Mohammed Razeen Salih (Sally) the celebrated jeweller from Sri Lanka has passed away aged 80. Razeen Salih passed away whilst travelling in Chennai, India and was buried in Chennai earlier this week.

Mr Salih started his commercial career working under that advertising giant Anandatissa De Alwis and appeared to have a promising career in advertising introducing novel concepts. He went to India for training and on his return was approached by his brother in law Idroos Noordeen to assist him in expanding his gem trading business overseas. He was based in Hong Kong and proved an invaluable asset.

There he met the apparent scion of the Henry Sena family, daughter Sita Sena – whose family business was based in the Thai capital, Bangkok. H Sena was an old established jeweller with intrinsic links to Chairman Mao in China, Malaysia and Singapore.

That old bone of contention – differing religions – played a small role: nevertheless Sita Sena and Razeen Salih were married not too long after that. Together they setup Oriental Jewellers in Bangkok, based at a hotel of some repute. Henry Sena who apparently was not too pleased that his daughter had found her own partner left the couple alone but as later events showed had kept a close watch on the progress of the young couple.

Razeen and Saida (Sita Sena’s adoptive name in deference to her husband’s Islamic roots) proved to be a wholly unmatchable team. Their store in Bangkok was an out and out success and before long they had purchased their own home. Razeen Salih’s legendary customer service delivery and prudent salesmanship was matched by Saida’s natural talent for creating masterpiece jewellery items using the finest of cut precious stones.

Much before the word reconciliation became the vogue in Sri Lanka, Henry Sena invited his son-in-law for a chat in which he disclosed his amazement at the progress and success his daughter and her husband had made. He readily handed over the rights to the H.Sena & Co name and gave the young couple a generous slice of his own fortune which by then was substantial.

In a move that he would regret for much of his life thereafter, Razeen Salih met with Sir John Kotelawala in Europe who advised Razeen to make a mark in Sri Lanka the country of his birth. Folklore has it that Henry Sena’s bequest or belated wedding present to his daughter and her husband was so large (at the time reputed to have been a USD 1 Million package) that in a deal brokered in part by Sir John Kotelawala Razeen Salih purchased the majority interest in the Mount Lavinia Hotel. In the process he is supposed to have made the single largest individual foreign direct investment into Sri Lanka of USD 500,000. In this purchase he sought the help of his brother Farouk Sally who was by then a Group Director at the highly acclaimed Maharaja Organisation. In spite of the advice of the Maharaja brothers that he stay with the Group, Farouk left to take on the running of the Hotel. The brothers opened the first cabanas in Sri Lanka which Farouk had spotted on his travels for the Maharaja Group. Their relationship with the Bandaranaike government fell under the hammer with the CJC Commission and the investment in the Mount Lavinia hotel proved a disappointment even if the brothers had secured the international hotel chain Hyatt International to be the management company. Razeen Salih’s love affair with Sri Lanka ended there only to be briefly revived with the election of JR Jayawardena as the Prime Minister and later President. One of the first moves that Jayawardena made was to pardon those involved in the CJC Enquiry paving the way for Razeen Salih to return to the island – with his young family at the insistence of the new Prime Minister. In so doing Mr Jayawardena was to prove to the politically sceptical Saida that he was not – as declared by Saida Salih at a function in Bangkok in honour of the visiting Opposition leader – “the same as all politicians”. In fact at his residence in Colombo Mr Jayawardena was to remind Saida of her scepticism by smilingly saying “all politicians are not the same now are they Madam?”!

Under the stewardship of Razeen and Saida H Sena & Co became the crown jewellers to the King & Queen of Thailand with the then Queen becoming de-facto Godparents to their twin daughters replete with Thai names for the girls.

Razeen Salih struck up a friendship with the long standing Saudi Arabian envoy to Thailand, Sheikh Ghalib Samman who introduced him to leading personalities in Saudi Arabia. By 1980 the Salih’s had teamed up with Sheikh Abdullah Omar Mahdi an early Saudi billionaire with close links to the Prince who would later become King Fahad. Razeen Salih enjoyed a lifelong friendship with members of the King Faisal branch of the Al-Saud family counting several as his personal friends.

Together with Sheikh Abdullah Omar Mahdi and his wife, Razeen and Saida – who were sometimes referred to in Thailand as the ‘Cartiers of the East’ – opened the first ever Jewellery superstore in Jeddah the commercial capital of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Oriental Jewellers store in Jeddah was a purpose built facility replete with 4 never-seen before showrooms set around a magnificent indoor fountain. There was a showroom for antiques including rare collectibles from China, silver, silverware and crystal showroom stocked with the finest including much of the Georg Jensen collection, a dedicated showroom for the finest of Swiss watches including the Patek Philippe brand which H Sena had represented in Bangkok and of course a fabulously appointed jewellery showroom which took the Saudi elite by storm. The facility also included purpose built luxury accomodation for their production and sales colleagues from Sri Lanka, a full production workshop and apartments for in-house use. The 1980’s proved heady days for the Salih duo. They were frequent travellers on Concorde although they rarely flew together unless the entire family were travelling as one.

In 1980/1981 Razeen Salih wrote himself into the Guinness Book of World Records when he purchased the ‘Polar Star’ diamond which was mounted on a ring. Previous ownership was with Joseph Bonaparte brother of Napoleon. The price Razeen Salih paid at the Christies Auction in Geneva amounted to a then world record per carat price for a diamond: all of GBP 2.1 million including buyers premium.

True to form, Razeen Salih never disclosed the price he sold the diamond for – except to say that the buyer was a high ranking Saudi government official who had told Razeen Salih that he made the purchase for his wife – who was apparently very happy for all of thirty minutes.

A life-long philanthropist Razeen Salih helped a plethora of causes. He bemoaned the loss of his business partner, friend and wife Saida in the mid 90’s and spent more time amongst his Saudi Arabian friends who considered him an integral part of their own family. His homes in Bangkok, Colombo, London, Philadelphia and Canada increasingly took on lesser roles as he found solace and peace of mind in his religion and felt happiest when in Saudi Arabia.

We asked him years ago why he had been unable to include amongst his clientele the billionaire Prince Waleed. Yes, he said after several years of trying a friend secured for him an appointment with the Prince. Within sight of the palace, his almost new BMW suffered a puncture. By the time his driver Abdullah had done the change Razeen Salih arrived late for the meeting. Apologising to the Prince’s secretary and explaining the problem Razeen Salih was asked to wait for the next slot some 45 minutes later. The Prince wanted all the items placed on display including a rare collection of Patek Philippe watches. After looking at the display for a while, he had told Razeen, “I will take the lot”. Not so much taken aback but used to the opulence of decision-making Razeen had ventured, “you don’t know the price yet” to which came the rebound “ I trust you so I will pay you cost plus 10% for the lot”. Razeen was at his near-best, “The Patek Philippe collection can’t be on those terms as they would not agree” – The Prince was at his best, “The deal Mr Razeen is then off. I want the Patek’s too”.

We asked if he was disappointed. Razeen Salih’s eyes twinkled and his answer was a smile. Several of his close Saudi friends including Sheikh Abduklaziz Rajab referred to Razeen as Sheikh Razeen bestowing upon this man from a tiny little island an honorific title out of love and real friendship.

Razeen Salih is survived by his twin daughters and five grandchildren.

Lala salama, Sheikh Razeen Salih.