As international jewelry sensation Azza Fahmy gets ready to launch her new jewelry collection for British designer Matthew Williamson next month, ET visits her Design Studio to see how she’s passing on her expertise to her students.
By Dominika Maslikowski
Long dangling earrings made of gold and silver stars were a bold accent on models who walked the runway in February as quirky British designer Matthew Williamson debuted his Autumn/Winter collection during London’s Fashion Week. But if you looked closer, the jewelry’s repetitive patterns and intricate metalwork showed the Eastern-inspired style of a renowned Egyptian jeweler who got her training in Khan El-Khalili. The eleven-piece jewelry collection, which will launch in May, is the second collaboration between Williamson and the Egyptian jewelry design house Azza Fahmy.
“It was time for us from a strategic standpoint to do a fashion collection. We really wanted to [start] a fashion collaboration and the criteria to pick a designer was tricky because you wanted someone who understood the brand,” explains designer Amina Ghali, Fahmy’s daughter. “Williamson’s attention to detail and inspiration from other cultures was very familiar to us. For the second collaboration, we brainstormed with Williamson in London and he was doing star motifs, which we’ve done a lot of over the years so we began to make the motif fit his clothes. The stars [we designed] are modern, but inspired by Eastern culture. From a distance they look very rock and modern, but when you look at details you see the Azza Fahmy DNA.”
Craftsmen at the Azza Fahmy workshop in 6th of October have been at work for months on the new collection. Bent over worn wooden desks, they twist hair-thin slivers of silver into tiny swirls that are then glued inside the stars of a long necklace using the ancient technique of filigree. Others work on hoop earrings bearing star motifs reminiscent of Islamic art. Machines in the back of the workshop can press down on a piece of silver sheet to thin it out or stretch it into finer wire, while others stamp metal with Um Kulthum quotes or poetry for pendants and rings. Machine engraving would save money and time, Ghali says, but would also take away the handmade aspect and the little imperfections that let the wearer know the piece belongs to them.
The jewelry is elegant and complements the bold star patterns of Williamson’s flowing dresses, but it’s also rooted in the Egyptian styles that Azza Fahmy has spent decades trying to document and preserve. A fine arts graduate, Fahmy gave up her government job in the 1960s to work for two years as an apprentice to the master craftsmen in Cairo’s bustling Khan El-Khalili. It was a daring move for a woman at a time when jewelry-making was hardly a respected or prestigious career, and when fashion trends looked more towards Paris or London than Eastern souqs. Fahmy went on to study the craft at the City of London Polytechnic School, and opened her first boutique in Maadi in 1981. Today the company has some 200 craftsmen and employees working on designs for Azza Fahmy boutiques in Egypt, Dubai and Jordan, as well as retailers in Qatar, Kuwait and the UK.
Through the years, Fahmy has travelled across the country to seek inspiration from Egyptian, Nubian and Bedouin styles. In her book Enchanted Jewelry of Egypt (AUC Press, 2007), she meticulously chronicles the styles and techniques used in jewelry from headdresses to anklets, travelling and chatting to jewelers from the farms and villages of the Nile Delta down to Nubia in the south.
“When my mother started in 1969, the craft was already diminishing. She collected most of her pieces in the mid and late 1960s, and learned from the masters that were available then. They were disappearing, so she started recording the techniques and always had the dream of preserving the craft. Unfortunately, a lot of people for various reasons have stopped doing it,” Ghali says.
“You’ve got techniques like filigree that very few people worldwide are still doing today because it’s very time consuming and costly. It’s very rare to come across a brand that’s actually still using filigree. Over the years we not only kept the technique but developed it as a design.”
Ghali, a graduate of the Alchimia contemporary jewelry school in Florence, Italy, joined Azza Fahmy in 2005 and has brought her own minimalist style to the family’s brand, founded in 1969. While her mother was always more fascinated by traditional pieces, over time she began to appreciate Ghali’s contemporary approach until the team bridged the gap and married East and West, Ghali says.
As the brand prepares to launch its new collection, with its cutting-edge style rooted in Oriental craftsmanship, Ghali says more people are appreciating their approach to handmade quality versus the fast and disposable fashions of chain department stores. The brand is focused on preserving the craft to keep it from dying out, Ghali says, and only a school that emphasizes technique will empower a new generation of designers who will carry on and develop the tradition.
The Design Studio
Student Dina Dokmak, 36, has been making jewelry for half a decade in her native Alexandria, but she could never find anywhere to learn the dozens of jewelry-making techniques. She heard about the Design Studio by Azza Fahmy on Facebook, and now makes the long trip to Cairo several times a week to study in the three-year academic course at the studio in Old Fustat.
People often think the studio is a training ground for those who want to learn Azza Fahmy’s style and technique, says studio manager Myriam Makhoul. They are often surprised during student exhibits, which showcase pieces like paper necklaces made of old novels inspired by the Library of Alexandria. The students may be well versed in traditional techniques, but their distinctive styles prove that the school fosters creativity as well.
And while the craftsmen of Khan El-Khalili may be masters of their craft, they don’t often have the background in art history or design that lets originality flourish, Makhoul says. The school, which celebrated its one-year anniversary in March, aims to fill that void by offering courses that aim to teach students all aspects of jewelry-making.
“Students must do technical drawing, and that’s one of the first techniques they need to learn to give others an idea of their project. They develop their sketching skills and do a lot of creative exercises like drawing with their eyes closed or with their left hand. We have creative design courses and we try to help them think outside of the box,” Makhoul says. “The concept of the school is very new to Egypt, and people [interested in design] usually go abroad and don’t research the Egyptian options. We’re still working on marketing to get Egyptians to know what it’s all about.”
The studio is Egypt’s first specialized jewelry-making and design studio, in collaboration with Alchimia, and offers a three-year program in traditional silversmithing techniques and contemporary jewelry design. It also teaches marketing skills needed for those who want to launch their own businesses, and gives students chances to showcase their work at occasional exhibits or during collaborations with designers. Part-time courses, intensive jewelry-making classes and weekend and evening workshops are also available to those who just want to try their hand at jewelry-making.
Azza Fahmy founded the studio after going through her own difficulties in trying to learn all the different techniques as an aspiring student.
“She faced some problems in Egypt and had to go to the Khan from one place to another and nobody really supported her,” Makhoul says. “Then she got funded by the British Council to study jewelry-making and since then she felt responsible and wants to help those who want to learn jewelry-making in a professional and academic way. She gives feedback to the students on their designs and gives lectures. We try to bring her in every month so she can [develop] relations with the students, because many were inspired by her to get into jewelry-making.”
The six students in the full-time program, now in their second year, get a well-rounded education in techniques not widely popular in Egypt, like enamel, or calligraphy taught by Egyptian teachers, Makhoul says. Most had known some basics they picked up in Khan El-Khalili before the start of the program, but for many the course proved to be more demanding than they expected.
The three full-time instructors teach the students art history and drawing, and techniques like sawing, soldering and inlaying as well as working with materials like brass, copper, silver and metal or leather, paper, plastic and any other material that can feasibly be used in jewelry.
“The first year is technique, and it gets more challenging each year. They start to work more in small exercises that are more conceptual and experimental in the third year. There’s a lot of work to be done, and some of the students find it hard to dedicate themselves especially if they’re graduates or mothers, so many left because of that,” says instructor Giulia Savino, an Alchimia-trained designer. “The ones we have are really dedicated and want to be fully developed jewelry designers and want to come every day.”
For student May Wahdan, a 32-year-old Egyptian-American, the studio offers a place to learn technique and get back in touch with her Egyptian roots. Wahdan put her career in interior design on hold after she became intrigued by Azza Fahmy’s jewelry when she visited her Heliopolis boutique during a family vacation in Cairo.
“I always wanted to have a reason to live in Egypt and that was it,” Wahdan says. “It’s so early on in the program so I’m focusing on the assignments, but I’m still trying to infuse my own style into what I’m working on. I would really love to stay in Egypt. It would be incredible to sell in the US, but it would be an honor to have a business here and produce good work out of this country.”
For more information on the Azza Fahmy Design Studio, visit azzafahmydesign.com. To see Fahmy’s newest collections, go to azzafahmy.com