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.
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 express it in each piece,” she says of her eponymous jewellery brand.
Jewellery has always been important in Egypt because it was part of the preparation for the next life.
The powerhouse woman opened her first store in 1981; today she is arguably the biggest name in fine jewellery to come out of Egypt. She has more than a dozen stores across the Middle East, has collaborated with massive global names in fashion like Preen and Mathew Williamson, and has even founded a jewellery design and making institute, The Design Studio by Azza Fahmy.
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, Egypt's ancient jewellery quarter, 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.
From the SS18 The Gypsy Collection
Fahmy later explored the intricate forms of jewellery in her 2007 book Enchanted Jewelry of Egypt, where the artist, 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 it had the spirit of the Pharaohs,” she explains.
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
Fatma Ghali, Azza Fahmy's daughter and Managing Director of the company
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 19 points of sales around the world, including USA, UK, the Emirates, Jordan and Qatar.
I am always on the run, and I never get time to stop and think about what I am doing.
“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.