Travelling and searching for old and antique jewellery pieces for our online business Rabari is definitely the highlight of the job.
The strength of sales alone is not enough to fund dedicated missions to the Far East to look for jewellery, so I tie it in with other trips where I lead small group motorcycle tours deep into the back lanes of India, exploring the landscapes, peoples and cultures of this incredible country.
Having previously owned an emporium in Colchester UK specialising in interiors, fashion and accessories for 15 years, for which we sourced all of our hundreds of lines of products ourselves in Asia, also served as the perfect grounding in the cultures and handicraft traditions that now help us to travel knowledgably and discover beautiful artefacts, in what for most westerners, is very difficult terrain to negotiate indeed.
Over the last 20 years I have also worked as a travel photographer in Asia supplying images to well-known publications worldwide. Mostly I use the classic old Royal Enfield motorbike that is produced in India to get around and travel to locations that very few outside visitors ever get to see.
Over the two decades that I have been working in India in all these capacities, I have made a huge network of friends and specialists from mountaineers to weavers to tribal nomads on the edge of the Thar desert and hundreds more.
When travelling in India it is important to fit in, or you will soon find yourself at the mercy of unscrupulous types who make a business out of separating tourists from their cash using both charm and wit. “Fitting in” means that the local people you visit are comfortable in your presence and you do not inadvertently upset them or shock them.
Fitting in means wearing what the local folk wear, in my case this is jeans and short sleeved shirt. In the past I used to wear the full “khadi” (hand spun and woven raw cotton) outfits, then at the end of the 90s moved into jeans and kurta until eventually with all the modernisation taking place in India, the current attire became the norm. My partner would wear full salwar kameez in the past but these days she can easily wear linen trousers with loose long sleeved cotton tops and nobody bats an eyelid.
Understanding the culture is a huge part of fitting in. This means knowing the local greetings, body language, male/female etiquette, the food, language and religion, plus of course, how to bargain.
To know this in depth takes years of experience but a surprisingly large amount of it can be picked up quickly on the hoof if you are sensitive to it.
A typical trip for me involves visiting a lot of remote rural areas where ancient traditions are still de-rigeur and therefore a heavy dose of cultural awareness is needed.
In these areas I have evolved relationships with the owners of local shops, homestays and crafts people over many years and they keep their eyes and ears open for me for any old jewellery that is being brought in from the surrounding tribal villages. Sometimes they will ask that tribes person to leave the object with them until I return, or sometimes we will ride out to that village and visit the person directly to see the pieces.
In Asia people never discuss business straight away. First come the pleasantries about how all your family are, tea and snacks are offered, the national or local economy is discussed. Eventually talk turns to the items you are interested in. At this point your every movement, gesture and spoken word is scrutinised. The people selling are in it for business, and despite the smiles and friendliness, the price can double or treble if you look like you will pay it.
Personally I love dealing with rural tribal people directly. I feel really comfortable sitting on the floor of a immaculately kept mud hut surrounded by all the embroidered textiles, blacksmith made utensils, paintings and brass gods on the home alter and the myriad of other handmade items that go to make a home in remote India.
All cooking is done over an open fire, the smoke from which is full of the fragrance of the tree or bush it came from. The tea is always made from the milk of the animal out the back, be it the cow, goat or camel and the ambiance is always of suppressed excitement. I am happy and at ease to be there and they are happy to have a foreigner in their home that is interested in their lifestyle and culture as well as hopefully about to buy something from them.
At this point please allow me to pass on two top bargaining tips for Asia. One is not to wear anything expensive including aftershave or perfume. Wearing a smart looking watch or expensive piece of jewellery will double the selling price. Secondly, is not to show any emotion when you see the piece….or this will double the price again. As I mentioned, the eyes and the ears are on you, and a gasp of “its lovely!” will cost you dear.
When the moment comes, there is a rustling as someone digs around in a lovely old wooden trunk or embroidered pouch before handing you a rough piece of cloth with something wrapped inside. As I am sure you can imagine, your heart misses a beat as you unfold the cloth to slowly reveal a shining, ancient and masterfully created, piece of silver or gold jewellery.
Yes, it is an exciting moment. Examine it gently, smile, but don’t show too much. I always pass it back (with the right hand of course) for the owner to look at again too. At this point I like to hear the story of the piece, where it came from, who made it, how old, what percentage of silver/gold, why is it here and what purpose did it play in the life and society of the previous owner?
This is where the discussion often becomes fascinating and sometimes many hours are spent chatting, and laughing. Somehow through the use of signs, sketches and broken Hindi and English, normal conversation is achieved and profound insights into the item, its historical context and the lives of the people who wore it are communicated. This is a two way street and I try to sensitively compare and contrast some of our own cultural customs in a way that these people can understand without us appearing too outlandish.
I find about five pieces per year in this way. Sometimes the item shown is too damaged, or not appealing to the eye, or not of sufficient quality. If so then I explain why this is not what I am looking for and they will endeavour to watch out for something that fits the description of what I would like. Sometimes I end up buying a hand woven or embroidered shawl, or a door hanging instead, or even an old bronze god or mask or water pot.
Usually after the discussion we will negotiate for the item. I am an old hand at it now and people often say I bargain like their grandmother. There should not be tension, firm and kind is my philosophy, and knowing what you are going to pay before you start (give or take a few pennies) is the best way forward. Country folk are not demon bargainers like those in the city and so a gentle approach is all that is necessary. Give them time to consider your offer, wait patiently while the family discusses it, each side will counter with something in the following way.
Well its old…..yes but not so old….it is good silver….well probably 80%…..it is in good condition….well it has a dent here……give me a little higher offer….ok, I’ll give you a bit more for it….ok its yours, here.
And there you have it, a piece of gorgeous treasure in your pocket, some stories and cultural knowledge in your mind, satisfaction on both sides, and often a long term friendship.
Inevitably I drop in again when I am next passing and have a cup of tea and chat. Sometimes I will have my group with me, perhaps they will buy something, either way this becomes a marvellous way of bridging distant nations in an easy going friendly manner that leads to building better international relations and cultural understanding.
This is how to make collecting and trading in jewellery and artefacts in the countries they come from a pleasure for all concerned. With careful preparation and enough time to explore the area you are interested in, you can get out to these amazing places, find beautiful things and at the same time enrich your life and the lives of the people you come across.
To see some of the treasures we have unearthed from distant travels, take a look at our website
If you fancy discovering India sedately by motorcycle www.liveindia.co.uk
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