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Egypt has had a tradition of making jewellery since antiquity, and exquisite pieces can be found in museum collections and exhibitions around the world. Putting a contemporary stamp on this ancient art form is Azza Fahmy, a female jeweller who has been blazing a trail in a male-dominated industry for almost 50 years.
Fahmy’s road to global fame started in 1969 when, as an interior design graduate in her mid-20s, she came across a book on medieval European jewellery. “My heart started beating very fast and it was like a lightbulb moment,” she recalled of the moment. “It had never entered my mind that I might make jewellery, but as soon as I saw this book I thought, why not?”
She honed her skills in the Egyptian capital Cairo, where she convinced the male goldsmiths in Khan al-Khalili market to teach her their craft. She would stay late into the night at one of the workshops, after working a full day as a photographer and painter for the government, trying to apply what she had learned.
The long hours did not dissuade her from mastering all stages of the industry, including recognizing, cutting and moulding different metals and designing unique pieces. Her first creation was five silver rings. Speaking to the Financial Times, which in 2007 named her one of the most influential female entrepreneurs in the Middle East, Fahmy said, “I tied my hair back and wore the uniform, spending days in a workshop full of men to learn jewellery-making skills. I used to sit with them to work on my own designs while they used to make gold pharaonic cartridges.”
After finishing her apprenticeship, she received a scholarship from the British Council to study jewellery design in London. In 1974, she held her first exhibition, launching a new line of Middle Eastern jewellery. She opened her first shop in Cairo in 1981.
In 2002, she established an atelier for the brand on the outskirts of Cairo, where she trained and educated dozens of workers. As the business grew, she took on more employees and expanded into international markets. She now has 14 stores worldwide, including in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States. In addition, she continued holding exhibitions around the world, the most famous of which was at the Egyptian embassy in Washington in 2008. The exhibition included a private auction of one of her own collections of artefacts to raise money for paediatric cancer care in Egypt.
Her designs are characterized by their fusion of modern aesthetics and ancient techniques such as filigree and hand-piercing in jewels, which are as much about cultural storytelling as they are decoration. She often inscribes her pieces, such as a pearl necklace worn by former US Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes during her Middle East tour in September 2005, with Arabic script portraying messages of love, friendship and peace. This is in addition to lines from famous Arabic poems, images of the Mosque of Ahmad ibn Tulun or al-Azhar Mosque, paintings, proverbs and drawings from the Ottoman, Mongol, Fatimid and Islamic civilizations.
She has dedicated several collections to Islamic heritage, such as the ‘Hajj’ collection, which was exhibited in the British Museum in 2012. The collection consists of small pieces inspired by the rituals of the Islamic pilgrimage, depicting historical interpretations of beauty and art with a contemporary touch. This ability to combine old and new has made her a go-to designer for fashion houses, royalty and celebrities, including Queen Rania of Jordan, singer Rihanna and supermodel Naomi Campbell, helping to put Arabic and Islamic heritage on the global map.
In 2006, Fahmy, who comes from the Suhag Governorate in Upper Egypt, joined forces with Julien MacDonald, Britain’s leading fashion designer, to design a 20-piece jewellery collection for his show at London Fashion Week in 2007, and another collection of 13 pieces for his show a year later. In 2010, she collaborated with the Brain Foundation, an American non-profit organization, to present her own collection during New York Fashion Week.
Her collections have been featured in international newspapers and magazines such as Vanity Fair and The New York Times as well as in several high-profile films such as Immigrant, Destiny and Shafiqa and Mutawalli.
Her first book was published in 2007. Titled Enchanted Jewelry of Egypt, it portrays the array of styles and high degree of artistry of Egyptian jewellery over the past century as well as recounting Fahmy’s own journey from apprentice to Egypt’s best known jeweller.
From focusing exclusively on jewellery, Fahmy has now added key chains, picture frames and buttons to her range, which she sells to the world’s leading fashion designers and clothing and gift companies. Acquiring a piece of clothing decorated with one of Fahmy’s designs has become a sign of elegance for some of the world’s richest people, putting her on a par with brands such as Cartier and Bulgari.
Fahmy’s success in a sector dominated for decades by men is a story of enthusiasm and perseverance. In an interview, Fahmy said, “You have to work hard to make brands fit market needs. The hardest part of the process is to create a balance and offer what is universally admired without abandoning the brand’s identity.”
Fahmy is married and has two daughters. Nowadays, her youngest daughter Amina helps her to develop her collections while her eldest daughter Fatma Ghali runs the company. This has freed up Fahmy to establish The Design Studio by Azza Fahmy, a specialized jewellery-making and design school in Cairo. She also established the Nubre project – a translation of the word ‘design’ in the Nubian language – to promote jewellery design in cooperation with the European Union through vocational workshops, student exchange programmes and development projects that feed innovation sectors and facilitate the transfer of knowledge in the jewellery industry.
On Women’s Day 2017, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi recognized Fahmy as one of the leading Egyptian women in the world. Her belief that promoting Arab female entrepreneurship will have a great impact on the regional and global economy makes “the sky’s the limit” her life motto.