The Phoenicians first manufactured bronze knives before moving to the use of more noble metals like silver and gold. Archeologists have found a strikingly handsome and modern silver knife incrusted with gold, in a royal tomb in Byblos dating from the 19th century B.C.
At present, the center of handicraft cutlery is in Jezzine, tucked away on the slopes of Tumat Niha, in the south of the country, amidst majestic mountains, vibrant orchards and imposing waterfalls.
Jezzine workshops use materials like ivory, and buffalo, goat or sheep horns, as well as stainless steel, silver steel and copper. The shape of the cutlery objects manufactured there is quite unique: the handle made of horn material represents a bird scratching his chest with his beak. The bird’s wings are made of copper and his head is mounted by a tuft made of bone material and dyed in red.
Many of the artisan workshops fashion each item by hand, from the very first step to the last. Only around ten families in Jezzine are masters of this trade. A Jezzine cutlery craftsman can only manufacture six to seven pieces per day.
The traditional cutlery was born in 1770 when the Haddad family settled in that quintessential town. Its production consisted at that time of army rifles, knives and steel blade swords. In 1930, the artisans developed the cutlery business by creating handles with birds heads made of bones and buffalos’ horns. These handles were inlaid with colored bones & brass and were applied to spoons, forks, Knives, paper-knives, and daggers.
This unique traditional craft is so well regarded that it has been presented by Lebanese presidents and officials to dignitaries all over the world beginning with the Ottoman Sultans in the 18th century. These crafts hold within each piece the authentic spirit of Lebanon: History, Culture and Beauty. What adds tremendous value to these crafts is the eye for design and style. In fact, these handicraft creations are craved in the shape of a Phoenix bird, and vibrantly painted and as a proof of quality, each single piece is Stamped “S&S Haddad ” with the Lebanese cedar.
These handmade wares with their “phoenix” handles are synonymous with Jezzine. The design behind the firebird pattern changes from family to family but the story is the same. The latest, master of this art, is Samir Haddad, who died 28 January 2015 at the age of 84. He was praised for his skills and art by many people.
Traditionally the black firebird handles were carved from dusty brown cow or bull-horns that when polished, transform into a lustrous jet-black color. There was a time when these raw materials were brought from France, Germany, Italy, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, now however, they are mainly found locally. The white firebird handles were made of camel bone and sourced from Egypt, Iraq and Syria, as well as Beirut, Ebel Saki, Jezzine and Tripoli within Lebanon. The stainless steel is usually from either Italy or France. The firebirds are decorated with thin colored resin pipes in hues of light grey, teal, soft blue, red, black, white, yellow and green, as well as pure silver sheets and brass, both of which are sourced directly from Lebanon to support domestic production.
Founded in 1770, Haddad Cutlery uses artificial materials for the intricate handles because of cost and efficiency. Part of its charm are the resulting ‘ribboned’ striations of different shades of color. Some cutlery items occasionally have flecks of gold luster, cleverly integrated into the bird design. A main element in their “phoenix” inlay work is brass.
It is becoming difficult to source natural materials due to increased global eco-consciousness and its endangerment to animals. Furthermore, natural bone cutlery requires nearly double the work and is nearly double the price. When handmade with natural materials, the average time to make a single “phoenix” bird from whittling to polishing is about 45 minutes. Factories work 6 – 8 hour days and make a total of 8 -12 pieces per person. The family’s passion for this labor of love has trickled down through the generations.
Light reflects off this handmade cutlery in the heart of the South and everything is still. There is beauty in creating with one’s hand, an item that is forever Lebanon. Those still objects carefully handcrafted have soared above the skies and landed in homes here and beyond. This symbolic bird arises from the ashes of our past, leaving the hurt behind and rising strong and powerful, just like this little piece of land.
Take the heart, travel the sky, the day will come, somehow, I don’t know when, when this phoenix will be allowed to soar again.