Enameled earrings in the shape of flowers: this is the signature creation of jewellery designer and maker Suzanne El-Masry whose debut came in the late 1980s but whose brand began to flourish in the last decade.
The jewellery of El-Masry finds strong reflection in her last name — Egyptian — whether in spirit, choice of colours, or design. “There are so many motifs and so many colours that are truly Egyptian, and that one could simply indulge in,” she says proudly.
The earrings of El-Masry, she acknowledges, are perhaps her strongest imprint on the world of jewellery. The techniques she uses are diverse to allow for a range of price points, though she aims to produce affordable works, unlike some that veer towards extravagance.
El-Masry’s most recent exhibition, shortly before New Year, showcased her well established skills and style, accumulated across diverse fields of Egyptian heritage.
“I still play with the colours and techniques; I still follow the lines and motifs that inspire me from our heritage, where the shape of flowers and birds and geometrical designs are key. However, I dare to incorporate new techniques in toying with the metals, whether bronze or silver, and with colours, even though they remain predominantly the colours that you would find on Islamic porcelain or the walls of Pharaonic museums,” El-Masry said.
The apprenticeship of El-Masry into the world of jewellery making started in the late 1960s after she chose to quit Cairo University and join her husband who went to work in the United States. There she joined a school of fine arts and later specialised schools for jewellery making. When she came back to Cairo, she worked hard for three years before she exhibited her first collection.
“It was essential that I take my time, to allow the things I learned to evolve in a style that would fit the things that I wanted to do, and that I find inspiration in what is simply and purely Egyptian,” El-Masry said.
Her first exhibition was a remarkable success and it allowed for continuity, despite limited finances. A following boost came from a series of small exhibitions in Paris, to which moved with her husband in the 1990s for a few years.
When finally she settled in Egypt for good, El-Masry established her name as a designer of beautiful Egyptian jewellery for diverse tastes, and fit for the working day and evenings out.
Later, as her work expanded, having started at a small workshop in Old Cairo, and at a small gallery not far away, she moved with partner artists to a showroom in Zamalek. She offered clients complementary apparels of scarves and small and large handbags. Another step came with offering, in new a fashionable style, traditional trays and coffee tables matched with lighting bearing imprints of Egyptian cinematic classics, along with wall hangings featuring Sufi poetry.
“It is all from within the origin of Egyptian art, and it all keeps local crafts alive,” she said.
An Egyptian sense of beauty
Her drive, El-Masry tells me against the backdrop of oriental music in her sitting room, is to keep “our very own style of art alive, and to make it part of our daily life and not just an exotic element that we put to decorate a rarely frequented room in our otherwise ultra-modern or ultra-French styled houses. We are Egyptians, and it has to show."
El-Masry is uncompromising in her faith in Egyptians' love of beauty — a quality that she sees in popular life, despite poverty and other social hardships.
El-Masry insists that she has seen this natural affinity to beauty in every Egyptian city and village she has been to throughout her life and across the country. She believes this "love of beauty" is something that every Egyptian woman has, “no matter if veiled or not,” but that it is at times challenged, by circumstance or coercive social norms. “Women like to be beautiful. This is what women really like, and if we maintain our local crafts, all women could find an affordable path towards the happiness of beauty,” she says.
Maintaining Egyptian crafts, “whether jewellery or furniture or clothes” is something that requires commitment from civil society and government, El-Masry argues. She herself worked as a trainer in a project co-sponsored a few years ago by the government and a foreign aid project to teach women artistic skills that could help them make a living or add to an otherwise limited family budget. “But it takes more than one-off projects, and it takes the right choice of apprentices, to make sure that [the women] use the skills they learn and find a livelihood in craft."
Crafts at risk
El-Masry is convinced that it takes stability for crafts to survive at a large scale. “It breaks my heart to go to Old Cairo and see many of the workshops of prominent artisans now closed and rented out for merchants of imported blankets,” she said.
The agony is twofold for ElMasry. “The workshops are closed because the lack of stability is blocking tourism,” and because imported blankets are much cheaper, “even if not half as beautiful” as traditional blankets made in Upper Egypt.
“It is not impossible to keep the crafts alive, but for this to happen they need to move from being ornamenting objects to being part of our daily lives. So people need to mix and match Egyptian-style items with what has otherwise become daily objects, whether in clothing or furniture,” El-Masry argues.
According to El-Masry, the media has a role here. “By showing living rooms, in soap operas, where Egyptian items are blended easily with more modern objects, or where Egyptian-style jewellery is melded within the modern look of today’s popular actresses, the media would be attracting the eye and enhancing the taste of the audience to consume its own local art. This we see in Morocco and other North African countries,” she says.
The protection of Egyptian crafts and arts that are endangered, El-Masry believes, should be a cultural priority and not left simply to the few, like El-Masry herself, who managed to learn how to preserve these arts and make from them a source of living as well.