The story of art and beauty began in the heart of Damascus city two hundred years ago. The craft of inlaying wood with shells started from the palaces of kings and sultans and then spread worldwide.
Arabisk London was honoured to host Mr. Zaher Samir, founder of Original Antique, to learn more about this astonishing profession.
Interviewer: Fatima Omrani
The story began two hundred years ago from the palaces of kings and sultans, a story that was unique to Damascus, from which the magic spread to the whole world. Mr Zahir, as one of the pioneers of the craft of carving and inlaying wood with shells, could you tell us more about this handicraft?
As you know, this handicraft is over two hundred years old. It first began in the centre of Damascus on a minimal scale, as the pieces were only made for kings, sultans, and wealthy families. The reason behind this is the difficulty of such manufacture, as it depends mainly on mounting natural seashells inside the wood in a decorative manner. The size of each piece of the shell after the carving is at most 1 cm, and it is mounted on wood separately. This makes it both challenging and distinctive, resulting in Damascus’s uniqueness as the world’s only city to produce this handicraft.
In fact, in our family, we have inherited this handicraft one generation after the other. As the founder of our company, Original Antique, in 1961, my father inherited it from his father in 1911, as its name back then was “The House of Oriental Antiques”. And so, it was inherited by our generation, the third generation.
I, Zaher Samir, have grown up between the arms of this profession, as I have mastered it academically with a specialisation in interior design.
Your passion for this profession started from your childhood that you spent at your father’s shop. What did you feel like watching your father during his work? And was it your dream to continue his career?
My story began at a young age when I used to watch all the handicrafts in Damascus during summer vacation. I have always thought this handicraft deserves more spread and brilliance, like the Italian and international pieces. So, I began to practice it with passion and ambition to develop it.
Your academic career has contributed to bringing a distinctive spirit to your products. Tell us about your academic life. Did you choose your speciality based on your desire to practice this craft?
As I mentioned earlier, I grew up loving this profession, which inspired me to develop this craft to make it more contemporary, which would increase its global spread. The specialisation of interior design enabled me to put contemporary touches on this ancient art, which made it harmonise and fit more with the global decoration trends of our time.
From a shop in Damascus to a leading company that exports luxury furniture to most countries worldwide. How did you establish Original Antique?
As I mentioned, this company was inherited from my grandfather by my father and so by our third generation, who started to expand. As we opened a branch in the Netherlands, we are now working to open one in America.
Today, Original Antique is one of the most important companies that provide luxury furniture services. How did you reach this distinguished level?
Thanks to God Almighty, from the beginning of the establishment of this company, we have maintained the quality of our products, which grants us the trust of our customers. We always aim to be the best pioneer of this ancient handicraft to increase its lovely audience.
“Handmade” or handicraft is what distinguishes your products. Are all your products handmade?
Yes, the thing that distinguishes this handicraft from others is that it is one of the few rare industries made by hand during all of its phases, despite all the development in other professions and industries. Each piece needs a long time, perhaps several months, to be prepared.
How do carving and inlaying wood with shells differ from mosaic art?
The industry is entirely different in principle, as inlaying wood with shells requires carving inside the wood, while in mosaic, the shell is glued to the wood without carving.
What are the main destinations to which you export your products? Is there a demand from non-Arab markets such as British, European or others?
The most prominent destination is the Arabian Gulf because this profession spread there. Concerning foreign markets, the lack of spread of this profession is the main reason that prevents us from determining the answer accurately. However, from a general perspective, European and American people are impressed by the fact that our products are made by hand, despite the development in the world today. They appreciate very much what we manufacture.
What are the main challenges you faced while working in this handicraft, which requires high skill by its artisans?
The profession is not an industrial one made by some machine, making it hard to find a large scale of staff each day like in other industries as it is a must for the craftsman to have a natural talent that can be developed through our training to be creative.
Mr Zaher, you are currently holding courses in luxury furniture manufacturing. Do you think that these courses will preserve this art from extinction?
We are often asked to hold training workshops, especially for young people, and I am always keen to record videos explaining the stages and how to make such pieces, as our door is always open to those who want to learn the basics of this handicraft. We must spread this ancient culture and make it more global.
Our vision is to constantly head towards expanding until we reach our goal and universality. Our handicraft is no less critical than any luxurious Italian product with quality and durability.
What has Original Antique achieved over the past years? Are you satisfied with what you have presented today?
We have achieved a spread in the Arab world and parts of the Western countries, and our efforts to spread globally continue.
As an outstanding pioneer who has left a mark on their career, what advice would you give start-up pioneers?
What distinguishes the craftsman is maintaining the traditional way of this handicraft. I advise every beginner not to go towards ease in manufacturing nor to use machines in this handicraft, such as a laser machine, as this is the trap of the era of speed which would make the profession lose its spirit. Another critical point is that an artisan should follow his passion, making him innovate in the areas where he finds his ambition, ensuring his success at all levels.
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