Lebanese jewellery designers are making waves

Francesca Fearon talks to some of the hottest names in Lebanese jewellery.

The Lebanese jewellery designer Noor Fares is making waves on the international design scene. She uses materials and symbols to weave the theme of good luck into her pieces.
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A couple of weeks before Christmas, Noor Fares celebrated the first anniversary of her jewellery business by throwing a dinner party at a private members' club in London. The dainty 25-year-old designer was surrounded by a flock of equally lovely looking girlfriends wearing pieces from her collection that glinted warmly in the candlelight. She calls her circle of friends her brand ambassadors. Fares naturally was the centre of attention, dressed in a black Givenchy gown and wearing her gold Windows of Love headband threaded through her hair, big ebony and pavé diamond rings on her fingers and a jet bead glove from her Touche du Bois collection.

Noor Fares launched her collection N.oor in late 2009 and within months her distinctive designs were being sold in Harrods and in Beirut (where she was born) and from this month will be available at Zai in Qatar, Boutique 1 in Dubai and very soon Los Angeles. It is no mean feat to be stocked in Harrods less than six months after launching a business.

Her jewellery is modern, innovative and tactile - silky smooth and organic to the touch. It is also discreetly infused with her cultural heritage, both in being part of the grand - and ongoing - heritage of Lebanese jewellery making and in the traditions of the wider society. "Not just in the shapes and forms, but also in the materials I use, such as ebony," she explains, referring to the superstition of "knocking on wood". One of her hallmarks is a little stone-set Evil Eye inside rings or as tiny tags attached to necklaces. "There is a lot of good luck inspiration in my work in terms of the symbols and materials that I use."

Simple and geometric forms and architecture inspire her, too. She has devised a series of flat gold filigree disc earrings drawn from Byzantine stained glass windows. The discs are sold separately from the hoops on to which they are hooked, so the wearer can interchange the different patterned discs to suit her mood. It allows the wearer to become the designer, creating her own unique look. You might imagine the hook and disc could easily become separated, but Fares insists: "I go out dancing in these earrings until 8 o'clock in the morning and I have never lost one."

Nowadays Fares spends her life between London, Paris and Lebanon, a continuation of her very cosmopolitan upbringing: her father, a former leading politician and businessman, travelled around the world and took his family with him. Noor, the youngest, with three older brothers, was partly home-schooled but mostly educated in Paris before going to study history of art at Tufts University in Boston. Rather than return to Paris, she then moved to London where she studied gemmology and did design courses while feeling herself drawn in by the creative melting pot and the international society she found in the British capital.

"I am more attracted to jewellery than clothes, shoes or bags. I've always loved wearing jewellery and thinking about ways I can improve it." Also, she points out, unlike clothes, "jewellery has a meaning that can be symbolic and sentimental - it has always been used in rituals and ceremonies in different religions and cultures".

Her mother Hala Fares, an artist (although she no longer exhibits), is an avid collector of jewellery and other objects such as china and dolls. As a child, Fares was lured by her mother's classical parures of precious stones, the hippy beads and the baroque jewels she found among her mother's belongings. "I used to find all these beautiful pieces and pile on every accessory I could find," she says, "and wander around the house looking like a Christmas tree."

A few years later she started getting bespoke pieces made for herself in Lebanon. "It is easy in Lebanon to design some pieces and go to a factory to get them made; as long as you know where to go, it is quite accessible." Encouraged by the feedback she got from family and friends, she decided to go into business. Her cousin Rasha Shammas, a photographer, oversees the production along with Noor's mother Hala. "It's quite cool having a working relationship with my mother - it's mentally stimulating and fun," says Fares.

Part of her N.oor collection is made in Italy, but the silver and goldsmithing is done in Lebanon where there is a long history of the craft. "The Phoenicians made a lot of silver and gold as it was a big trading port for goods, and gold and stones were traded. Lebanon has always been a place of artisans and craftsmanship."

The entrepreneurial spirit of the early Phoenicians thrives in modern times. In the world of fine jewellery, Mouawad, Chatila and George Hakim established successful jewellery businesses in Beirut in the late 19th-century as more precious stones, discovered in Africa and India, were traded through Lebanon's port. The real boom time for the jewellers, though, came in the 1950s and 1960s as the oil riches of the Middle East started to flow out of the wells into the jewellery boxes of their wealthy clientele. Fayez Mouawad, son of the founder David Mouawad, took jewels and prestigious watches to Jeddah and established the business there in the 1950s; his son subsequently moved it to the United States.

Meanwhile, Chatila was established in 1860 as a goldsmith, making vases, plates and jewellery, before going into retail and introducing the first fine Italian jewels into the Middle East. However, in the 1970s, during the brutal civil war in Lebanon, Chatila moved its base to Geneva. According to Marwan Chatila, the London-based scion of the family, during the civil war one of the few industries that steadfastly kept going was the silver and goldsmith business supplying the oil-rich countries. "Even today it is one of the best things you can buy in Lebanon," he says. Chatila still has a boutique in Beirut but he admits it is there for nostalgic reasons.

This has left the door open for a new generation of creative artisans, designers and artists to emerge. "It is a form of expression in a place where there has been a lot of suffering and civil war," points out Fares. "Contemporary artists are bursting on to the scene working on the theme of Beirut surviving the war." Fashion and jewellery are no exception, with the phenomenal success of designers such as Elie Saab and Zuhair Murad setting a precedent for talented jewellers such as Fares, Selim Mouzannar and Nada Le Cavelier to gain recognition abroad.

Employing the area's visual heritage in their elaborate designs allows these jewellers to find a point of difference from other jewellers. Selim Mouzannar, for example, creates beautifully delicate arabesque designs mixing eastern charms and motifs with precious stones. The designs are dainty and display a sensitive use of colour and tone. Nada Le Cavelier, meanwhile confidently blends audacious colour combinations with bold hues for her unique pieces.

Her most collectable designs are from her Nada Roma collection, some of which Fares and her mother have bought over the years. "This collection," says Le Cavelier "was inspired by an old micro-mosaic piece I came across in an antique shop in Italy. It was a coup de foudre that led me to collecting these beautiful pieces until my collection was important enough to start an exceptional jewellery line based on these micro-mosaics."

Le Cavelier started creating jewellery in 1979, combining antique bronzes and artefacts with wood, carved mother-of-pearl, gold work and coloured gems. Her work has been exhibited in museums and art galleries around the world, demonstrating its cultural value. In 1991 as peace returned to Lebanon, she opened her boutique in Beirut where her daughter Valerie, a gemologist, works alongside her. Her designs are also sold in Boutique 1 and Boom & Mellow in Dubai.

Le Cavelier has experienced the changes wrought on her country at close hand and sees how the city is now pulsating with new energy, in spite of the recurring political tensions. "Beirut has a lot of creative people and many individual initiatives that are bringing fantastic projects come to life," she says. "The jewellery business is one of them but we have fabulous stylists, incredible architects, outrageous event organisers, reputable artists, fantastic chefs... and many other young people whose ideas and determination have brought the country innovation, style and a great energy to keep us going in our day to day lives."

And while many fashionistas in the Middle East are fervent supporters of Lebanese jewellery design, it is a transformation that the rest of the world is just starting to discover.