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Rising Prices, Lack of Skilled Carvers to Blame : Bethlehem's Centuries-Old Mother-of-Pearl Art Dying

December 13, 1985|DAN FISHER | Times Staff Writer

BETHLEHEM, Israeli-occupied West Bank — Two of the finest items in the jewelry and souvenir store that George Tabash runs with his son, Edward, off Manger Square here are tucked away in a drawer that normal customers never see, not for sale at any price.

One is an intricate mother-of-pearl leaf design about the size of cigarette lighter. The other is a filigreed, circular frame of the same material and slightly larger. A local craftsman painstakingly carved both of them more than 200 years ago.

"They used to ask him: 'What did you do today?' " the elder Tabash said of the artisan. "He'd say: 'I finished four holes.' " Compared to those pieces, the modern mother-of-pearl souvenirs that Tabash offers in his shop are elementary--almost crude.

"Art is something a person has in the blood," the elderly merchant said as he lovingly wrapped the pieces and put them back in their special drawer. "He doesn't do it for money. And you don't find people like that today."

What George Tabash was mourning was more than the passing of Old World craftsmanship, however. It was the demise of a centuries-old Bethlehem industry that he and others say is unlikely to survive more than another decade because of rising prices and a lack of skilled labor.

Mother-of-pearl is the hard, smooth internal layer of certain marine shells, such as those of the pearl oyster and abalone. How the craft of carving it found its way to the Judean Hills and dusty, landlocked Bethlehem is not at all clear.

Mayor Elias Freij says the carving of mother-of-pearl was introduced here by Italian Crusaders sometime between the 11th and 13th centuries. They supposedly brought shells with them to use for barter.

Others contend that it all began with a Franciscan monk who carved mother-of-pearl as a hobby.

According to Franciscan historian P. Bellarmino Bagatti, in the book "Custodians of the Holy Land," a late 16th-Century visitor to Bethlehem found residents manufacturing olive wood crosses with mother-of-pearl decoration. An Italian architect of the same period built mother-of-pearl models of sacred buildings in the Holy Land, according to Bagatti.

However it began, Bethlehem became famous as a center of the craft. Models of churches and mosques, inlaid in Bethlehem with mother-of-pearl, are on display in museums throughout the world.

Tabash recalls someone from Venice bringing him a mother-of-pearl cross to be repaired. According to the inscription on the back, it had been carved in 1835 by a Bethlehem craftsman named Hanna Suliman Rock.

Other specialties were intricate mother-of-pearl covers for Bibles and Korans. The 200-year-old circular frame that Tabash still treasures was intended, he said, as part of a Bible cover for a Russian czar.

Presidents and kings have had replicas of their official seals made here, and Elias Giacaman, the 75-year-old proprietor of the Holy Land Arts Museum on Manger Square, proudly displays a thank-you note he received for a piece he had made for Pope Pius XII.

The mother-of-pearl special order business dried up in the 1950s. But as recently as 25 years ago, according to Mayor Freij, "at least" 500 people in Bethlehem made their livings carving mother-of-pearl souvenirs and religious articles for tourists and for export. Today, he added, there are fewer than 100.

"At one time, we had 70 to 80 workers in our own factory," added the mayor's son, Michel, who runs the family's souvenir manufacturing and export business. Today, Freij Pearl Works employs 12 people.

One problem is price. A modest-sized picture made from tiny mother-of-pearl tiles retails for $600 at Giacaman's store. A small mother-of-pearl star costs $23.

On display at the Freij family shop on Manger Square is a mother-of-pearl replica of the Dome of the Rock shrine that stands four feet high and retails for $4,000. Michel Freij said they sell one or two a year to customers from Arab countries.

"We used to get a ton of shells for less than $400," said the elder Freij, whose firm imports most of its shells from Australia. "Now, a ton of shells landed here is $10,000. Workers used to get $1 a day. Now they get $1 an hour." "$1.50 an hour," Michel Freij corrected .

Giacaman complained that the guides who direct tourists into their stores demand a commission of up to 40%. "I'm not supposed to say that, but it's true."

Automation has come to olive wood carving, Bethlehem's other major souvenir industry. Few olive wood statues and plaques are hand-carved any more, and prices are down. But hand labor still predominates in the mother-of-pearl industry.

One result is that olive wood passed mother-of-pearl in sales volume more than a decade ago. Today, said Freij, Bethlehem merchants sell $3 million worth of olive wood articles yearly at retail and $2 million worth of mother-of-pearl.

But more threatening than high prices is the disappearance of skilled mother-of-pearl craftsmen.

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