Beirut-born Gaelle Khouri was working in New York as an economic consultant when she realised that something was amiss. Despite having graduated top of her class at New York University, she was slowly coming to the realisation that finance was not for her. She wanted to do something more creative.
“In Beirut and Lebanon, the mentality is a bit conservative, and justifies success in a limited number of ways, which is why I went into economics. But when I was in New York, the energy of the city, and being older, really gave me the confidence to know what I wanted, and to actually have the guts to say it. It wasn’t an easy switch. It really takes guts to just let go and leave everything to move into a completely different field,” she tells me when we meet in Dubai.
She began an internship with designer Oscar de la Renta, but quickly realised that if she was going to make the switch, she wanted to do something of her own. She returned to Beirut to try her hand at jewellery making. "I decided to take lessons with a jewellery designer, and within the first two months I had a portfolio of over 100 designs," she says. "My teacher said: 'You have to take it to the next level.'
"At the time it was just for fun; I didn't know where it was going. So he took me to the Armenian region in Lebanon, Bourj Hammoud. The people there migrated to Lebanon in 1915 and brought their jewellery-making skills with them."
Although no stranger to hard work, Khouri was unprepared for the scale of effort involved in entering a new field and starting from scratch. “I was so excited the first time I went [to Bourj Hammoud], but when I came back I was super depressed. It was so overwhelming. I just thought, ‘I could never do that’. But the next day, I went back, and the third day, and I think that when you are trying something, you just bump into people along the way who help you and push you. It was a long journey. Those were two very tough years, and my parents were completely against the move. Now they are very proud but, at the time, they were absolutely not.”
Khouri now has a small but devoted following. Her work is unique for its use of space and challenges how jewellery is meant to sit on the body. Creating bold pieces that rock convention, ironically Khouri feels that her late start has worked to her advantage.
"I don't have a background in jewellery and design," she says. "I think that sometimes education can be your worst enemy. It's a great thing, of course, but it teaches you rules and you feel you have to follow them. Because I didn't study, I had the freedom to think and create and to do things however I wanted.
For me, it wasn’t really about the jewellery; it was about the creativity. I think it’s not even that jewellery specifically interests me, but more the artistic, creative side, and I have always had that in me.”
Although her best-known pieces are relatively delicate, such as the Constance bracelet that hangs from the thumb to bisect the hand with a line of blue sapphires, or the Triple Infinity Ring, which begins as a ring on the middle finger but extends outwards to become a series of oversized, diamond-encrusted bands that loop over three fingers, Khouri's first creations were rather different.
From the head of a dragon worn so that the finger lies in the maw of the beast, to a ring cast to look like wood, the pieces sometimes come across as crude and raw, but are liberating because their design is so atypical.
"The very first pieces I made were from bronze and gold," she explains. "They are not very wearable, and are more pieces of art than jewellery. They are harsh and dark but I love them; they are still my favourite pieces.
My creativity evolves with my personality, and during this time, I think I hadn't found myself yet. I didn't know what to do and I think there was a lot of anger, a lot of darkness in me, which was reflected in my work. Now, it is subtler."
Nonetheless, she continues to draw from the natural world to create bold, unapologetic pieces that challenge traditional forms. Her Silver Wings cuff is crafted from yellow gold and blackened sterling silver, dotted with blue sapphires.
There is a hardness to it that sits at odds with the tiny blue gems and it calls to mind the powerful wings of an imaginary flying beast, rather than those of a delicate feathered bird. Her Self Portrait earrings take the form of an amorphous, fish-like creature that has been partly reduced to skeletonised form. They are at once appealing and slightly macabre.
Today Khouri's work is stocked by leading retailers around the world, including Auverture, Moda Operandi, Net-a-Porter and Sylvia Saliba in Lebanon – but she remains pragmatic. "I got directly picked up by Harvey Nichols, and when I launched in 2015, I went into Browns," Khouri says. "So when I launched, it really went very fast, but it's not because I got lucky; there were years of work."
As we talk, Khouri pulls from her bag a large silver cuff in the shape of a spider, its spindly legs designed to wrap around the wrist. "I was scared that customs would stop me, so I put it in my bag," she reveals. This is not delicate and feminine; it is big and slightly scary. Yet it is beautifully made, with just enough articulation to give it life.
"It was extremely hard to do, because silver is hard to produce," she says. "The stone in his abdomen is quartz, and left rough. So there is always a mix. Gold and silver, elegant and rough. It's all in the detail.
“My work is very much 3D, and very complex, and this is one of the reasons why I started learning in 2010 and launched the brand in 2015. It was five years of going to the workshop and sitting there until two in the morning, wanting to learn every detail, every technical complexity, before I launched.”
Her pieces are labours of love – honed over time and painstakingly perfected to the nth degree. "Making something for the first time can take anything up to a month," Khouri says. "I am very picky, and I sit with the wax carver, and tell him do this and do that, so it really takes a lot of time. Everything is carved in wax, and it is like small pieces of sculpture.
“I don’t want to do anything simple, this is part of my personality. Even with making, it is the technical challenges that really draw me. I am one of those people who doesn’t want to live in my comfort zone. Now, I admit, I am thinking: ‘OK, I have done jewellery, what’s next?’”
I can't help but ask: does she enjoy making life difficult for herself? "That's what everyone keeps telling me," she responds with a laugh. "My artisans are always asking: 'Are you sure this is what you want?' If they could put me in prison, I think they would. They work on a piece and if I don't like it, we break it. And it will be something small, a tiny little thing that no one sees but me, but I can't ... I just can't."