At Sleysla, a craft cooperative in the port city of Jeddah, sixteen women sit in focused silence as they solder, pierce and thread a variety of metals, stones and beads at a recently established workshop. These artisans-in-training are part of a larger network of women spanning continents, thanks to a new partnership between Sleysla and the international NGO, Turquoise Mountain, together with the financial support of Alwaleed Philanthropies. Through their collective efforts, they are working together to reimagine the future of philanthropy at a time of unprecedented humanitarian need across the world.
An artisan works on a pendant at Turquoise Mountain’s workshop in Jeddah
“It’s time to rethink the way we practice philanthropy, in order to help others more effectively and impact communities in a positive and sustainable way,” says HRH Princess Lamia Bint Majed Al Saud, Alwaleed Philanthropies’ Secretary General, in reference to the foundation’s collaboration with Turquoise Mountain to provide Saudi artisans with training and job opportunities. “After 37 years working in more than 160 countries, we’ve learnt a tremendous amount and that cumulative on-the-ground experience now informs our approach to supporting projects through strategic partnerships,” adds Princess Lamia, who recently returned from Laos to check on a development project, while HRH Prince Alwaleed regularly travels to Afghanistan to observe firsthand the foundation’s initiatives with Turquoise Mountain.
“The relationship between Turquoise Mountain and Alwaleed Philanthropies is one that stretches over a decade long friendship between their Royal Highnesses Prince Alwaleed and Prince Charles,” says Princess Lamia, noting that Alwaleed Philanthropies’ involvement with Turquoise Mountain began with its program in Afghanistan. Named after a great Afghan city that flourished during the Middle Ages, Turquoise Mountain was established in 2006 by HRH Prince Charles to revive Afghanistan’s fading craft traditions and provide access to new markets for its artisans. Focusing on urban regeneration, education and business development, the NGO has trained some 5,000 artisans and generated over five million dollars in international sales from commissions by the likes Kate Spade and London’s Connaught Hotel.
“We’re very proud to be a part of this project, because it wasn’t simply about restoring old buildings, but giving people a sense of hope and creating opportunities for them to make a living,” says Princess Lamia, pointing to the foundation’s longtime partnership with Turquoise Mountain as one of its most fruitful to date. “The very generous support of HRH Prince Alwaleed, as a founding and continuing donor to Turquoise Mountain, has been transformative for our projects, for which we are very grateful,” says Shoshana Stewart, Turquoise Mountain’s CEO.
Vicki Sarge and Um Ahmed review the latest jewellery samples in Riyadh
In 2015, Turquoise Mountain began working with artisans in Saudi Arabia, in partnership with HRH Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s Saudi Handcrafts Program, together with financial support from Alwaleed Philanthropies to create training programs for women artisans. “One of the first things we did when we arrived here, was to survey the craft traditions that exist across the Kingdom,” says Dr. Thalia Kennedy, Turquoise Mountain’s Director for the program in Saudi Arabia. “We found that many of the craft traditions that exist in Saudi today continue to be practiced by women. We’re honored to be working with HRH Princess Lamia on these programs, because it presents an incredible opportunity to not only keep these traditions alive, but to also work alongside women artisans to create new products and markets for their crafts,” notes Turquoise Mountain’s Director, who works out of the foundation’s Riyadh office, housed within the historic mud walls of Al Murabba, a complex built by King Abdulaziz in 1938 for his court. “Our goal in Saudi, is to implement strategies and lessons learned from our projects over the last decade to support artisans and craft industries,” she adds, while walking under a colonnaded pathway towards a studio space.
Inside, seated at a table looking over samples of traditional woven fabrics, is the London-based jewelry designer Vicki Sarge and Oaybidah Aludaini –known as Um Ahmed - a Saudi artisan born on the coral island of Farasan off the southwestern coast of Saudi Arabia. They are working together to develop a fashion jewelry line inspired by Bedouin textiles, an art form Um Ahmed is intimately familiar with having spent most of her childhood living in hand-woven tents. “This work represents my roots, because I learnt this craft through my mother, aunts and grandmother who taught me how to weave with beads, as well as make tassels and macramé,” says Um Ahmed, who has spent the last year working alongside Vicki with her daughter and granddaughter to produce a contemporary range of beautifully crafted tasseled earrings and necklaces.
Model. Left to right; Outfit 1: Gold and carnelian earring, inspired by two-thousand-year-old jewellery from Thaj, Saudi Arabia (National Museum, Riyadh); tassel necklace, inspired by traditional textiles from Saudi Arabia, handmade by Saudi women artisans for Turquoise Mountain. Top, Dhs1,250, Tibi at BySymphony. Outfit 2: Top, Dhs2,370, J.W. Anderson at BySymphony. Necklace and bracelet, handmade by Saudi female artisans for Turquoise Mountain. Outfit 3: Silver, bead and textile earring, inspired by traditional textiles from Saudi Arabia, and motifs from two-thousand-year-old jewellery from Thaj, Saudi Arabia (National Museum, Riyadh). Handmade by Saudi women artisans. All jewellery by Oaybidah Aludaini and Vicki Sarge for Turquoise Mountain.Top, Dhs1,165, Simone Rocha at BySymphony
“What’s exciting about working with Um Ahmed, is that it’s truly a collaboration. Even though we used an interpreter in the beginning to communicate, we quickly found a way to understand each other and laugh a lot throughout the process,” says Vicki, whose love of craft began as a 12-year-old when she taught herself to knit and make jewelry while growing up in Michigan. An established name in the world of costume jewelry, she co-founded the Erickson Beamon brand in 1985 before launching her namesake line in 2014. “I’ve been designing and making jewelry for 33 years now, and at this point in my career I feel it’s important to give back and support artisans who keep alive craft traditions,” says the jewelry designer, who has taught workshops around the world. “I first got involved with Turquoise Mountain from 2009-10, when they invited me to create a jewelry design curriculum for their students in Afghanistan. I loved their approach to sustainable development, so when they asked me if I would be interested in working with the team in Saudi, I immediately signed up,” says Vicki, who has created custom baubles for the likes of Alexander McQueen, John Galliano, Dries van Noten and Givenchy during the course of her career.
A few days later, Vicki meets with artisans at Sleysla’s Turquoise Mountain workshop in Jeddah. They are learning new techniques and making pieces inspired by the gold jewelry of ancient Arabian queens displayed at Riyadh’s National Museum, as well as traditional silver Bedouin jewelry. Among them is Jeddah born 26-year-old Reham Alharbi, one of the first Saudi women trainers at Turquoise Mountain to work on developing and supporting artisans and jewelry-makers in the Kingdom. “The jewelry these artisans are producing reflects the important role Saudi women are playing in the handcraft sector as talented artists, teachers and cultural gatekeepers,” says Reham, who hopes the jewelry collection will bring international exposure to Saudi culture and its rich craft traditions.
Um Ahmed at work in Riyadh
In order to share its work with international audiences and expand its market, Turquoise Mountain has curated a number of international exhibitions, from the Smithsonian in Washington DC to Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art and the Venice Biennale. “Through these exhibitions, we often see an extraordinary shift in the way visitors perceive a place and its people. Yet it’s not just about enhancing one’s view of a particular country or culture, it’s about changing perceptions of artisans, the value of the crafts they make and their place within the larger global economy. We hope to continue in that spirit with our Saudi partners as well,” says Shoshana, noting that in January 2018 the organization will display the work of Saudi artisans during an exhibition at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Back at the workshop in Jeddah, Vicki is seated next to jewelry artisan Intesar Husseini, who pulls out a small rectangular box to show her one of her prized possessions, a row of delicately carved gold buttons linked together by a fine chain. “My grandfather, who was a well-known goldsmith, made these buttons which were part of the traditional costume worn by Hijazi women. In the past goldsmiths passed their knowledge down from father to son. I feel a huge sense of pride because I now have the opportunity to carry on his legacy,” says the Saudi artisan of an experience that resonates with the London-based jewelry designer. “I’m so proud of being a part of this project, because it’s about women supporting women, regardless of where they come from in the world. One also feels a positive energy when you enter this room because of the bonds of friendship and sisterhood we’ve created. It’s a community spirit that carries through in all the beautiful jewelry pieces we are creating together,” concludes Vicki, of a unique collaboration that is changing the face of philanthropy in the region and beyond.
This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia.
Photographer: Mox Santos at MMG Dubai. Fashion director: Anna Castan. Fashion Assistant: Alina Babar. Make-up/Hair: Ania Poniatowska at MMG Dubai. Model: Nadya at Wilhelmina Dubai