Shajilal Pallikuniyil of Kerala, India, is known as “Jalal” in a loft located above a gold shop in Doha, Qatar. Below the thick concrete floor is a glitzy storefront stocked with over $7 million in gold jewelry, peddled by a half dozen Arab salesmen. Customers never know Jalal is upstairs in a secluded area, but requests for handcrafted jewelry depend on it.
The most productive and top performing goldsmiths working in the Middle East are from Kerala, said Mohammad Al Salahi, deputy general manager of Al Salahi Jewelry. The Yemeni chemist lives near his family-owned gold factory in Saudi Arabia, where out of more than 300 goldsmiths, nearly everyone is from India. Salahi frequently travels to Doha to check on his five Qatar showrooms, which exclusively employ Kerala men to complete custom gold requests.Jalal is a meek, middle-aged man of a modest Hindu upbringing. He has worked as a goldsmith in the affluent Islamic state for more than 10 years. He speaks Malayalam, the official language of Kerala, with a severely limited knowledge of Arabic and English languages. The Arab salesmen rely on sketches and hand signals to explain customizing effects for necklaces, earrings, bracelets, bangles, pendants and ornamental cartouches.
With 20 years of gold crafting experience, Jalal readily accepts first-rate jewelry concepts found in catalogs and magazines. Arabian jewelers call men with Jalal’s artistic talent a “master piece” in gold production, said Salahi, who quickly promotes his worker’s capable hands. They’re the key to producing jewelry in regional factories. Kerala craftsmen fabricate silver replicas and wax molds that enable the mass production of gold products throughout the Middle East.
Goldsmiths possess a praised skill in India, the world’s largest consumer of the precious metal. Industrial arts and handicrafts are a part of the cultural heritage found in the southern city of Kerala. After completing 10 years of primary school, 15-year-old adolescents with a strong artistic aptitude inherit goldsmith professions like a treasured heirloom for job security. Many goldsmiths readily accept employment in Arabia, where their talents may earn wages four times greater than jobs in Kerala.
The entrance to Jala’s workshop above Al Salahi Jewelry is difficult to spot from the showroom, but patrons never need it. The door opens to a narrow passageway, which is blocked by a nearly vertical iron staircase. Only one person can reasonably enter and exit. To avoid the crammed climb, salesmen use a bucket-and-string contraption to send orders upstairs. They holler for attention after placing instructions inside the container.
Hearing the signal, the store’s goldsmiths reel the filled buckets upstairs, where a two-person wooden workbench rests in dust and dullness – a sudden contrast to the dazzling sales floor. Five to 10 orders are expected each day. Requests habitually explain personalized trinkets and 18-karat gold designs. Handfuls are finished in a day, while more elaborate projects linger for a week or more.
Jalal sits slouched at his bench and genuinely focused on his projects – 10 hours a day, six days per week. He works beside two younger cousins. The trio rotates six-month paid vacations to Kerala; respite earned by finishing a year-and-half of work. The craftsmen aren’t required to understand the chemistry involved in applying platinum to produce a white-gold finish. They never balance bullion with copper for harder or less expensive alloys. Their sole responsibility is to shape gold.
Simple tools are randomly scattered under several fluorescent lights, such as pliers, calipers, hairdryers, hand torches, wooden stencils and iron shaping blocks. Bottles of butane gas and petroleum jelly are placed next to towels and buffering agents. Shavings of charred gold litter the work area, as the men carve, sear and bend unpolished fragments. A two-gallon bucket of acid wobbles between the workstations – a quick dip helps clean heat-stained parts. Every discolored, razor-edged piece will eventually glisten with the proper brilliance of gold.
Salahi admits Armenian craftsmen, who apply the latest technologies, are the best goldsmiths in the world. Even so, their skills are too expensive for him. He is focused on the middle-class market. For that reason, he hires discount Indian craftsmen who are comfortable and effective in exploiting basic tools. Salahi says minimal production costs permit lower product prices. He asserts that his Kerala workforce is capable of producing almost any customer request.Unfortunately, the goldsmiths commit their lives to perfecting a rudimentary profession that is plagued by health hazards. Between 40 and 50 years old, many complain of crippling lung problems or persistent back pain. Jalal recently saw a medical practitioner for a slipped disc in his lower back. Eventually everyone returns home to teach their trade. They pass on their skills to reinforce the time-honored tradition and raise the next generation of Kerala craftsmen.