Azza Fahmy – Egyptian Designer Extraordinaire

 

 

Everyone has their own way of telling a story. Azza Fahmy tells hers through her jewelry. She creates her designs when something inspires her to pour her heart and soul into a project. “That’s why my jewelry has such an impact on people.”

It all began with a book on medieval European jewelry. The book was in German, and quite expensive at the time, but when Azza Fahmy laid her eyes on it, she knew she had to have it. “It was like the light at the end of the tunnel,” the Egyptian designer tells us with radiant eyes.

Nearly 46 years have passed since Azza Fahmy bought that book. At the time, she had just finished her degree as an interior designer and was preparing to round off her studies with a degree in applied arts. But then the book crossed her path and changed her life: She decided to do something unheard of for a woman in Egypt in those days. She went to the Khan El Khalili bazaar, Cairo’s oldest jewelry district, to learn the art of jewelry design at the source. “It was a journey of discovery for me,” Azza Fahmy reveals, “and it helped me find myself.” She uncovered her passion for jewelry making that, in time, would make her Egypt’s most celebrated jewelry designer.

The woman in overalls caused a minor sensation

She caused a minor sensation back then. An educated woman who donned a pair of overalls to learn the tricks of the trade in the male-dominated workshops of the bazaars. “Every day, people peered through the doorway to gawp at me,” Azza Fahmy remembers with a smile.

Her first creations were flat silver rings with simple motives. Today, Azza Fahmy is renowned for her sophisticated ornaments and detailed motives. With her unmistakable signature style, these creations are more than simply pieces of gold or silver jewelry. Their singularity lies in their unique blending of cultural, traditional, and modern values – which makes each piece a work of art in its own right.

Every day people peered through the doorway to gawp at me.

Azza Fahmy opened her first store in 1981. At the start, she worked with two employees in a small apartment in Bulaq, a modest district in Cairo’s center. For 20 years, she did almost everything herself, both designing and making the jewelry. Over time, however, the brand evolved, and today it is an Egyptian luxury brand of international repute, with seven Azza Fahmy stores located in Cairo alone. The brand is also available internationally, even in the British Museum in London, where, in 2012, Azza Fahmy created a custom-made collection based on historic reflections on Islamic pilgrimages to Mecca and the sacred rites involved.

Each piece passes through her hands

Currently, 200 employees work for the brand. The design team alone, led by Azza Fahmy’s younger daughter, Amina Ghaly, has a staff of 22. “I really miss making things myself,” Azza Fahmy says. Even so, each piece passes through her hands: No ring, no necklace, no earring, no bracelet is released for sale before Azza Fahmy has inspected and authorized it. “Every detail has to be perfect on a good piece of jewelry,” the designer tells us.

Not just jewelry inspires me – fabrics, doors, windows, architecture, poetry, and literature do, too.

Since 2005, when Amina Ghaly became a part of the team, she and her mother have worked together to design the three collections that come onto the market every year. Together the two women also designed the jewelry showcased at designer Matthew Williamson’s catwalk show at the London Fashion Week in February 2015. Her older daughter, Fatma Ghaly, is managing director of the family business. “I have passed my DNA onto both of my daughters,” Azza Fahmy proudly declares. “They have learned everything I could teach them, and our cultural heritage and our traditions are as important to them as they are to me. I placed a lot of value on that.”

Azza Fahmy draws inspiration for her designs and collections from her travels, but also from books, of which her library houses over 4,000. “Not just jewelry inspires me – fabrics, doors, windows, architecture, poetry, and literature do, too.” Jewelry with Egyptian poems engraved on them or fragments of lyrics by famous Egyptian singer Um Kalthoum became her signature style. Her first large collection in the 1980s was a tribute to her country’s architectural heritage.

Some collections require years of fact finding

For her research, Azza Fahmy travels across the globe, documenting, photographing, and investigating her topics meticulously. It can take years for one of her “culture collections” to be finalized. To create a sophisticated Pharaonic bracelet Azza Fahmy researched Pharaonic art for eight years. Then it took three years before she was satisfied with the design. And another four months to produce the bracelet.

To this day, all of Azza Fahmy’s pieces of jewelry are handcrafted. In her large production hall on the outskirts of Cairo, artisans sit in a big open space, each at their own worktable. Each worker is responsible for one production step, which is their particular specialization. One only works on stones, while another only produces Roman chains. It can take up to 30 days to produce just one meter of necklace.

Traditional artisanship should not be lost, but new technologies must also be taken on board and applied.

Education and training are an important foundation of Azza Fahmy’s work and success – and her second passion after designing jewelry. “Crafting skills should be something that deserves respect,” she states. In her company, master artisans and apprentices work hand in hand, something that regretfully remains a rare occurrence in latter-day Egypt. The designer is currently collaborating with the government to improve vocational training in Egypt, and she also writes books to make her know-how more widely available. In 2013, she founded the Azza Fahmy Design Studio, where the next generation of jewelry designers learns the trade. This school is the first of its kind in the region and aims to train its graduates to be competitive on the international market.

While it is the designer’s firm belief that traditional artisanship should not be lost, she also feels that new technologies should be taken on board and applied. In the bazaars of Cairo, techniques haven’t changed these last 50 years. “It limits potential,” says Azza Fahmy.

Her greatest dream is to help her country in this matter and to promote vocational training. No small task, but Azza Fahmy is prepared to give it her all. Because, as she says emphatically: “If you take my dreams away, I die.”

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