I remember one afternoon when my grandmother, out of boredom and because it had been on her mind for some time, had undertaken to empty her jewelry drawers onto her bed. One after the other, she slid her rings, necklaces, and bracelets onto the satin bedspread so as to constitute small piles of more or less equal value, each reserved for one of her granddaughters.
There were beautiful and less beautiful ones, gifts received, dating for the most part from the year of her marriage: “This one was from my uncle, that one from my mother-in-law, this ring was from my brother-in-law” and so on. I was about ten years old. I watched with fascination this little pile of treasure gleaming under the September sun, rays of which filtered through the shutters and traced erratic patterns on the bed, sliding off the gold which seemed to be melting, or catching the eye of a stone which suddenly refracted the light, creating a rainbow.
One ring in particular caught my attention. It looked like a piece of jewelry that might be worn by a queen from one of my storybooks. It was flat, very thin, a little gothic perhaps, spread out in a diamond pattern so as to cover a good part of the finger. Four diamonds placed in a cross surrounded, in a tangle of chased silver, a red stone which must have been a ruby. “And this one, granny, who are you keeping it for?” I asked, clumsily trying to hide my true intent. I was perhaps my grandmother’s favorite among her granddaughters. First of the lot, I bore her name. “Certainly not you, darling,” she replied, “It’s a “falamank””. At the time, I my little head thought that this jewel was perhaps too precious to come back to me. But by dint of hearing this word, “falamank”, used in a pejorative way, I later came to understand that the “falamank” was, in the Middle East, the ancestor of what is today called a “fake jewel” or a “couture jewel”.
A creative drawing
It was the jeweler Sélim Mouzannar who explained to me the origin of these jewels. Hailing from a family of Levantine jewelers whose activity dates back to the beginning of the 19th century, under the Ottoman Empire, he told me that his very name is linked to his profession, “Mouzannar” meaning “one who wears a belt “. Accompanying the caravans with their precious cargo, these traders carried their pieces in a sort of fanny pack attached to their bodies for fear of brigands. He, who grew up in the jewelers’ souk of Beirut, maintained a nostalgic love of these “falamank” with their creative designs, which stood out from the traditional, banal and statutory pieces, whose value was limited to the precious material of which they were made. He had undertaken to ennoble the “falamank”, dedicating to his city a collection called “Beirut” in which, as an experienced lapidary, he had set himself the challenge of controlling the light of the stones through a cutting technique inherited from the “falamank”, called “rose cut”.
“”Falamank””, Mouzannar explained to me, simply means “Flemish”. At the beginning of the 16th century, in the midst of the Renaissance, a time of economic prosperity and artistic renewal, diamonds, the only source of which at the time was India, were subject to increased demand. Venice, under the influence of the powerful Ottoman Empire with which it tried to come to terms to avoid losing feathers, became the hub of European trade. It was through the Serenissima that the Indian diamond returned to Bruges, in Flemish lands, hence the adoption of the word “falamank”, when referring to the new technique of spinning the stone on a disc covered with diamond powder in order to cut it. Only a diamond can cut the indomitable diamond!
A single stone
The diamond then returns to Venice where merchants buy it to resell it to the Ottoman goldsmiths who transform it into jewelry. The demand is strong. To address this, the Flemish cutters had the idea of removing the stones’ breech, the tip which accentuates their light and brilliance, to cut other stones there, getting ever smaller and smaller. A small stone can thus cover an entire piece. Everything is then played out in the art of setting, where the jewelers try to restore the brilliance of the stones that are a little off. They are placed in openwork crowns, surrounded with dark enamel or blackened metal to better highlight them.
Even today, in the bazaar, or at the most famous jewelers of Istanbul, these characteristic jewels are the most sought after by tourists. They are, in the main, made up of domed chiseled silver rings and intricate earrings of the same material, adorned with red or green stones, rubies, rubellites and emeralds (or simply the bottoms of bottles) turned into small spheres, their low quality not worth a state-of-the-art cut. The stones are surrounded by a constellation of small diamonds emerging from the blackened silver.
I finally inherited this ring, and its history makes it, in my eyes, more precious than all the diamonds of Golconda.