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Gem of a museum
Ancient artefacts and the world's most dazzling bras in an old palace
The (too) little known Robert Mouawad Private Museum could rank as Beirut’s equivalent of the Tower of London: it houses the world’s second largest diamond. While relatively small, it is must see and that not only for diamond and jewellery lovers. One of the most interesting aspects is that it reminds visitors of ancient trade routes: Chinese porcelain, a Coran printed in Germany, and carafes and nargileh made in Bohemia…
Built by Philippe Pharaon, the neogothic palace was transformed by his son Henri, a banker like his father but also a diplomat and the first director of Beirut’s Hippodrome, would travel across Syria in search of the best thoroughbreds. Besides horses, Henri Pharaon discovered and fell in love with Islamic art. This new passion led to the transformation of the palace and the addition of wood panels, tiles, Chinese porcelain, as well as copper and glass objects.
Robert Mouawad used to head the famous Mouawad jewellery empire and is a diamond and antique gem collector who bought the building in 1999. In 2005 it opened its doors as a museum, housing some of the artifacts the previous owners have acquired as well as some of his gems.
Upon entering the property, one finds oneself in a lush garden filled with almost as many palm trees as Byzantine columns. Inside the museum, it is difficult to grasp all the details, colours, materials, motifs, eras and geographies at play.
The dining room, the first room on the left on the ground floor, boasts the de facto first Lebanese flag: the sketch made by Henri Pharaon and other Lebanese leaders of what would effectively become the national flag of Lebanon. There is a spectacularly carved stone chimney that originates from the Kouatli Palace in Damascus, Syria in the late 18th century as well as the heads of Roman sculptures, and a 16th century Orthodox iconostasis from Asia Minor is mounted on top of the door. Like in all rooms, the ceilings are works of art; carved and painted in magnificent colours and patterns.
Displayed in the other rooms, visitors can find Islamic pottery, pilgrims’ flasks as well as bracelets and bottles made out of glass, bowls and metal objects, found in present-day Syria, Iran, Egypt, and Turkey between the 12th and 19th centuries.
Two rooms are dedicated to Chinese porcelain that miraculously made its way along the Silk Road between the 15th and 19th centuries.
An additional two rooms on the ground floor that would many years ago have boasted a splendid sea view, are dedicated to Mouawad’s creations and collections. These include antique jewellery – watches, bracelets, tiaras, rings, cufflinks, necklaces dating back to the 19th century and throughout various decades of the 20th.
Whether or not lingerie is your thing, take a look at the replica of Mouawad’s 2007 Very Sexy Holiday Fantasy Bra Gift Set, consisting of a bra, a slip, a bracelet, garters and a hair clip, fitted with almost 9000 diamonds, rubies, emeralds and yellow sapphires all together 1662 carats, and valued at a dizzying US$4.5. Which a wealthy man bought for his young wife… There’s also the dazzling $10m Royal Fantasy Bra modelled by Candice Swanepoel in 2013.
Among the highlights upstairs are a copy of the first printed Coran (made in Hamburg, Germany), dating back to 1694, some Aleppine Melkite icons and a beautiful gallery filled with Phoenician statuettes found in South Lebanon, dated 5th to 9th centuries, and Islamic pottery in stunning hues of blue, from Syria and Mesopotamia, between 600 and 800 years old.