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Fit for a pharaoh

How Azza Fahmy made an Egyptian brand internationally appealing

Mother-daughter designer duo: Azza Fahmy and Amina Ghali. Photo: Nour El Refai
Mother-daughter designer duo: Azza Fahmy and Amina Ghali. Photo: Nour El Refai

I am an unabashed fan of Azza Fahmy, the Egyptian jewellery designer, so when I hear she is visiting Dubai, I am determined to meet her. I don my only necklace from her brand—it is a pharaonic collar in gold and silver—for the interview. Fahmy has been making jewellery since the 1970s, and must have created hundreds of pieces, but she walks in wearing the exact same necklace. What are the chances! We dissolve into laughter, reaching out and hugging, commenting on the hand of fate.

Indeed, she believes it was the hand of fate that pulled her into the jewellery business. She chanced upon a book at a fair—in German, which she didn’t understand, but it had beautiful photos of medieval European jewellery—and she instinctively knew this book would change her life. It cost 19 Egyptian pounds (around Rs80 now)—her salary was only 17 pounds—but she bought it, and started an unlikely journey that has taken her to the narrow streets of Cairo’s Khan el-Khalili (think Chandni Chowk) to learn jewellery making from a traditional goldsmith, to growing into a brand now sold in Egypt, the UK, US and several Middle-Eastern countries. Today she has 200 employees and 26 designers.

Egypt isn’t all that different from India—plenty of ancient history, a strong jewellery tradition, a “more is more" aesthetic, a mindset that thinks in terms of gold weight and making charges (instead of design and brand)—so I am curious how Fahmy has managed to make an Egyptian brand internationally appealing. Her designs are replete with Egyptian symbols—scarabs and falcons from the pharaohs, Sufi sayings and Arabic calligraphy, talismans like the evil eye or the Hand of Fatima—so it is intriguing how it speaks to an international customer. I can’t think of Indian parallels that have pulled it off on the world stage. What does it take, I ask?

She mulls over it a long moment, and then says something that stops me in my tracks. “You have a great, great tradition in India," she says. “But you don’t have the designer that takes the soul of this great civilization and makes something new out of it."

It is a hard one, but I think she is right. Of course, there are no algorithms for finding souls of ancient civilizations, rendering them on today’s jewellery, and getting them to magically vibe with the global shopper. I suspect that is her special gift, or the hand of fate that guides her. But there are two things—on a more down-to-earth level—that seem to be part of her process, and might provide a clue: One, she researches the past with an unbelievable fervour; and two, she embraces modernity in the broadest possible way.

She has several themed collections, but her research process is best illustrated by her pharaonic collection. She had wanted to do it for years, but was afraid to attempt it because the pharaoh’s craftsmen had attained absolute perfection. The jewellery, the sarcophagi, the statues, the pyramids, the temples—they were masters in everything. “I didn’t want to do something that makes them angry with me," she says. Does she mean the people from the past, the pharaoh’s people? Yes, that’s right. It was as if she was imprisoned by their expectations.

So she studied pharaonic history to discover its principles. Who are these gods? What is the meaning of these letters? What is the essence behind this civilization? She visited the archaeological digs at Saqqara. She sent initial jewellery sketches to pharaonic experts. It took her eight years to study it well.

And then, there was a Eureka moment—her daughter Amina, also a jewellery designer, suggested they make “contemporary" pharaonic jewellery. That was it. “The path was suddenly clear—to simplify and freely mix the motifs and symbols. For example, our necklace has falcon wings happily juxtaposed with motifs of the rising sun."

The craftsmanship, the way the piece sits on your body—every aspect is flawless, and this is where her embrace of modernity comes in. She is collaborating with Europe, bringing in the best minds in technology, in quality control, in every key aspect. Her team is fully trained. She values training so much, she has set up a school in Cairo—The Design Studio by Azza Fahmy—in collaboration with Alchimia, the contemporary jewellery design school in Italy. She has collaborated with Western designers like Matthew Williamson, and stretched her design vocabulary.

I look at the beautiful rings she is wearing, her own designs, of course. Two are outsized renditions of the Hand of Fatima—she was the daughter of the Prophet, and her hand is said to have protective powers. The third ring has a proverb inscribed in intricate calligraphy which reads, “When god closes one door, he opens a thousand others." The fourth ring is the odd one out—a simple band with a stone—recommended for her by an Indian jyotishi (astrologer). Clearly, her fate is in her own hands.

Radha Chadha is one of Asia’s leading marketing and consumer insight experts. She is the author of the best-selling bookThe Cult Of The Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair With Luxury.

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