Busi­ness

He first came to the Mid­dle East 34 years ago, sweat­ing in his heavy Lon­don suit, and sil­ver­smith Grant Mac­don­ald is still mak­ing be­jew­elled swords, hand-crafted clock cases and cof­fee pots. Here he tells Mike Peake why he loves do­ing busi­ness in the UAE

Friday - - Society Living Leisure -

Sil­ver­smith Grant Mac­don­ald on do­ing busi­ness in the Mid­dle East over the past 34 years.

Once ev­ery four weeks, give or take a day or two, renowned Bri­tish sil­ver­smith Grant Mac­don­ald bids farewell to col­leagues at his busy Lon­don work­shop and sets off for the air­port to be­gin his jour­ney to the Mid­dle East. He’s been do­ing the same run since 1979 – an as­ton­ish­ing 34 years – and if he ever gets tired of it (un­likely), he re­ally only has him­self to blame.

Cut­ting a dash­ing fig­ure in his suit dur­ing those first early vis­its to the Gulf, Grant was quick to es­tab­lish him­self as the most ea­ger, most will­ing and most tal­ented young sil­ver­smith around. Di­a­mond-en­crusted sword to be pre­sented to a pres­i­dent? No prob­lem. Mag­nif­i­cently or­nate cof­fee pot that looks like it could have been made lo­cally in the 1700s? Piece of cake.

For Grant, his com­mit­ment to ‘be­ing there’ so reg­u­larly – cou­pled with a fer­vent in­ter­est in the re­gion’s rich de­sign his­tory – has meant a per­sonal and in­sight­ful touch that is sec­ond to none. And to­day his con­tacts book is bulging. Whether it’s a cer­e­mo­nial dag­ger, a minia­ture graz­ing oryx or one of the beau­ti­ful sil­ver horses he’s be­come so well known for, Grant’s cre­ations have brought him a host of Mid­dle Eastern ad­mir­ers and seen him wel­comed into palaces from Qatar to the UAE. “I’m work­ing on seven gold swords right now,” he smiles, as he puts down his tools for a while to talk to Fri­day. “I try to make the best of the best.”

What are your ear­li­est mem­o­ries of The Gulf?

My first vis­its to the emi­rates seem like hun­dreds of years ago be­cause of the rate of progress. I re­mem­ber when I first went to the Dubai Mu­seum, which is still there of course, with its beau­ti­ful walk­ways. When I first went it was just sand. I have a snap­shot in time, I guess, of those ear­li­est vis­its, and I’m amazed by new changes when­ever I go.

The de­vel­op­ment must seem hard to keep up with.

I’m in awe of the place, Dubai es­pe­cially, and when I go now I feel like a tourist. I look around and go, “Well, that wasn’t there be­fore!” I re­mem­ber the first thing that struck me upon ar­riv­ing in Abu Dhabi was how green it was. The late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sul­tan Al Nahyan was a great vi­sion­ary, of course, and set about green­ing up the emi­rates. When you ar­rived at the air­port and came off the first round­about it was tree-lined and grass-lined all the way into town and it seemed, af­ter fly­ing over the

desert, absolutely fan­tas­tic. He wanted it to be beau­ti­ful and his idea of beau­ti­fi­ca­tion ran all the way to the sort of work that I made for him be­cause he had this huge at­ten­tion to de­tail, al­most a fal­con’s eye. He en­joyed his con­nec­tions to the life of the Be­douin and so ev­ery­thing I made for him in­volved lots of re­search, and by get­ting it right so many times I was blessed with his pa­tron­age for 20-some­thing years.

What was your big break in the Gulf?

I was at a palace in 1981 – it was a neigh­bour of the UAE – and I’d de­liv­ered some pieces to the per­son I was deal­ing with. He of­fered to show me their top gift, the gift they gave to vis­it­ing pres­i­dents and so on, and he gave me a wooden box. In­side the box was a sword with dec­o­ra­tive wire. I said that I could make beau­ti­ful, hand­crafted swords, even though it was a slight fib, as I’d never made one, but I knew I could do it.

What hap­pened?

He told me to come back with a de­sign, so I dis­ap­peared to my ho­tel room for three or four days, drew a sword, and came back with it. It was 18-carat gold with di­a­monds and ru­bies, and he said, “We’ll be absolutely amazed if you can do it.”

I came back to Lon­don and in my work­shop I started to make it. Six or eight weeks later I took it back, and it looked ex­actly like the draw­ing, absolutely ter­rific, and the man said what­ever the Ara­bic equiv­a­lent of “Wow!” is. He told me to go back to the ho­tel and they’d con­tact me. Well, three or four days passed and

I was get­ting edgy be­cause all of my money had gone into this. I phoned up and they said, “Maybe to­mor­row.” I later learned that they had sent it to Bahrain where there’s an as­say of­fice to check that my gold was good, and they also sent it – per­son­ally, by hand – to the UAE to check the stones. So this took time.

What was the ver­dict?

Well, when they told me what had hap­pened I was aghast but they were de­ter­mined it had to be right, of course, be­cause it was for the boss. I said, “Are you go­ing to buy it?” and they said, “Yes. And will you make us 30 more?” It was a life-chang­ing com­mis­sion, more than qua­dru­pling my turnover, and I walked out of the meet­ing three inches off the car­pet. I proved I could do it, and I’d been rewarded most hand­somely.

Are Mid­dle Eastern clients look­ing for ‘the Bri­tish style’, or are the com­mis­sions usu­ally in keep­ing with what lo­cal crafts­men might make?

I learned pretty early on that it’s bet­ter to de­sign and make things peo­ple want to buy

‘I still go to mu­se­ums, still take hun­dreds of pho­to­graphs. The peo­ple I deal with hark back to tra­di­tion and I ma­jor in that’

than things you want to sell! I think the first cof­fee pot I took over – a clas­sic, Lon­don-made sil­ver cof­fee pot that I would sell in the UK – was greeted by the words, “Very nice, but we want a dal­lah-shaped cof­fee pot.” So I came back a month later with the best dal­lah-shaped cof­fee pot they’d ever seen be­cause I’d taken all of the de­tails from the beau­ti­ful col­lec­tion they have at the Dubai Mu­seum. They or­dered 50.

Is that ea­ger­ness to please part of why Mid­dle Eastern clients took to you so well?

Yes, and I re­ally got into the cul­ture of it, tak­ing pho­tos of build­ings, doors, ev­ery­thing, and I had hun­dreds of pic­tures to help with the de­tails. I could take out a piece I’d made and say, “The

de­sign of this is based on this palace be­cause it has the de­tails that came from Zanz­ibar,” and they’d say, “Re­ally?” I’d put a lot of ef­fort into my re­search, so I could en­sure that a client could con­fi­dently give a gift know­ing that it was Emi­rati, for ex­am­ple, in de­sign.

What else made you fit in?

I’d be boil­ing in my suit while my col­leagues from across Europe would be in their desert sa­fari suits, which was ac­cept­able, but I think I stood out. I’d be sweat­ing pro­fusely and they prob­a­bly all thought I was mad, but I was also al­ways ready for the next op­por­tu­nity.

I usu­ally keep a suit­case in the of­fice, and I re­mem­ber one time get­ting an en­quiry for a com­mis­sion and they spoke to lots of peo­ple in Lon­don and Paris and asked me when I could come. I said, “How about 9.30am?” and they said, “Yes, but what day?” I said, “To­mor­row,” and I got the work. “I ar­rived, they said, “Can you do this?” I said, “Yes,” and I got the job – a sword, I think. I’m still there now ev­ery four weeks or so, some­where in the Gulf. I’m still drawn to it, I still go to the mu­se­ums, still take hun­dreds of pho­to­graphs. The peo­ple I deal with hark back to tra­di­tion and qual­ity, and I ma­jor in that.

What’s pop­u­lar to­day?

There’s prob­a­bly not one thing – I’m work­ing on 40 clock cases that are ei­ther mod­ern in an Ara­bic way or have camels or beau­ti­ful horses. I’m mak­ing a lot of table­ware, hand­made in sil­ver us­ing not only tra­di­tional tech­niques but mod­ern tech­nol­ogy and mak­ing pat­terns that look Emi­rati or Qatari or what­ever the cus­tomer wants.

It sounds like tra­di­tion is ev­ery­thing

Even now, when you look up at the sky­scrapers, you have to come down to ground level where there are peo­ple, and they want tra­di­tional things. It’s not all about Bu­gatti Vey­rons and con­struc­tion, tra­di­tions will go on and I hope to be able to ser­vice that. And my son, Ge­orge, who is in the busi­ness and is only 33, will hope­fully be able to ser­vice that for the next 30 years.

Grant Mcdon­ald holds a sword worth £100,000 (Dh572,266) at the Gulf Lux­ury Fair held in Lon­don in 2009. In his work­shop, op­po­site, he is work­ing on seven gold swords

Grant prizes his at­ten­tion to de­tail, whether he’s mak­ing a cof­fee pot, sword or minia­ture oryx

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