Azza Fahmy’s pride in her Egyptian roots is a hallmark of her striking jewellery creations, and is evident from the moment we meet. “I speak in Arabic, so the interview will be in Arabic,” she says, as she settles into an armchair in her Cairo apartment.
Similarly, her newly released autobiography, Never Ending Dreams, is written in colloquial Egyptian Arabic, as if Fahmy were conversing with a friend. She documents her journey from her childhood in Upper Egypt to learning the craft of jewellery design from the masters of Cairo’s male-dominated Khan El Khalili souq, and building a globally successful luxury brand that is now more than 50 years old.
“I always have a target that I’m busy with and I’m moving towards that target. I achieve it, and then I get another target. I achieve that one, and go on to the next,” says Fahmy, 76. “That’s why I called the book Never Ending Dreams.”
The Azza Fahmy brand has gained a following among celebrities and royalty. But her fans span generations, as seen when women of all ages attended her autobiography launch event at the Royal Carriages Museum in Downtown Cairo on Sunday, wearing earrings, bracelets, necklaces and rings designed by the brand over the past five decades.
Her handcrafted silver and gold jewellery is inspired by ancient cultures and incorporates elements such as Arabic calligraphy, Islamic architecture, the Hand of Fatima, the evil eye, lotus flowers and the scarab. In the same way, Fahmy’s autobiography intertwines her personal life with a cultural history of modern Egypt, accompanied by pictures and detailed documentation.
“I have a nationalistic spirit that my father instilled in me. So I’m not concerned with myself, as much as I’m concerned with what I’m doing,” Fahmy says.
The 400-page book, released by the Egyptian-Lebanese Publishing House, took Fahmy three years and 30 drafts to complete. She was encouraged by countless friends and acquaintances to recount her story, particularly after celebrating her brand's 50th anniversary in 2019.
Adamant that she did not want to use a ghostwriter, she started by filling notebooks with musings on various themes and inspirations from her life. Her most important influences include her father, mother and grandmother, who immersed her in Egyptian culture, and bestowed on her a love of reading and learning.
She also writes of the challenges she faced, most notably the death of her father when she was 13. His death left the family struggling financially and resulted in them moving from a large house in Sohag in Upper Egypt to a small apartment in Helwan in Greater Cairo.
After graduating from Helwan University with a bachelor of arts in interior design, she worked as a government employee in the State Information Service. She describes the pivotal moment when she found a German book about medieval jewellery at the first Cairo International Book Fair in 1969.
“It cost 17 pounds and my entire salary was 19.50, but I didn’t hesitate for a moment to buy it,” Fahmy said at her autobiography launch. “I knew this would change my life.”
She then ventured into Cairo’s jewellery quarter in Khan El Khalili to learn the techniques of the craft from master goldsmiths, becoming the first female goldsmith with a professional licence. “I know how serious I am when I commit to something,” Fahmy says. “I don’t joke around.”
If readers come away with one lesson from the book, she hopes it is: “If you want to really make something of yourself, it takes hard work.”
Fahmy opens the book with a dedication to her mother and father; her two daughters Fatma and Amina Ghali, whom she raised as a single mother and who are now chief executive and head designer of the company; and her granddaughter, who she hopes will “join the ride”.
As creative director and chairwoman, Fahmy now leaves the commercial aspects of the business to Fatma, and is increasingly focused on documenting her research and transferring her skills. Fahmy still designs most of the jewellery pieces, but Amina launched her first collection for the brand in 2008.
The home-grown brand has grown from a small workshop to 19 stores, with a presence in Amman, Dubai, London and Washington. “I’m not very concerned with how many stores we’ve opened and how much money we’ve made,” Fahmy says.
“It would be a shame that someone who has worked so hard over the last 60 years and understands jewellery perhaps more than anyone else in the Arab world doesn’t pass this knowledge and expertise to others.”
This is not Fahmy's first foray into publishing. In 2007, in association with the American University in Cairo Press, she released Enchanted Jewellery of Egypt: The Traditional Art and Craft, which describes her years of travel and research around the country.
In 2013, she established The Design Studio by Azza Fahmy, the first professional jewellery-making and design school in Egypt. She has combed through museums and travelled the world to learn from different cultures and to draw inspiration from them.
Fahmy feels there is still much to be done to document and share what she has learnt. She also hopes to release an English translation of her autobiography soon. “I have so many dreams and I wonder, will I have time to reach them all?” she says.
“That’s why, when I’m told that Julia Roberts wore my earrings, of course I’m happy. But this book makes me happier.”