From raw material to masterpiece: backstage at the Azza Fahmy jewelry workshop

Ingy Deif, Sunday 7 Jun 2015

Ahram Online takes a peek around the workshop of renowned Egyptian jewelry designer Azza Fahmy

Photo: Azza Fahmy collection and workshop( Ahramonline)
Azza Fahmy Key of Life (All photos by Ahram Online)

The antique doors and window frames remind one of a bygone era, while the vintage movie posters adorning the staircase bring a rush of nostalgia.

These features mark the signature tribute to heritage, culture and art in all of Azza Fahmy's creations

"It’s because places have souls, they resemble those who inhabit them," Azza Fahmy explains.

Ahram Online was invited to a special tour behind the scenes at the workshop of Azza Fahmy – referred to by her staff as AF –in 6th October City on the outskirts of Cairo.

Photo: Azza Fahmy collection and workshop( Ahramonline)

Photo: Azza Fahmy collection and workshop( Ahramonline)

Fifty years ago, Fahmy started out as an apprentice in the male-dominated workshops of Khan Al-Khalili, learning all about the craft of jewelry making.

She then started her own workshop, aiming to tell stories of heritage and culture through her creations, before she started her own line and eventually became the most famous Egyptian jeweler designer.  The rest is history.

The most remarkable thing about Fahmy’s factory was the serenity of the place.

In a work buzz of 200 craftsmen and tens of designers and staff, you would expect some noise. But apart from the faint sounds of working hands, it was remarkably quiet.

"Concentration is the key element here, whoever wants to listen to something can use the headphones," Rana Kandil, senior PR associate, told Ahram Online as she led the tour and explained every step.

Photo: Azza Fahmy collection and workshop( Ahramonline)

Photo: Azza Fahmy collection and workshop( Ahramonline)

The ground floor of the workshop, established in 2003, is male dominated, consisting of successive rows of craftsmen, each stationed in his quarter, working intently on a specific job.

The hierarchy

What manifest itself profoundly at the workshop are three main things.

First of all is the value of research. "Our Pharaonic collection was in the research phase for almost  eight years, even a minimal margin of error was not accepted, that’s what puts AF at the head of the market," says Kandil.

Apart from a brief welcome, our encounter with AF was minimal. Throughout our stay, which lasts almost four hours, she could only be seen through a glass wall deep in concentration with a number of young trainees stooped over designs. We were requested not to photograph this section.

The second thing was the hierarchy of the work process.

Craftsmen were ranked according to their work longevity and experience into three categories, in a manifestation of the Ottoman craftsmen hierarchy: the master (osta), the handyman (snaiei), and the young workers (sari).

Photo: Azza Fahmy collection and workshop( Ahramonline)

Photo: Azza Fahmy collection and workshop( Ahramonline)

"This is how it used to be in the Ottoman times and in the old jewelry markets of Egypt, and this is how we maintain and pass on the craft from one generation to another," Kandil said, adding that a master worker is generously rewarded when he teaches others the same skill.

Decades of work made Hamada, Samir and others masters, while stooped beside them were the likes of wide-eyed youngster Abdel-Hakim, eager to learn.

"We know that we are part of creating beauty with our bare hands, it's unique to witness creativity manifested," they said.

The third apparent factor was the firm grip on quality control.

Each step on the way was rechecked, starting with the molding of raw materials into either sheets or tiny threads - which was the only step where a machine was used - followed by various steps, among which were mould formations, cutting the materials into the designed forms, inserting gems, motifs, filigree, beadings, polishing, etc.

Photo: Azza Fahmy collection and workshop( Ahramonline)

Winds of change

“Global trends sweep over the world, affecting creativity in all fields," says Amina Ghali, daughter of Azza Fahmy and senior designer, who took Ahram Online through a presentation of the trends that took the world by storm recently.

"Everybody is coming back to nature, spirituality, and the connection between the souls of human beings with each other and with the universe at large.”

Ghali says this is what inspired their last collection, 'Third Eye on the Universe', which includes pieces selected and unveiled exclusively by renowned British designer Matthew Williamson for his AW15 show this year.

Photo: Azza Fahmy collection and workshop( Ahramonline)
Amina Ghali presenting Third Eye On Universe

"This trend is basically a result of people being fed up with commercialism and materialism, and people were getting back to the essence of connecting with one’s self, God and the universe.

"Even in Egypt, we see people moving towards addressing spirituality, life coaching, meditation, nutrition and so forth. We as designers know that this eventually translates into our work. The designers showcased then for the first time, pieces of the collection, which all conform to the Eye on the Universe trend and have reflections of symbols of life, space and eternity. They included constellation-inspired pieces favoured by Mathew Williamson," she said.

Photo: Azza Fahmy collection and workshop( Ahramonline)

Photo: Azza Fahmy collection and workshop( Ahramonline)

Featuring diamonds, very much-in-trend African amethyst, bluish/purple tanzanite, green onyx, blue topaz, the jewels were an array of varieties, from minimalist pieces to statement ear- climber earrings, bangles, rings and necklaces.

Necklaces and bangles celebrated the ostrich feather of Maat and the protection symbolism of the goddess Nekhbet, spreading her wings, and in some pieces encircling the wrist with a single wing.

Photo: Azza Fahmy collection and workshop( Ahramonline)

Photo: Azza Fahmy collection and workshop( Ahramonline)

Smaller interpretations of stars and crescents adorned stackable bangles while formations of cloud-like filigree gave many pieces a subtle edge.

"A star has notions that give us a sense of the immortal, unreachable and cosmic," Ghali says.

The key of life was the high light of the collection, merging silver, gold, and aquamarine stones in bold almost ultra-modern interpretation of the famous Pharaonic symbol.

Photo: Azza Fahmy collection and workshop( Ahramonline)

"Azza Fahmy always says that everything is a reinvention of an already existing thing, our job is to continue the legacy of incarnating beauty," concludes Ghali.


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