Turkey: “Syrian gold” market matches refugees’ needs, enhances economic benefit
Enab Baladi – Zeinab Masri
Khadija Ali Basha has found her own way in saving money through buying gold in Turkey over the past years. She only goes to Syrian jewelry shops out of the desire to buy 21-carat gold provided by Syrian goldsmiths, rather than the Turks.
The Syrians carried their customs of wearing and buying gold jewelry to save money to Turkey, and like them, Syrian jewelry sellers transferred their profession to Turkish markets, with their resort to it after the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in 2011.
As in Syria and many Arab countries, the Turks are active in buying gold for ornament and to keep money away from the fluctuations of the local and foreign currencies, and their traditions are usually permeated with the gifting of gold jewelry on social occasions such as weddings, engagements, or the reception of newborns.
However, the specialization of Turkish goldsmiths’ shops to provide 22-carat gold jewelry and ornaments, along with other carat (24, 18, 14-carat), contributed to the formation of a secondary market for gold in Turkey, through which Syrians sell 21-carat gold to Syrian and Arab customers in general. And they contribute to providing the state with tax funds and export revenues.
Basha, a Syrian housewife who lives in Antakya city, the center of Hatay province in southern Turkey, prefers to buy 21-carat gold because it is cheaper than Turkish gold, as the price difference between the two types is about 5 percent.
The second reason that motivates the woman to buy Syrian gold is that the price of goldsmithing in Syrian shops is cheaper than in Turkish shops, Basha told Enab Baladi.
The percentage of gold is the only difference between the so-called “Turkish gold” and “Syrian gold.” 22-carat gold contains a higher percentage of pure gold, which makes it more soft, according to what the goldsmith Mohammad al-Jamal told Enab Baladi.
The young man, originally from Jisr al-Shughour region, moved the family’s 25-year career to the Turkish city of Antakya, and six years ago he opened his shop, which is one of the shops in Turkey’s alternative gold market, which attracts Syrian customers.
“The tendency of the Syrians to buy 21-carat gold has created an alternative market for gold in Turkey. Without the presence of Syrian shops, they would have been forced to buy 22-carat gold,” the goldsmith said, adding that a modest number of Turks, acquaintances and friends, buy “Syrian gold” because they trust the jeweler, but all of his customers are Syrians who used to buy the “Syrian gold.”
According to al-Jamal, Turkish goldsmiths in the region have opened workshops for the manufacture of 21-carat gold to attract Syrian customers in spite of the different calibers, prices, and jewelry models that Syrians want to buy.
Syrian goldsmiths follow in their work the Turkish Goldsmiths Syndicate, which in turn organizes their work and sets the profit rate on the basis of capital to range between 10 and 25 percent and varies according to the piece, al-Jamal said, assuring that their work is legal and they are registered in the state and pay taxes to the government.
For his part, Amer Kendawi, another Syrian goldsmith based in Turkey, decided to sell 21-carat gold which he brought from Syria. He opened his shop in an area that includes a large gathering of Syrians.
The young man has been following his father’s work that has been going on for 40 years. He moved his shop and workshop to Antakya city in 2015, and provides some 22-carat gold, along with “Syrian gold.”
Kendawi said that pure gold is 24-carat, but it is not possible to make jewelry from it because it is soft and breaks easily, and therefore goldsmiths reduce its caliber by mixing it with copper, silver, or other metals in certain proportions.
He added that the pieces that contain many details are made of 14-carat or 18-carat because its hardness helps in making these details.
“There is no such thing as Syrian gold or Turkish gold, it is all gold,” the goldsmith objected to the designation that differentiates between the jewelry displayed in the Syrian and Turkish shops, pointing out that the gold carats are 14, 18, 21, 22, in all countries of the world.
Kendawi explained that when the Syrians came to Turkey, they needed money, which forced them to sell the saved gold, and due to the small number of Syrian goldsmiths at that time, Syrians turned to the Turkish goldsmiths, who found that “Syrian gold is strange to what they are familiar with, and despite the presence of the caliber stamp on the gold pieces, the jeweler was afraid to buy.”
This is what prompted some Turkish goldsmiths to break the price of Syrian gold and buy it at prices lower than its true value, but after the long period of the Syrians’ presence, the Turkish goldsmiths became familiar with “Syrian gold” and started buying it, without offering it for sale.
Lack of trust
The turnout of Turkish customers to buy Syrian gold is very weak and it is possible that only Turkish expatriates to the Gulf countries who know about 21-carat gold can buy it, according to Kendawi.
This is what Enab Baladi observed during the preparation of the report, as many Turkish citizens entered the goldsmiths’ shops, and despite the offer of the Syrian goldsmiths’ licenses and the reception of the Turks and their answers to their questions in a fluent Turkish language, they refrained from buying or examining the jewelry once they knew that it was made of “Syrian gold.”
According to an opinion poll by Enab Baladi, many Syrians are reluctant to buy “Turkish gold” because they are convinced that they will not be able to sell it if they travel outside Turkey or return to Syria.
The Istanbul-based Khansa al-Mulla, 24, who works in a dental laboratory, told Enab Baladi that “Turkish gold” cannot be sold outside Turkey, and its loss will be great, especially if it is purchased for the purpose of saving.
Al-Mulla added that the Turks have very high goldsmithing wages, and they use “crystalline stones of no value” in making jewelry which are calculated from the weight of gold when the customer buys the piece and not from the weight of gold when selling it, what makes the loss great, so she resorts to buy gold from Syrian shops.
In his explanation of the Syrians’ reluctance to buy 22-carat gold, Majed al-Najjar, an owner of a gold shop in the Malta market street in the Fatih district of Istanbul, drew a point that only Syrian goldsmiths know, according to his description, which is that the seal of the Turkish syndicate on gold is not the seal in Syria.
This matter prevents goldsmiths in Syria from buying gold if the Syrians want to sell it there, due to the enmity between the Syrian regime and Turkey, al-Najjar told Enab Baladi.
Here, the role of the political factor emerges, according to al-Najjar, and when the Syrians are forced to sell Turkish gold in Syria, goldsmiths can buy it as 20 or 20.5 carats, and this is a loss for the residents.
Al-Najjar, who has been working in the field for about 25 years, explained that gold in Syria is a country’s culture, “for decoration and the treasury.”
It is an adornment when it is worn on a daily basis and practically in public life and even bedtime, and a “treasury” when it is bought to save money.
He pointed out that Turkish customers do not buy “Syrian gold” because they consider it “fake” or “smuggled,” despite the fact that the workshops that Syrian goldsmiths deal with are Turkish.
Al-Najjar talked about the shift in the activity of exporting “Syrian gold” from Syria to Turkey, as the goldsmiths in Damascus and Aleppo were exporting jewelry to all the Arab world and Europe, but most of them moved from Syria to Turkey and the industry and export became from Turkey to the Arab world.
The most prominent problems faced by Syrian goldsmiths in Turkey are the instability of customers, complications related to identification papers, and the sector’s vulnerability for nearly three years now.
The Syrians’ expenses have recently increased as a result of the decline in the Turkish lira, and they are no longer able to save as before, which has negatively affected the work of jewelers, in addition to the decrease in the number of Syrians with the deportation campaigns that started in 2019.
According to al-Najjar, the number of Syrian goldsmiths in Istanbul is about 100, providing services to about 700,000 people in the province.
Warning against buying “Syrian gold”
On 10 March 2021, the head of the Chamber of Goldsmiths in Gaziantep Province, Sedat Özdinç, warned couples against buying “low-carat Syrian gold” and counterfeit gold.
Özdinç’s warning came with expectations of an increase in gold sales during the period that accompanied the return to normal life in Turkey, after the measures that were followed in the country to limit the spread of Covid-19 pandemic.
The Turkish official said, in statements reported by Turkish media at the time, that there is a big difference in the price between 21-carat gold, known as “Syrian gold” and 22-carat Turkish gold, and both goldsmiths and gold buyers should pay attention, pointing out that it is difficult to distinguish between the two types of gold even by experts.
In Gaziantep, there are 53 Syrian jewelers who generally sell 21-carat gold, and they sell bracelets made in the city’s workshops, and Syrians generally buy them, according to Özdinç.
Those who want to buy should realize that “Syrian gold” is of low caliber and is cheaper than the gold sold by Turkish goldsmiths. They should also pay attention to the caliber stamp and concession licenses, according to what he added, noting that the 875 stamp means 21-carat gold and the 916 stamp means 22-carat gold.
According to Özdinç, there are many victims of “fake” gold, and citizens should definitely shop from places they know and trust so as not to fall into this situation.
There are no official statistics on the number of Syrian goldsmiths working in Turkey, but statements by the head of the Istanbul Gold Exchange (IAB), Serdar Çıtak, in a report to NTV channel on 2 February, stated that 250,000 people work in the gold trade sector in Turkey, the number of goldsmiths is 47,000, without specifying the number of Syrians, which is a large number, as the number of branches of the largest bank in Turkey is 1,500.
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