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All that glitters

  • Published at 03:33 pm July 12th, 2018
  • Last updated at 05:38 pm July 12th, 2018

The true story of fake jewellery in Bangladesh

The shop is illuminated by bright, warm light that paints everything with a Midas brush – the glass, the furniture, even the skin of the people in it, seems to turn into gold. You’d be right to think I was talking about a jewellery shop, but if you were to step into this one assuming everything that looked like gold actually was so, you’d be mistaken.  

The yellow brick road

Gold jewellery has been considered a status symbol around the world.

The scarcity of this precious metal has been driving up prices, and forcing many jewellery shops out of business. Ten years ago, a ‘bhori' (11.66grams) of gold cost around Tk10,000. This price rose to almost Tk65,000 before stabilizing somewhat to a price under Tk,50,000. These rash fluctuations convinced many shop owners to switch to silver, which in turn drove up silver prices. 

“Imitation” or costume jewellery made from non-precious metals – used to be considered inferior. But when the rising prices of gold and silver made owning and wearing jewellery made of the same a security risk, as these were lucrative to hijackers and thieves, costume jewellery, which is both cheaper and safer, began to gain wider acceptance.  

It’s natural to assume that the costume jewellery, like its precious-metal counterparts, is also imported from countries like China or India. It might surprise you to learn 90-95% of all beautiful coloured, gold plated, stone-embellished jewellery available locally is made right here in Bangladesh, that too, in the village of Bhakurta, a few hours’ drive from the capital. Over 10,000 residents are connected, in some form or other, to this business. In this village, no one is out of a job because of this occupation. 

All in the family

Situated only 27 kilometers from Dhaka, Bhakurta sparkles with its jewellery business. It’s a short drive from anywhere in the capital, or, if one is inclined, one can go to Hemayetpur and take an auto-rickshaw to reach there.

Like most other villages in the country, it is green, serene, and crowd-free. But when one reaches the heart of the jewellery market, it's totally a different story. Here, it is alive with the sounds of industry as metal is woven into objects of beauty.

In Bhakurta Bazar, there are well over 300 shops offering an array of costume jewellery. Every shop has at least 3-12 workers at their disposal.  Chandana Rani, Archana Rani, and Sharifa Begum mention how women are also affiliated with the business. “Even our children work in the trade, and we are able to send them to school and pay for tuition”. The wage for working on a single bhori of jewellery is about Tk200, and the average artisan earns some Tk3-500 daily.

Although the jewellery business here has been around for decades, it really took off as the price of gold sky-rocketed. Most of the workers here gathered experience from their predecessors who used to work with gold and then silver. And a lot of these veterans had previously worked at the Tanti Bazar, which is famous for its jewellery work. 

The profession was initially taken up by Hindus, but later Muslims became interested in it as it became a popular source of income, says jeweller Anwar Hossain (40). “Even a few decades ago, there were jobless and starving residents. At present, the jewellery business here is stable and creating jobs for other people too. Over 10,000 people are working in this profession in Bhakurta.” Work continues, with the flicker of flames and the banging, clanging and hammering of a village proud of their heritage and grateful for gainful employment.

Alloys and allies

Bhakurta artisans are very crafty with their steady hands. They are just not steady, they are fast too. A single bangle is only a day’s work for one labourer. But with the metalworkers arranged in an assembly system, whereby single tasks like cutting the wire, or putting the beads together or, powdering or maybe polishing, are specialized, 12-15 bangles can be made in a single day. 

The metal in use is a delicate alloy of copper, brass and steel, which the locals simply refer to as “metal”. Lokman Hossain, who used to work in Saudi Arabia, but now has his own workshop, employing some eight workers, mentions that they buy this metal from Tanti Bazar, Old Dhaka along with all the accessories they need such as copper wire, beads, stones, etc. All of these accessories come from India.

Despite playing with fire all day, sickness is rare. Mahmud Hossain (40), a worker at Lokman Hossain’s shop mentioned said that their predecessors used wooden logs to create fires, but this would create a lot of fumes which led to breathing and vision problems. Currently, the workers use oxy acetylene gas cans. All the fumes are gone and their efficiency has increased exponentially. 

A golden future?

The price of a pair of imitation gold bangles is only Tk1200-1500 after colouring and polishing. A similar one in gold would cost Tk40,000 taka. So, for big occasions such as wedding receptions or 'gaye holud', budget-conscious consumers are switching to costume jewellery to save money without compromising on style.

Lokman Hossain here claims that up to 95% of the imitation ornaments found in the capital are supplied from Bhakurta. Various jewellers in the capital support these claims. The craftsmen stated that alongside jewellers, they get private clients who come with big orders. Everyone is treated the same.

The rise of gold prices not only created a huge demand in this area but also made them popular amongst the middle-income consumers. The Bhakurta jewellers say they are usually busy during Eid and Puja but their peak season is winter, when a lot of weddings take place. Mahmud Hossain mentions that during Eid and Puja, a worker could rake in some Tk40,000 by the end of the season, as everyone is engaged day and night to meet the rising demand.

Bhakurta's imitations have seen their ups and downs but now at a stable condition, the time is ripe for the business to go farther. The off seasons see a lot of the craftsmen sitting idly counting days till the busy months. The artisans mention that only two banks that they know of, offer loans to invest in the business, but the loan amount is as low as Tk1 lakh. “A handsome loan would really help us expand the business” says Lokman Hossain.

While they are currently fulfilling the demands of the domestic market, with some initiative and support, they could make a serious bid for the global market and this is what the jewellers here are rooting for.