CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptians once considered it the skin of the gods, and lavished it on their ancient pharaohs as they passed to the afterlife.
But today, with its soaring price, gold is putting a strain on the age-old tradition of marriage as couples struggle to afford “shabka,” a ritual gift of gold jewelry considered a vital part of weddings across the Arab world.
Beset by high unemployment, rising inflation, and monthly salaries that often fall below $50 a month, many poorer couples are renting the gold rings and bangles they need to wed.
“People cannot stop getting married, so renting jewelry is the best solution for your wallet and the bride’s prestige,” said Ayman Wahba, 27-year-old teacher.
“Before, the idea of getting married without shabka was almost unthinkable, but with a weak economy and unaffordable gold prices, many parents sacrifice gold for their daughters’ happiness.”
The expense of shabka — which always includes a gold ring — must be borne by the groom, who presents it to his bride-to- be to a chorus of “oohs” and “aahs” from family and friends.
In Egypt, prices for shabka depend on families’ financial means. A bride’s family may request a shabka from just $600 — for a wedding band and two bangles — to $8,000 or more for an entire set of gold jewelry and a diamond ring.
But many in Egypt’s lower-income brackets say if men were unable to hire the shabka for about $40 for their wedding night, marriage would be almost impossible.
“A man can take up two decades to save for this gift and other marriage requirements,” said housewife Hayam Ibrahim, who herself used rented jewelry on her wedding night.
“Families realize this and are willing to cooperate and break away from the emotional attachment with gold.”
The word “shabka” originates from the verb “to tie,” and signifies a bond between the couple and the bride’s value.
Many also see it as financial insurance in case the bride’s family faces financial crisis or she gets divorced — an important cushion in Egypt, where, despite booming economic growth, inflation and unemployment averaging around 10 percent mean many in the lower classes find it hard to make ends meet.
Men who have the means to marry are in increasingly short supply, while many women from their early 20s to early 30s search anxiously for Mr. Right.
Informal figures from Cairo University’s statistics department indicate a decline in marriages, with 600,000 marriage contracts signed in 2006 against 681,000 in 2005.
And with gold prices now at around $658 an ounce, a 27 percent rise since the start of 2006, shabka is making it more and more difficult for couples to tie the knot without renting.
“It is a common story to see a marriage being called off because of the shabka,” said Sherif Sami, a 32-year-old engineer. “So to see more families giving up this very traditional marriage custom is a relief.”
In a jewelry shop packed with couples on al-Sagha street, a relatively poor area of Cairo, bride-to be Randa Abdel Hamid rents a gold necklace, a pair of earrings and four bangles — all made from 21-carat gold — for her wedding night.
“We all love gold and any girl would want to keep it for as long as she can, so it’s not easy to know that in the first week of your new life you have to give your shabka back,” she said.
“But life is all about the choices you make, and in this case I think a wise woman will choose her happiness over a traditional custom or a materialistic passion.”
While the new trend is helping more people tie the knot and helping families show off at an affordable price, goldsmiths say they are struggling.
“Bridal jewelry seasons are the backbone for our survival,” said George Mallak, a Cairo gold maker. “With many opting for jewelry rental, we are facing a serious problem.”
Last year, gold demand fell by 21 percent to 60.1 metric tons, according to the World Gold Council, and an official at the Federation of Egyptian Industries’ Gold Division said the trend was shaking Egypt’s image as a home of gold lovers.
Egypt’s gold heritage is rich. Ancient Egyptians used it as a day-to-day ornament and buried their pharaohs bedecked with the precious metal: the famous funerary mask and coffin of pharaoh king Tutankhamen was made from 110 kilograms of pure gold.
But nowadays, smitten couples who rent shabka say even older generations see true love as more important than worldly wealth.
“I told my mother when my fiance proposed that it is easy to live without a piece of metal but it is unbearable to live without the one you love,” said Ahlam Kamel, a 27-year-old bride to be. “After many fights, she became convinced.”