In a large white gallery space just off London’s New Bond Street is a collection of colourful crocodile clutch handbags, each showcasing embroidered motifs native to Saudi Arabia.
These include local bridal patterns and geometric decorations inspired by the garments of the Banu Tamim tribe from the kingdom’s Najd region.
Guiding us around the capsule collection is Princess Nourah Al Faisal, who collaborated on its creation with Asprey, one of London’s oldest jewellery and luxury houses.
A jewellery designer herself – one of many hats she wears – the princess is at once relaxed, enthusiastic and all smiles as she notes some of the designs have already sold out. However, she assures us, there will be more to come.
Princess Nourah, who launched Nuun Jewels in Paris nine years ago, says she was “amazed” that Asprey entrusted her with the project, given she’d never designed handbags before, and admits she is notorious for not picking the easiest of designs.
The vivid shades, she says, reflect Saudi’s love of colour. “There tends to be this idea of black robes, but we are very colourful in our homes and our lives,” she explains.
Somewhat paradoxically, the princess describes her own style as minimalist. “The handbags are representative of Saudi design, and an expression of my love of architecture and my love of geometry, but through the lens of a modern woman.”
In our conversation, Princess Nourah refers often to Saudi Arabia’s tribal forebears who, because of their nomadic lifestyle in the desert, would eliminate any possessions that weren’t necessary. “This ethos of eliminating unnecessary flourishes is how I start to design, although there will always be colour and texture,” she says, adding: “I’m slightly obsessed with finding balance and symmetry in design.”
While the current collection was created in London, the next will be embroidered by Saudi craftswomen in her home country.
A jewellery capsule is also in the works, and will debut at Asprey next year.
This came about after the brand’s retail director, Bobby Gill, spotted the princess wearing her own pieces on several occasions and started following Nuun Jewels on social media. “One day we met, and he asked me to consider a collaboration.
“I was over the moon, but equally nervous because Asprey has such a historical style and identity,” says the princess, who revealed she would often visit the store as a child with her mother, who was a keen jewellery shopper.
“I learnt so much about jewellery just by being around her, and I’ve always been obsessed with classical, historical jewels from the 1920s and 1930s, as well as some Victorian pieces and the jewellery created for the maharajas,” she says.
The Indian princes used to take chests full of loose gemstones to the Place Vendome jewellery houses in the 1920s to be set in the modern art-deco style, she explains, and says she was “very fortunate to get personal access to some of those beautiful pieces”, as many were sold to her parents’ generation in the Middle East during the oil boom of the 1970s and 1980s.
The princess admits to being “slightly obsessed” also with Art Deco, which relates to her own modern architectural design aesthetic. She studied interior design, “but jewellery is my heart, it’s where I play and express myself and where I learnt to trust my instincts”, she says.
Her jewels are luxurious, but full of fun touches. Case in point – a rose gold ring set with three diamonds, of which the central one is on a slider, so the diamond can jut out on one side. She says, half-jokingly, that the position of the slider on the ring is a signal to her husband and denotes her mood. “If it’s complete then great; if the diamond is protruding, proceed with caution.”
The self-taught princess says she regarded jewellery designing as a hobby, until a friend of her mother’s took her around various Place Vendome workshops because she wanted jewellery created by a Saudi designer for an exhibition.
The princess was asked back by one jeweller who was impressed with her ideas, and invited her to do a design apprenticeship. “The man in charge was not very happy about having a little Saudi princess come in,” she recalls ruefully, but she won him over with her eye for spotting a good gemstone and he ended up introducing her to some of the best gem dealers in Paris.
Her family then encouraged her to start her own jewellery business in the French capital. “I’m very lucky to come from a family of women who worked,” she says, noting how things have changed considerably in Saudi Arabia, with its rapid cultural expansion and a burgeoning can-do ethos.
Today, Princess Nourah, who lives in Riyadh, is the chief executive of two companies, the other being The Art of Heritage that oversees an archive of textiles, photographs and other artefacts from the kingdom. She is also the founder of Adhlal, a social enterprise consultancy built to help the design community in Saudi Arabia navigate the creative ecosystem, given her own experience of designing in Europe.
About 80 per cent of Nuun’s pieces are bespoke and made for a predominantly Middle Eastern clientele, with most of the women buying the pieces by and for themselves, including of course, she says with visible pride, her mother.