Refashioning Egypt's Iconic Visual Symbols | The International New York Times

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CAIRO — Mud-brick houses are hardly the first image that comes to mind when one thinks of luxury jewelry, but they are precisely what Azza Fahmy reinterpreted as silver and gold brooches for her debut jewelry collection, “Houses of the Nile,” in the early 1980s.

“When people look at primitive mud-brick houses, no one imagines wearing them as a brooch,” said Ms. Fahmy, referring to the Nubian architecture to which she pays tribute in “Houses of the Nile.” “But, in my eyes, everything beautiful turns to jewelry.”

Refashioning the iconic visual symbols of her native Egypt into contemporary jewelry designs has become Ms. Fahmy’s trademark.

The story of Azza Fahmy jewelry begins at the 1969 Cairo International Book Fair, where Ms. Fahmy stumbled across a book on medieval European jewelry and instantly realized that she found her calling in jewelry design. “That book changed my life,” she said. At the time, she was working as an illustrator for government publications. “The supernatural had a hand in shaping my profession,” she said.

Thus, she began a three-year apprenticeship with Hajj Said, a goldsmith in Cairo’s medieval bazaar district, Khan el-Khalili.

“I wanted to learn the basics of actually creating jewelry — not only designing it.” she said. “This is important because if the designer doesn’t know how to physically make the piece, it impacts the design.”

Before long, she was making a few pieces herself and selling them more quickly than she could have hoped. Gradually, she was able to amass some capital and started increasing her output.

Making that leap was no easy feat for a young woman at the time. “As a wife and mother I was expected first and foremost to take care of my family and run the household — you know, the same problems women everywhere have faced for decades,” she said.

Moreover, her family could not comprehend why a university graduate like her spent her time working with craftsmen. Yet Ms. Fahmy managed to pursue her art and develop the business while fulfilling her domestic responsibilities, and eventually earned her family’s respect.

“As I started becoming successful, they became more supportive,” she said. “They were proud of my success.”

In the early 1970s, she was awarded a fellowship to study jewelry technology and manufacturing techniques at the City of London Polytechnic, which she called her “finishing school.”

Upon returning, Ms. Fahmy opened her first workshop, hired two employees and started developing her original “one woman show” into a major business. Along the way, she has acquired a high-profile, loyal clientele that includes Naomi Campbell and Queen Rania of Jordan.

Today, with over 160 employees, boutiques in Egypt, Dubai and Jordan and retailing agreements in Qatar, Bahrain, Dubai and Britain, she is recognized as Egypt’s first designer label.

Two strategic collaborations with British designers, the first in 2006 with Julien Macdonald — who worked for Chanel, Alexander McQueen and Givenchy before concentrating on his own label — and the second in 2010 with the hot design duo Preen (Justin Thornton and Thea Bregazzi), lifted Azza Fahmy’s profile beyond the Middle East.

She described these international collaborations as “great experiences” and said she hoped to do more in the future, but that she would never stray far from Egypt at heart. “If you took me out of my country I would not have any inspiration. Everything in my country inspires me,” she said.

Asked what specifically inspired her, she rejected the premise of the question, saying that it was not any single attribute but rather the cumulative legacies of the Pharaonic, Christian and Islamic civilizations in Egypt that served as her inspiration.

“My main task is transforming aspects of all these cultures — everything from textiles, to architecture, to design motifs, to ceramics, to ancient jewelry — into modern jewelry,” she said.

Last month, Ms. Fahmy introduced the Pharaonic Collection, representing “love and wisdom in ancient Egypt,” which she said she believed would become the “apex of my career and my legacy to Egypt.”

The collection comprises bold designs in gold and silver, some with precious and semi-precious stones, that refer to symbols from the Middle Kingdom (19th century B.C.) and the New Kingdom (15th to 14th century B.C.) and especially the Amarna Period (12th century B.C.). Featuring scarabs, vultures, lotus flowers, deities, hieroglyphics and other ancient Egyptian iconography, the pieces play into popular, romantic visions of Egypt.

“It was an extraordinary challenge to prepare for this collection,” said Ms. Fahmy, who spent four years researching ancient Egypt before she started designing. “I have great respect for the civilization, so I read a lot about their lifestyles, philosophy and so on.”

“They never drew a single line that didn’t have meaning,” she added, so to borrow their aesthetic traditions, “I really had to understand what they were all about.” To that end, she sought the expertise of Egyptologists and spent time studying the details of stone carvings in Luxor.

The collection was eight years in the making and the timing of its release, in the aftermath of the revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak, was unforeseen. But it could not have been better.

“Most Egyptians didn’t wear pieces with Pharaonic references, but now, as a society, we are looking back to our roots and are proud to wear Pharaonic symbols,” she said. Again referring to the supernatural hand that she believes guides her path, she added, “I don’t think the timing was a coincidence.”

Looking to the future, Ms. Fahmy said she hoped to continue to expand her business, especially in Europe and North America, where she already has a substantial following. Still, she wants to keep it family-run.

“I am lucky that my daughters are following in my footsteps,” she said. One daughter, Fatma Ghali, is managing director and handles business development and operations, and another, Amina Ghali, works as a designer.

Besides focusing on her next collections, Ms. Fahmy is developing the Aswan School Project, a program she is co-financing along with the European Union to foster exchanges between Egyptian and European designers. The project will serve as a stepping stone to opening a permanent design school in Egypt in collaboration with a European educational institution in 2013.

Excited about her “new role taking care of and teaching young artists and designers in Egypt,” she hopes they will continue her legacy of creating heritage-infused contemporary designs with international appeal.

 Published on the New York Times Website on December 6, 2011 and in the print edition of the International Herald Tribune on December 7, 2011.