Valentina Primo meets the mastermind behind one of the most internationally successful brands in recent Egyptian history as the iconic Azza Fahmy unveils her latest collection, along with her two daughters.
A free spirit, passionate soul, and a pioneering woman who is not afraid to defy social conventions, Azza Fahmy immortalises and reinvents Egyptian heritage, crafting unique pieces of jewellery and extending a tradition as old as the iconic pyramids.
As she presents her Africa collection, the ambassador of cultural jewellery revisits the successful trail she has paved in the last 40 years, in which she transformed the concept of jewellery making from a craft to an art. “As Egyptians, we grow up around this culture and we are passionate about heritage; not only our own, but we are always seeking culture in different forms. In the end, I put everything in a melting pot and expresses it in each piece,” she says, pointing to a photograph where white strokes wind across the body of an Ethiopian man.
Drawing inspiration from African body art, geometric motifs, masks, beads and traditional large golden earrings that adorn women and men’s bodies from multiple tribes, Fahmy’s new collection pays tribute to Africa’s past and present, telling with every piece a story that was handcrafted by more than 200 artisans.
“Africa has always been a great inspiration to me. About seven years ago, I travelled to Ethiopia, and as I saw the tribes at the border between Ethiopia and Uganda, I thought: ‘we must do something to develop this art,’” she says, referring to a tribe in southwest Ethiopia, where body painting is a emblematic symbol traditionally linked to protection, creative expression and marriage ceremonies.
Frequently using travel in her pursuit of inspiration, Fahmy reached Ethiopia as she courteously followed the trace of the legendary Nile. “I went because I wanted to see the source of the river. It is the vein of Egypt, and it has always been a source of inspiration to me.” But far from a stance of cultural appropriation, Fahmy draws inspiration from the meandering lines to create pieces that constitute a new form of art. “People sometimes take a cultural component and imitate it out of context. But if you get inspired by it and create something totally different, you are re-interpreting it in a way that creates a totally different form of art,” says her daughter and the company’s managing director, Fatma Ghali.
As she shows one of her most striking pieces, Fahmy narrates the story of the Bassari masks, as she continued to explore the shapes and colors zigzagging across different African cultures. The masks, used by a tribe from southern Senegal at initiation rites, are worn by dancers to embody the spirit of nature. Strikingly beautiful and intricate, the distinctive cartwheel masks are fashioned from the bark of the Akuf tree.
Discovering Jewellery as a Form of Heritage
Fahmy’s journey through cultural heritage began in her early years, when she came across a book of Medieval jewellery that initiated a path of research that led her to Cairo’s Khan el Khalili, where she worked as an apprentice. Defying social and gender stereotypes, at a time when it was socially unacceptable for a fine arts graduate to work in a workshop full of men, Fahmy put on her overalls, tied up her hair, and spent countless days learning the tricks of the trade. “For Arab women, jewellery is their bank, their investment and their safety. The tradition comes from peasant people. They don’t put money in the bank; they put it in their hands through precious jewellery, which they can sell whenever they need,” she explains.
Fahmy later explored the intricate forms of jewellery in her book Enchanted Jewellery of Egypt, where the artists, who is herself a collector of ancient jewellery, studied its relationship to the social and economic aspects of each community. “Jewellery has always been important in Egypt because it was part of the preparation for the next life. That’s why most of the famous jewellery is that of funerals; it was part of the ceremony of mummification and burial,” she says, as she recalls the multiple years of research she underwent before releasing her trademark Pharaonic Collection. “It was the most challenging work I have done. I hired the best Egyptologist in the world, and we spent between 8 and 10 years doing research because I was doing something contemporary, but at the same time have the spirit of the Pharaohs,” she explains.
In collaboration with the European Union, Fahmy began a series of workshops in Aswan entitled Nubre, an educational initiative where she taught Nubian residents of Upper Egypt the trade. The success and popularity of the initiative pushed her create DSAF, an entity that provides an academic space that opens up a career path in jewellery design and entrepreneurship for young Egyptians. “When I finished those workshops and saw the 45 young designers graduating, and thought that the country needed its own school. And it works!” she says as she announces the beginning of the academic year tomorrow.
Today, her workshop employs over 170 people who execute everything from skilled labour, to design, engineering and marketing, including both her daughters, Fatma and Amina Ghali. “My sister and I grew up among jewellery makers since we were very young, working in workshops in the summer, and attending fairs with our mother,” says Fatma, who joined the company in 2000, and is now the arm responsible to extending the brand’s reach. Their network already counts with 19 points of sales around the world, including USA, UK, the Emirates, Jordan and Qatar.
“My secret key to success? Love and passion for what you do,” Fahmy stresses. “If you do things with love, it hits the people. I am always on the run, and I never get time to stop and think about what I am doing. Opening the design school, for example, was a very rewarding moment that I didn’t expect, as well as publishing the book. I always have a new project, and the minute I finish it I am thinking of the next one,” she says with mischievous eyes, graciously refusing to reveal her next secret venture.
Photography by Khaled Habib.