Stories set in Stones

Six creative minds from the region share what their favourite piece of jewellery means to them and why.
Chokra created this necklace from precious stones and family heirlooms. Courtesy: Chokra
Chokra created this necklace from precious stones and family heirlooms. Courtesy: Chokra

To gain a better understanding of the jewellery market, it’s important to ask who’s buying and, perhaps more importantly, why? Traditionally, when markets slump, investors, globally, have flocked to gold. And at a time when it is considered a wiser investment choice than many others, demand for gold continues to soar.

Some 70 per cent of newly mined gold still goes into jewellery and, after the United States, China and India, the Middle East is the fourth-largest jewellery market in the world. So why the continuing thirst?

Beyond its economic value, it is important to recognise the emotional response that jewellery generates, particularly in this region. In large parts of the Middle East, gold is one of the most important economic resources that women have access to, but, perhaps equally significantly, it is a valuable means of expression. Furthermore, in times of dramatic change and uncertainty, people are likely to cling to traditional practice and objects that are imbued with emotional value.

The sentimental merit of a piece of jewellery often far outweighs its monetary value; what might be considered defective to some will be the centrepiece of another’s collection. You see, what jewellery does is facilitate the relationship between investment and the love of design. Each piece, meticulously created, enables us to tell our story or carry a little piece of the narrative forward.

In a quest to uncover the true value of jewellery, we asked six members of the region’s design industry to explain what jewellery means to them – and to share the story behind their favourite piece.


Chokra is a performance artist from the UAE, born and raised in Dubai and currently based in New York. His most recent work, entitled Zawaj Al Khaleej (Gulf Marriage) was awarded the André von Ah prize. He is the first-ever artist from the UAE to be represented by MoMA and is currently preparing new work for the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

“Jewellery is a predominant aspect of our culture. It relies on several signifiers, including wealth acquisition, adorning oneself with our ideas, calligraphic and religious reminders, and speaks to the crafts that are specific to each culture. The rich and varied designs we find in traditional jewellery appear like clues that encapsulate exchanges between cultures or subcultures and delve into a greater historical narrative. An example would be the variety of terminals we find on traditional Emirati bangles that vary from each tribe or the local craftsman. Also, certain jewellery in the Middle East is considered to have talismanic attributes, especially turquoise charms which are believed to have protective qualities.

“Jewellery pieces are like time capsules in our family, where each piece has a narrative or peculiar history, whether it be my mother’s marriage pieces given to her from my grandmother or even the decorative kohl container that now appears as a pendant.

“The featured necklace emerged from a drawing in which I was trying to update the formal characteristics of ancient Bedouin necklaces through the use of irregular shapes in silver.

“The piece features locally sourced turquoise stones with a few family heirlooms, set and adorned with uncut and unfinished diamonds, iridescent pearls and ruby drops. It features an adjustable tassel at the back, suggestive of jewellery pieces that were popular during the Trucial States. It has considerable emotional value, since it has been with me through several performance works, including family celebrations. I view the piece as a reminder to be true to oneself, strong and to take pride in the powerful potential that art and creativity can manifest.”

Victoria Devin

Victoria Devin was born into a horse-racing family and has been bringing horses to Dubai since 2002, a year in which her mare Terre A Terre won the Dubai Duty Free race and Ange Gabriel came second in the Sheema Classic on World Cup day. Both horses were bred at Le Haras du Mesnil in France, where her grandmother – a pioneer in the thoroughbred industry – trained the likes of Sir Henry Cecil, François Boutin and Alain de Royer-Dupré. Now based for part of the year in Dubai, Devin recently launched her Hermione Boutique.

“Horse racing is in my blood – I am the sixth generation of thoroughbred breeders and owners in the family. On my father’s side we have a stud farm in France, where I grew up, and on my mother’s side we have one in county Kildare, the heart of horse racing in Ireland. My ring belongs to my great-grandmother on my father’s side, Mme Elisabeth Couturie. Her great passion was horse racing, and she was one of the most influential breeders in France – instrumental in bringing in new bloodlines from America. She was a woman of many talents and enjoyed hunting on horseback side-saddle on her estate with her pack of hounds. She was also a spectacular tennis player and three times winner of La Coupe d’Espagne.

“She used to live in a château on a stud farm in Savigné-l’Évêque – a commune in Pays de la Loire, where, as a child, I spent a lot of time with her. Her style was elegant, either wearing Chanel or clothing by her in-house dressmaker. She loved to dress me up as a baby, in Christian Dior – which I believe has given me my love for beautiful garments. She was warm and kind – I later learned that she played a courageous role in the Second World War, helping the local community and some notable families.

“The ring is actually rather simple, considering – a natural pearl set in yellow gold, by Chaumet. I had always admired it, and she used to wear it instead of her rather extravagant engagement ring, for she preferred to be understated. Like my mother, she was more interested in brood mares than jewels.

“The ring was given to me by her daughter, my great-aunt Marguerite. I was the first great-granddaughter and I hope to one day do it justice. I wear it often, but I am terrified of losing it. It has more sentimental value than anything else and gives me a sense of comfort to be reminded of the person she was. I was young when she died but my memories are clear. I often think I have to be careful, for her legacy is a difficult one to follow. I feel so honoured to carry a little piece of her with me.”

Nadine Kanso

The Beirut-born photographer and jewellery designer Nadine Kanso is the creator of the Bil Arabi line of jewellery, which directly translates as “In Arabic”. She uses traditional calligraphy within her pieces, in unique compositions that explore Arabic heritage.

“I am actually a graphic designer by formation. The jewellery design came by coincidence. It wasn’t until I put together an exhibition about Arab identity at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London that I decided to try to explore jewellery design. I had produced a photographic exhibition entitled Meen Ana (Who I Am) after September 11, as I felt strongly that the world needed to see another side of the Arab people. There were basic questions that needed to be asked and I needed to express my point of view. My work after that was probably a direct reaction to this exhibition, as I knew then I wanted to explore the theme of identity further.

“I come from a very strong Arab nationalist home and jewellery is a part of our culture – it always has been. When we get married, we have a lot of rituals that are embedded in our heritage. Of course, tastes are changing – it would be fair to say things are less grandiose, but with some of the larger families, especially in the Gulf, it still plays a huge role.

“I have many pieces given to me by my mother, but my favourite piece is an old Umayyad coin that my mother’s cousin gave to me. She got it from a collector, and presented it to me on my engagement day 22 years ago. The coin is silver and is inscribed with Quranic words: There is only One God – Allah. The Umayyad period was such a rich period in Islam in terms of culture, architecture and design, and as I have such an affinity to the language within my own work, it was a really special piece for me, and still is.”

SHAWN STEPHENSShawn Stephens is a communications director at Z7 Communications, a luxury PR agency that handles a luminary of luxe brands including Versace, Salvatore Ferragamo, Net-A-Porter and TAG Heuer. He has a great passion for fashion and art that has enabled him to work with brands such as Christie’s, Art Dubai and the Dubai International Film Festival.

“My father’s father was from royalty in Rajasthan but when he married my grandmother for love in the early 1900s, it meant him giving up his family as they were not supportive. He converted from Hinduism to Christianity – even taking her name on, which is highly unusual in India. He gave up everything, including palaces and a certain type of lifestyle, and lived a simple middle-class life from then on.

“It is very normal for men in India to wear jewellery, especially in Rajasthan, but it is nearly always antique gold. I am not a fan of modern jewellery, although I admire designers such as Cartier, Bulgari, Shamballa, LV and Mario Uboldi, especially the progressive architectural concepts of Mario Uboldi and the Juste un Clou series of jewellery by Cartier. My mother always wants myself and my brother to invest in gold – so more for her sake than anything else I will invest in some gold and have it made into pendants or kadas and chains of my choice.

“I feel rather sad that Indians are moving toward a Western ideal in taste, when it comes to jewellery – we have such a rich culture and history. We should be proud of our heritage and fundamental differences.

“This watch is made of a Victorian-era coin that came from my mother’s mother’s side. My great-grandfather was British and made this timepiece out of the gold coin. My grandmother, who I was very close to, gave it to me on my graduation day. I used to go and stay with her for two months every summer, so a lot of my memories growing up are linked to her.”


Mona Kattan is an Iraqi-American resident of Dubai and former investment banker known for her entrepreneurship skills. She is the co-founder of MasterMind PR, The Dollhouse and The Puppet Show and founder of the fashion blog

“I never actually lived in Iraq. My parents have always been very passionate about education, so I was born and raised in America. It probably wasn’t easy for them, as they were extremely patriotic and proud of their rich culture – growing up, we would listen to their wonderful stories about Baghdad. We are incredibly close-knit, always spending a lot of time together, possibly because we moved around so much.

“My parents had an arranged marriage. My mother was my father’s sister’s teacher. She loved my mum, so had her family ask for my mum’s hand. This was the first ring my father gave to my mother after they got married. I’ve always loved it, especially because of the sentiment. My mother gave it to me when I graduated. Like her, I am extremely sentimental when it comes to jewellery. When someone important gives me something, I rarely take it off.”


Essa’s creations consistently challenge preconceived notions of Middle Eastern fashion design. By using a mix of rare vintage fabrics and trims sourced from Asia and Europe, with a complex understanding of the female form, he has established himself as one of the most innovative designers in the region.

“I come from a huge family in Mumbai – but I was born in Abu Dhabi. My father moved over to set up an engineering company with my mother in 1968. A lot of my jewellery collection has been given to me over the years by family and friends, but my true passion lies with vintage jewellery. I have dealers in London and America, where I source from. I like big statement pieces, but find a lot of the fine-jewellery market a little pretentious. Of course it is an investment, but unless it has a story to tell it means nothing to me.

“I have a collection of Cartier and Boucheron bracelets from the 1930s and 1940s that are rather fun, and a collection of 35 vintage Rolex watches. But my favourite would have to be a 150-year-old Turkish brooch made from rose-cut diamonds and rubies with an emblem of the hummingbird, which I recently won at auction at the Ayyam Gallery, or some of the old Indian heritage pieces that I have been given.

“This ring is particularly special to me as it was given to me by one of my dearest friends, Ceebo, as he thought it was more fitting for me than him. I don’t really know much about it or its worth, which I quite like, for none of those things truly matter.”

Published: May 1, 2014 04:00 AM


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