Silversmith < OMAN HERITAGE


Silversmith with an exquisite touch

Khalfan bin Rashid al Sabahi is Nizwa's best-known silversmith. Specialising in the design of traditional silver coffeepots, his great expertise and fine touch have been discussed, documented and filmed by both the media and chroniclers of Oman's rich heritage. His coffeepots are in great demand as well, never mind the RO1,000 price tag

Khalfan bin Rashid al Sabahi, Nizwa's best-known silversmith, works on a part of a traditional coffeepot. Pictures by Abdullah Ibrahim al Shuhi

His self-effacing, affable manner belies his celebrity status in the corridors of Nizwa's modern and bustling souq, where much of the wilayat's wealth of handicrafts is showcased. He has been photographed and filmed by tourists and the national media alike, and his impressive visage adorns the odd calendar and poster on Oman's heritage. Sixty-five-year old Khalfan bin Rashid al Sabahi is something of a legend among Nizwa's community of traditional craftsmen. However, as the last of Nizwa's great experts in coffeepot making, an ancient tradition is likely to end with him. Over the last couple of years, the wilayat's specialist coffeepot makers have seen their ranks gradually whittled down as several have opted for modern, lucrative trades or simply seen their inherited calling end with their generation. "We were about 50 or 60 strong in those days, but I'm the only one left among today's silversmiths who specialise in coffeepot making," remarked Al Sabahi.

A hoard of finely-worked silver amulets, anklets and bracelets on display in a Nizwa jewellery store

The veteran craftsman runs a small store in Nizwa souq, which is chock-a-block with traditional jewellery, knickknacks, trinkets and palm-frond handicrafts. He works amid this fascinating hoard, surrounded by the accoutrements of his craft, which includes a mix of traditional implements and modern tools.Creating a 24-inch silver coffeepot can take as long as three weeks, says the master craftsman. Each pot is made up of 22 separate pieces, which are individually moulded from silver sheets and then welded together. A variety of implements — from lathe machines to old-fashioned tools — is used in the fabrication of a single coffeepot. Finishing is done by hand, a process that involves the use of dilute acid and soap.

Creating a 24-inch silver coffeepot can take as long as three weeks, says the master craftsman. Each pot is made up of 22 separate pieces, which are individually moulded from silver sheets and then welded together

Silver coffeepot in its basic form, before it is put together and polished to create an exquisite work of art

The result is an exquisite product of fine workmanship and great beauty.Despite the hefty price tag on his products, Al Sabahi's coffeepots are coveted by both tourists and local connoisseurs of Omani artefacts and antiques. A 24-inch silver coffeepot can cost as much as RO1,000, while the smaller versions vary in price from RO300-500. Copper and brass coffeepots range from RO80 to RO150 in price. Orders for his works pour in from citizens and dealers of silverware based in Muscat and Muttrah. Requests also come in from the Ministry of National Heritage and Culture and other government departments, which either display his masterpieces at exhibitions locally and abroad, or give them away as souvenirs.

Traditional silver necklaces, some of antique value, on sale at the Nizwa souq

Cheaper machine-made coffeepots, says Al Sabahi, are no match for the hand-crafted versions, which are in great demand usually during the tourist season. "I sell three to four pieces every month, and even execute orders for custom-made pieces."In fact, the veteran silversmith's skills are not limited to just coffeepot making.In his spare time, in-between orders for coffeepots, he creates a variety of fine quality traditional silver necklaces, khanjars and medallions, among other items. Raw materials for his products — mainly silver, copper and brass sheets — come from Muttrah.Modern tools like the lathe and the blow-torch have been extremely handy in fashioning high quality products in quick time, says Al Sabahi. "There are machines today that help you spin fine silver thread for the khanjar which, in times past, used to be a painstaking manual process. Moreover, the ductile quality of silver can be thoroughly exploited in ensuring a great degree of design and intricacy in our handicrafts."

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