CAIRO (AFP) – A Cartier ring for just eight dollars? In Egypt, “Chinese gold”– an affordable imitation of the precious metal– has swamped the jewellery market, granting the poor a little taste of luxury.
As in many other countries, the Egyptian market has been flooded with Chinese goods — everything from electronics to plastic cigarette lighters have been shouldering locally made goods out of the way.
And in a country where 40 percent of the 80 million population lives on less than two dollars a day, the so-called Chinese gold has been widely welcomed, particularly by young couples who struggle to afford the traditional marriage dowry.
The current price of one gram of 24 carat gold in Egypt stands at 218 Egyptian pounds (38 dollars), while the Chinese version — a mixture of aluminium, iron and other metals — only costs around 20 to 30 Egyptian pounds (four to five dollars) per gram.
“Chinese accessories are cheap and elegant, the styles are varied and the best thing is that they look just like gold,” said 31-year-old Amira showing off her Chinese trinket.
Ancient Egyptians considered gold the skin of gods, lending it spiritual as well social value.
A walk down Old Cairo — lined with jewellery shops — is a testament that the pharaohs’ modern-day compatriots still hold high regard for the precious metal.
But as unemployment and rising inflation weighs down on a large part of the population, Egyptians are looking to alternatives for their coquetterie.
Just a short walk from the Khan al-Khalili tourist bazaar is Haret al-Yahud, the old Jewish quarter where gold workshops churned out designs from simple wedding bands to elaborate necklaces.
But many of the jewellers there have switched to selling Chinese gold to improve business.
Amira, an accountant, says she goes to the area especially to buy herself the Chinese goods.
“They look like gold, and most importantly, they are affordable,” she said.
“Few have the means to buy real gold these days, which is why the Chinese gold is so in demand,” said a woman selling the faux-bijoux in the quarter, who gave her name only as Nora.
“We have very nice rings, imitation Chanel and Cartier for less than 50 Egyptian pounds (around eight dollars),” said Azza Riad, who, making the most of the high demand, has just opened a store in the popular Ain Shams district in northwest Cairo.
“A woman can now by herself an imitation Bulgari set which includes a bracelet, a necklace and earrings for around 150 Egyptian pounds (26 dollars),” she said.
Moreover, “these accessories have the great advantage of keeping their colour for around two years,” said Riad, who also owns a shop in Khan al-Khalili.
For young couples struggling to start a new life together, the arrival of Chinese gold has removed at least one obstacle to the costly traditions that surround marriage, including the dowry or “shabka”.
A groom is required to offer his bride a shabka of gold — or diamond for those who can afford it — in order to seal the marriage deal. This is in addition to him providing housing and furnishing a new apartment ahead of the wedding.
“More and more young couples buy just the wedding bands in real gold and then they buy the rest of the accessories in Chinese gold to complete the shabka,” said Riad.
Even many of Cairo’s more well-off residents have enjoyed the Asian import.
“I bought Chinese accessories, I wear them often. They allow you to follow fashion trends without ruining your budget,” said Faten Faltas, a stay-at-home mother from the affluent neighbourhood of Heliopolis.
“When I wear them, people think it is gold, so why not?”, she said.
But Mohamed al-Felawi, who runs a well-known jewellery shop, snubs the Chinese import, saying that to sell it diminishes a jeweller’s prestige.
“I would never sell this so-called Chinese gold in my shops. As a jeweller, it would be a scam for me to sell Chinese gold,” he said.
Some clients say they can do both, buy Chinese gold for fun and leave real gold to more serious matters, like the shabka.
“I bought earrings for 30 Egyptian pounds (five dollars), it’s almost nothing and no one can tell that it’s not real gold,” said Sylvia Tamer, 43.
But, she concedes, she would never allow her daughter to marry without having received a diamond shabka.
Wasfi Wassef, who owns a jewelry shop in Khan al-Khalili selling real gold, said his business has been hurt by the new accessories on the scene, adding that the imports could be a health hazard.
“It’s not real gold. It’s a mixture … metals which go through a chemical treatment to get their golden colour, and this treatment can cause several allergic reactions,” he said.
But doctors say Chinese gold is no more dangerous than other fake jewelry.
“Nickel can cause certain allergic reactions in people with sensitive skin. But nickel is found in many accessories, including the Chinese gold,” said Ramzi Onsi, the head of the department of dermatology in the Ahmed Maher University Hospital.