There is value in passing down skills of the trade

Jewellery-making isn't the only trade where knowledge and experience counts for a lot

A merchant displays gold jewellery at his shop in Dubai Gold Souk in the Gulf emirate on July 29, 2020.  / AFP / GIUSEPPE CACACE

Earlier this week, I popped into a jewellers’ shop in Abu Dhabi to collect an item that will be presented as an award. It’s an annual visit. Otherwise, as my family can confirm, I very rarely visit such places. I have been a patron of this particular shop though for decades and have come to know its owner. As usual, we chattered about our families and a variety of other topics, including business and the state of the market in his field. It gives me an opportunity to get an idea about what is, for me, a very unfamiliar area of the economy.

One story he told me sparked a few thoughts.

A customer had come in with an item that required a bit of work. Not an expensive item, but something of personal importance to her. She had been to another shop that sold jewellery, but didn’t have an experienced jeweller on staff. She had been quoted a four-figure sum and a timeframe of six months to send it overseas for repair. Seeking a second opinion, she had come to my friend.

He looked at the item, sat her down and offered her a cup of coffee. He then excused himself, saying that he had to pop upstairs for a moment. A few minutes later, he returned, with the item repaired. All it had needed was a bit of delicate work with some silver wire. Parting, I guess, with a token sum, though I didn’t ask, the customer happily finished her coffee and went on her way. I suspect she may have become a repeat customer.

SHARJAH , UNITED ARAB EMIRATES , OCT 24   – 2017 :- One of the worker polishing the silver jewellery at the Al Baroon silver shop in the Al Mareija area near the Heritage area in Sharjah. They are in the jewellery business for the last 30 years. (Pawan Singh / The National) For Weekend
SHARJAH , UNITED ARAB EMIRATES , NOV 1   – 2017 :- Workers making the silver and gold jewellery at the Al Baroon Gold Factory in the Al Mareija area near the Heritage area in Sharjah. They are in the jewellery business for the last 30 years. (Pawan Singh / The National) For Weekend

My friend’s knowledge and experience in the field had, once again, proved its worth. He is, he tells me, the fifth generation in his family to have been in the jewellery business. His daughter, having tried a variety of other careers, including banking, eventually came back to her father who sent her away for training in jewellery design and precious stones in Italy. She is now the sixth generation jeweller in the family, with her own shop in Dubai.

We used to have parallels to these family traditions of employment here in the Emirates. In the pearling industry, the leading merchant families passed their skills, knowledge and expertise down through the generations. A demand for jewellery remains and for those who value a specially-crafted item, rather than a mass-produced object, that demand will continue. I wonder, though, whether it is easy these days to find someone with the skills and the eye of an old-time pearl merchant.

It may be the same across a range of what used to be called "trades" or "skilled trades", where knowledge that requires technical skills and hands-on experience seems not to be valued as highly as formal academic qualifications.

Fortunately, the importance of the oil and gas industry in our UAE economy means that hands-on experience in the field is likely to remain of significance for a long time to come. Artificial intelligence, computer networks and the like cannot replace everything. They can simplify things, yes, and that is to be welcomed. But a role for individual learned skills in this field is unlikely ever to become redundant.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - January 07 2013 - Kartik Satikunver, a salesman from Gujurat dusts gold jewelry at Kanz Jewels at the Gold Souk in Deira. (Razan Alzayani / The National)

Sadly, however, in some areas of everyday life, other skills are becoming of less value or, at least, much harder to use.

To take a simple example, it used to be pretty easy to sort out the problem with a lavatory cistern that was forever spilling water. You lifted the top off the cistern, adjusted the angle of the ballcock and put the top back on. Job done. You didn’t even need to turn off the flow of water into the cistern.

In modern homes these days, though, cisterns are often placed out of sight in a cavity in the wall, sealed in, with an access plate, not screwed but cemented in place. So it’s often safer to call in someone to do what used to be a job of a few minutes, to make sure nothing goes wrong. New fancy household water supply systems are fine, once one has learnt how and where to switch them on and off. But if anything goes wrong...

When I first learnt to drive, cars were less reliable than they are today. Occasionally things would go wrong. If necessary, I knew how to change the plugs. I and any passengers would wind the windows up and down, as we wanted. Now, in most vehicles, you’re dependent on an electric system. If something goes wrong, most drivers won’t have a clue what to do, and a journey to the garage is required.

My jeweller friend and I agreed earlier this week that skills passed down through the generations were worth preserving, where possible.

We chuckled, too, agreeing that our grumbles about car plugs or lavatory cisterns were probably just symptomatic of us growing older.

I do wonder, though, about a world where the resolution of some elementary little problems now requires the employment of external expertise. In the past, almost anyone could solve them. Was there not some sense in that?

Published: April 14, 2022, 7:00 AM
Peter Hellyer

Peter Hellyer

Peter Hellyer is a UAE cultural historian and columnist for The National