How jewellery label Azza Fahmy is preserving the many crafts of Egypt: 'We are storytellers'

To celebrate the brand's launch at a new Dubai concept store, chief executive Fatma Ghaly reveals in an exclusive interview how the label has been forced to get creative amid the pandemic

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“We always say we are storytellers,” says Fatma Ghaly, chief executive and managing director of jewellery label Azza Fahmy.

As the daughter of Fahmy, Ghaly is one of the forces driving the label as it looks ahead to its next decades of design.

And the latest chapter of the eponymous brand, founded by its namesake Egyptian designer more than 50 years ago, has just opened in Dubai.

The label's pieces can be found at THAT, Mall of the Emirates, a 4,500-square-metre concept store which opened earlier in January.

Set over three soaring storeys, the shop is packed with a wealth of fashion and accessory names, with customisation options and even a wrapping station to garnish purchases. Quietly nestled amid blasts of colour sits the rich and evocative fine jewellery of Azza Fahmy.

"People today are looking for something with meaning; they no longer want to just wear a piece of metal that looks nice," Ghaly tells The National. "They want something that connects, that has a message. And we see this with our clients. They want something because of what the writing says. Clients remember what every piece means."

A necklace from the Pharaonic Collection by Azza Fahmy. Courtesy Azza Fahmy 

Leaning on its Egyptian heritage – “it’s our core DNA,” says Ghaly – the brand creates delicate necklaces, rings, bracelets and earrings in silver and gold, filled with traditional motifs.

Now simplified and reworked for the modern eye, Pharaonic symbols such as Nubian architecture and scarab beetles appear, as well as evil eyes and crescent moons, folded through with flowing lines of Islamic calligraphy. Delicately etched into the precious metals are phrases such as “you are all I wish for” and “be happy, my heart".

“When we opened our store in London, we were unsure if Europeans would connect with the calligraphy, but we were so surprised," says Ghaly.

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We create the pieces with certain stories, but when you buy them, you create your own story

"People would ask what each piece said and, as they were the only ones that knew the translation, it became like a secret message just for them. It was amazing. What we thought would be popular was very different from what people connected with, so now we don’t judge any more. It's all about that storytelling and what connects.”

The story of the brand itself is equally intriguing. Drawn to creating jewellery, Fahmy set off to learn the art of the trade in Cairo’s jewellery quarter, Khan El Khalili, becoming the first woman to do so.

“When she was working there, she would look out the window and see all the details of the mosque, and all she could see was jewellery,” Ghaly explains. “At that point, jewellery was either very traditionally Egyptian or dominated by Italian designers, with fine jewellery and stones. Azza saw all these cultural elements and started putting them on jewellery, and that set the tone for what the brand is."

Describing the label as "wearable art", Ghaly says each piece offers a personal connection to its wearer.

"Jewellery is intimate – it’s what you choose to wear next to your skin, and in a lot of cases, it is because it reminds you of something. We create the pieces with certain stories, but when you buy them, you create your own story.”

Today, the design work is shared between Fahmy and another of her daughters, Amina Ghaly. “They are inspired by everything,” Fatma Ghaly explains. “Egyptian culture, Arab, Mexican, African, Victorian and Indian – it’s a mix of all these ideas.”

Having recently celebrated 50 years of trading, the brand now is looking to expand. In addition to the concept store in Dubai, Azza Fahmy recently opened a pop-up cafe in Cairo, which echoes the label's approach of distilling the past and making it relevant for today's audience.

“We took traditional recipes from the region and redeveloped them with a woman who has one of the nicest cafes in Egypt. It’s all about reintroducing ideas of culture and heritage,” Ghaly explains.

“We did a collaboration with one of the biggest galleries in Egypt and briefed the artist about our collections. They created paintings inspired by them and those now cover the walls.

"It’s about the details. For example, my mother loves making jams, and there are traditional jams in Egypt. So we have done these, packaged really nicely, as well as olive oil from Sinai. And that’s what the concept is, to experience the whole brand through that space.”

Last summer, Azza Fahmy also launched its first range of single earrings, aimed at twenty-somethings. Each carrying a different design, they allowed a new generation to express their style.

"All the girls have their whole ear pierced nowadays, and they wanted to create their own messages, with the scarab which is the symbol of transformation, the eye for protection, and something for love. It completely sold out."

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All these crafts are dying, but we believe in making them relevant and creating products that people want to use today

Azza Fahmy is not just about earrings and jams, however. In 2017, Egypt’s largest solar energy provider KarmSolar, eager to persuade people to switch to the energy source at home, tasked Fahmy with making solar panels more appealing. The result is panels that can be used as terrace shades, scribed with Islamic designs that cast shadows on the floor.

The brand is also dedicated to protecting ancient handwork skills in its many endeavours.

"All our pieces are handmade in Egypt; preserving traditional craft and technique is part of our DNA," Ghaly explains. "We have the best masters of traditional filigree, but it is a dying technique because it's very expensive and takes a long time to create. So that is a focus for us – how do we pass on that trade so the craftsmanship doesn't die?"

In 2013, Azza Fahmy launched its design studio to nurture new talents, as well as help maintain knowledge.

“The idea is to teach contemporary jewellery-making, but also traditional techniques. We now have a foundation that focuses on crafts beyond jewellery, to help preserve techniques from the south of Egypt. All these crafts are dying, but we believe in making them relevant and creating products that people want to use today."

There is no ignoring, however, that the landscape has changed for many industries after the pandemic.

Asked if that was cause for concern when launching the Dubai shop-in-shop, Ghaly is emphatic.

“I feel it’s really exciting – we have an opportunity. We are relaunching in the UAE market with the right position and in the right direction, so the question now is, how do we make it happen at a time like this?" she says.

“I used to have a teacher who would say that people get creative under pressure. If you have the budget, the time, the people, you are not creative – you will just do more of the same. Now we are under constraint all the time, and she was right. We are forced to become much more creative under pressure.”

And, much like a diamond forms under pressure, it looks like Azza Fahmy will continue to shine for years to come.