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Goldsmiths struggle in Tripoli

by Moutaz Ali


The traditional craftsmanship of gold- and silversmiths in Tripoli city in Libya is endangered. Customers increasingly prefer to purchase readymade gold and silver items, especially for important events like weddings when Libyans usually buy jewellery.

Mahmud Barbushi is a 44-year-old traditional goldsmith with a tiny shop in the heart of the old town of Libya’s capital Tripoli. In this neighbourhood, one jewellery shop is next to the other, with glittering gold necklaces and heavy bracelets displayed in the windows. However, Mahmud is one of the few goldsmiths who still sticks to the traditional way of manufacturing items in his own workshop.

Mahmud Barbushi, a traditional goldsmith in Tripoli.

“My older brother, who is a goldsmith as well, brought me to the traditional gold market to learn our craft when I was 19 years old,” Mahmud recounts. He uses very simple tools to make jewellery. Everything is handmade.

He mainly fabricates or re-fashions traditional gold necklaces, earrings and bracelets to be worn by brides at weddings: “Today, many brides and grooms use the jewellery they inherited from their parents. They bring us pieces to refine them, and they will use them again. New, handmade jewellery has become too expensive for a lot of people,” Mahmud explains.

The largest traditional trinket at Libyan weddings is a kind of necklace that is called “Kunagh”. It weighs about 500 grams and is made of gold. It contains three large circles in the shape of flowers in the middle and is surrounded by eight small circles, all connected by golden knitting. A Kunagh reaches from a woman’s neck to her stomach. “The manufacturing of the necklace usually takes one week and it requires the cooperation of four goldsmiths in the end,” Mahmud points out.

Unfortunately, this kind of craftsmanship looks set to vanish. People increasingly buy industrially manufactured jewellery. “I can easily sell imported necklaces on the market and make a profit,” Mahmud says, “but I’d lose the pleasure of creating something with my own hands. I love what I do,” he adds. He admits that his income is shrinking.

Customers’ perspective is different. “Traditional jewellery used to be affordable, but in recent years, prices went up due to the shortage of goldsmiths, so people started purchasing ready-made jewellery,” says Eftitma, a 69-year-old lady.

However, Mahmud and other goldsmiths in Tripoli’s old town get along by providing some small services. Clients often ask for inscriptions on silver rings and necklaces, for example. “We earn very little money that way, but I enjoy doing it,” Mahmud says.

Moutaz Ali is a journalist and lives in Tripoli, Libya.
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