marvel of gemstones previously considered a little obscure.  Riding high on the crest of this wave (pun intended) is the elusive conch pearl (pronounced conk).  Thanks to the creation of a cultured pearl market in the first half of the 20th century, pearl prices suffered a slump until the beginning of this one.  The destruction of pearls’ natural habitats, consumer uncertainty at not knowing where to safely deposit money and the rise of the millionaire class in the East have all contributed to the multiple price increase of natural pearls.

Conch pearl, rose gold and diamond bee ring by Cindy Chao.

Conch pearls are in a class of their own.  They are not ‘true’ pearls as generally thought of by the general public because they are not made of layers of nacreous material like ‘real’ pearls.  They do not come from oysters, but from the queen conch mollusc, which is a large, edible sea snail.  But they are formed in the same way as pearls: a foreign body lodges itself inside a mollusc, which then secretes a hard substance around it on order to reduce the irritation.  So technically they are pearls.  With conch pearls, however, the secretion around the irritant is non-nacreous, nacre being the substance that gives traditional pearls their characteristic lustre.  However, both are composed of calcium carbonate.  Hence conchs are included in the list of organic gems.

Why are they so highly prized? Only one answer: rarity.  And they are far rarer than natural pearls.  One single pearl is found in every 12000 shells; of these, only 10% are gem quality.  Conchs cannot be harvested- they can be found in almost any part of the queen conch snail, so it is not entirely understood how they are formed.  In contrast, cultured pearls have been refined to a fine art and the irritant is always inserted into the oyster in the same place in order to produce the pearl.  Pearls are also the only gem that nature produces that requires no further human treatment- no heat enhancement, cutting or polishing.

Looking and feeling like beads of fine porcelain, the colour range of conch pearls is from brown, yellow, beige and ivory through to white and pink.  The rarest and most desirable colour by far is pink.  It has been observed that the healthier the reef where the queen mollusc is farmed the more intense the pink.  The most sought after shape is a perfect oval, although irregular, baroque specimens have been used to great effect in jewellery.  Conchs also display a gemmological feature known as chatoyancy, a flame like pattern of light within the gem caused by the fibrous nature of the material. 

It is unusual to find conch pearls larger than 2-3mm; anything over 10 carats is exceptional.  One of the most important conch pearl jewels in existence is a necklace created by Tiffany and Co. in 1905 for the American art collector and philanthropist for his niece Laura Delano.  It is a typical Belle Epoque necklace, a chain of diamonds suspending a diamond cage, inside which a 23.50 carat pink conch pearl sits.  The necklace is extremely valuable: exceptional pearls of this size and value can easily reach $15000 a carat.  If you are prepared to compromise on quality, you should still be prepared to shell out in the region of $5000.

An exceptional conch pearl and diamond ring by David Morris.  If you look closely you can see the flames on the surface of the stone.

Diamond, conch pearl and coloured gem earrings by Anna Hu.

Conch pearls have risen in popularity recently in line with natural pearls.  They are particularly treasured and sought after in Japan after a huge push by Mikimoto (the Japanese cultured pearl pioneers) to educate the public on them.  In the United Kingdom, they are a particular favourite at David Morris, where they have been used to great effect.  They also seem to be particularly popular amongst artist jewellers such as Sarah Ho, Anna Hu and Wallace Chan, all of whom specialise in creating spectacular, one off jewels.  To which this most rare of gems lends itself perfectly.

A conch pearl of great importance, a 23.50 carat specimen in a necklace made for the philanthropist Henry Walters by Tiffany and Co. in 1905.


The pearl and diamond Lover's Knot tiara, made by Queen Mary and passed down to her descendants.

The Lover’s Knot tiara was one of Princess Diana’s favourite pieces of jewellery, probably the piece that most people can recall when they think of her.  It was probably presented to her by the Queen on her marriage to the Prince of Wales in 1981 and it is good to see that it has been put to further use by her successor, the Duchess of Cambridge.  It is an elegant, balanced, stylish jewel with the sharp increase in the value of natural pearls its value today is probably almost incalculable, containing as it does the set of perfectly matched natural drop shape pearls.  Spectacular and rare it may be, but it is not a unique jewel.

Princess Diana wearing the tiara with panache: teaming it up with a pearl bolero jacket.

Queen Mary wearing the tiara given to her by the Ladies of Great Britain as a wedding present.  She removed the upright pearls to create the Lover's Knot tiara.

The original Lover’s Knot tiara, made in around 1818, was a jewel owned by Augusta, Grand Duchess of Mecklenburg Strelitz, aunt and godmother of Queen Mary (grandmother of the present Queen).  It was a piece that Queen Mary knew well and which she much admired.  She did not inherit it, however- probably on the grounds that Queen Mary already had a lot of jewels at her disposal and would have access to even more on her accession to the British throne.  The tiara was left to the Grand Duchess’ granddaughter.

The tiara known to us was ordered by Queen Mary from Garrard and Co., then Crown Jewellers, in about 1913.  This was less than three years after hers and her husband’s accession and amongst other things, was busy remodelling several pieces to suit her own taste.  She created an exact replica of the Mecklenburg tiara; the original also contains upright pearl drops in addition to the ones suspended in the frame, which Queen Mary also copied.  For these, she removed upright pearls from the Girls of Great Britain and Ireland tiara which she had been given for her wedding and set them on her new Lover’s Knot tiara.  The drops were then made detachable and permanently removed in 1932.  It was in this form in which the Queen inherited the piece on Queen Mary’s death in 1953.

The Queen presented the Lover’s Knot tiara to Princess Diana on her marriage to the Prince of Wales in 1981.  It matched her personality perfectly- romantic bows, diamonds to complement her skin tone and pearls representing innocence.  As she evolved as a fashion figure, she was able to incorporate the tiara into some of her more daring outfits with panache- it could be argued that the tiara and the Princess made each other iconic.  It is now worn by the Duchess of Cambridge.

Princess Tatiana Youssoupov wearing her Lover's Knot tiara in a portrait by Winerhalter.

A Bolshevik committee evaluating Tsarist treasure.  The Youssoupov tiara can be seen at the bottom left hand corner.

There were other copies of the Lover’s Knot tiara in other princely European families, notably those of Saxony and Bavaria.  These have not been seen decades and are unlikely to have survived.  There is a loss that must be mourned, however, and this is of the Youssoupov Lover’s Knot tiara.  Contemporary photographs of it show it containing large, perfectly matched natural drop pearls, the shape and size being superior to those in the British version.  As this was made for the Youssoupovs, the richest family in Tsarist Russia, we can assume the quality was impeccable, too.  From a gemmological point of view it is sad that this fine assemblage of perfect pearls was dismantled.  The tiara was last seen on the table of the Bolshevik committee tasked with valuing and selling Tsarist treasure.

The original, however, the 1818 tiara that probably sparked all those copies, is still around and remarkably, intact.  It was auctioned by Christie’s in 1981 with the buyers rumoured to be a noble, rich, German family. 

The original Lover's Knot tiara, from which Queen Mary copied hers: note the upright pearls on top of the piece.


A publicity photograph of the Grand Mazarin diamond, due to be auctioned by Christie's Geneva next month.

It seems ironic that having written extensively about the French Crown Jewels only a few weeks ago, one of the most spectacular stones from that collection should suddenly appear at auction.  The gem in question is called the Grand Mazarin, a 19.02 carat of very pale pink colour originating from the fabled Indian mines of the Golconda, known for producing diamonds of exceptional clarity.  It is the same mine that produced beauties such as the Koh-i-Noor and Regent diamonds.