Juliette Coombe,in the Daily News, http://www.dailynews.lk/?q=features/galle-fort-s-black-prince
With nearly a hundred gem shops in the fort I went to meet with one of the historic families Ibrahim Jewellers at 47 Church Street, where I learnt many fascinating facts such as the 400-carat blue sapphire, known as the ‘Blue Belle’, which adorns the British crown is from Sri Lanka. Through a set of smaller glass doors you find yourself in Safa’s lair on Church Street and as the lights flicker on, the glittering gems reveal themselves, creating bespangled wallpaper that you can’t tear your eyes away from.
Family heirloom: Safa is a third generation jeweller, telling me that his family’s business “is one of the oldest jewellers in Ceylon”. They started in 1909, when his grandfather set up a shop in Colombo. They did fantastically well but in 1978, with his father at the helm of the business, the shop burnt down, an electrical fault that destroyed everything they owned
Through a set of smaller glass doors you find yourself in Safa’s lair on Church Street and as the lights flicker on, the glittering gems reveal themselves, creating bespangled wallpaper that you can’t tear your eyes away from.
Family heirloom: Safa is a third generation jeweller, telling me that his family’s business “is one of the oldest jewellers in Ceylon”. They started in 1909, when his grandfather set up a shop in Colombo. They did fantastically well but in 1978, with his father at the helm of the business, the shop burnt down, an electrical fault that destroyed everything they owned ;except the old English Chubbs safe’! A family heirloom, the deep burgundy safe now sits in the wall of the Church Street store, a reminder of the hardship that befell the family and the determination it took to rebuild an empire. In a sense the sturdy safe is a reflection of the kind of resilient and persevering genes that Safa carries in his blood.
After this disastrous event, they had no choice but to return to the family home within the Fort walls where “my father’s bedroom turned into a jewellery shop!” Like there is light at the end of the tunnel, it is through the tenacity with which one faces adversity that one’s ultimate triumph is decided. It was from this shop that Safa’s father had to start from scratch, eventually succeeding in making it one of the most renowned jewellers of sapphires in Sri Lanka. Safa tells me that when his father was in business in 1980, a one-carat sapphire would have cost 2,000 rupees (less than $20US). Today the exact same stone will cost you 20,000 rupees (around $200US) as the price of sapphires continues to increase, from year to year. But Safa says “our sapphires are the best in the world because we have the best luster in the world”. His sapphires sparkle like no one else’s.
Diamonds, diamonds, diamonds: It is sapphires in their every colour that Safa uses to adorn the majority of his most popular jewellery. His most recent design is beautiful in its simplicity. Small individual gold bands with a single coloured sapphire set in the top, stacking rings that give each customer the ability to create their own collection. The gold he uses is always eighteen carats, only the best and it’s his thicker gold rings set with many multi-coloured sapphires that, he tells me, are the most popular with the Western customers: “they sell like hotcakes!”
Another more delicate gold multi-linked ring is adorned with several tiny diamonds. It is the Middle Eastern clients who want “diamonds, diamonds, diamonds,” with many requesting exact replicas of Princess Diana and now Kate Middleton’s infamous engagement ring. Safa caters for everyone’s needs, a firm believer in the mantra “the customer is always right”, but he also spends time perfecting unusual skills, like a hammering effect that creates the most incredible ridged effect on his rings, from his workshop on Leyn Baan Street.
The workshop is concealed behind a big wooden door, high-tech fingerprint technology hiding this maze from the outside world. Through door after door you can see magicians at work, some melting, some polishing and some putting the final touches on the works of art. Many of the pieces currently being made are customized, which Safa says makes up about 50 percent of the business he generates. But it is Safa himself who prides himself on his ability to make exactly what people want, designing all the jewellery you see in the shop. He has been working with a French jeweller for the past thirty-five years, always learning and perfecting his skills.
Everything sells: But even the best sometimes make mistakes! Safa pulls out a chunky, gold linked necklace, different coloured and shaped semi-precious stones hanging from it, a reminder that Sri Lanka does not only specialize in precious stones but in the semi-precious variety too. This piece, however, has never sold, a complete ‘miscalculation’ on his part. He is in fact ‘about to melt it’! It is easy to imagine the specter of his father hovering about somewhere in the premises, not quite appreciating this travesty of a necklace but the son seems to have learned from his father. Apart from this necklace, ‘everything sells’, as Safa knows exactly what to create, to appeal to each individual who wanders into his shop.