Zeinab Khalifa assembles Egypt's eclectic beauty in a jewellery box

Dina Ezzat , Friday 20 Dec 2013

Jewellery artist Zeinab Khalifa amalgamates designs and colours from the diverse Egyptian heritage to produce a new collection of unique pieces which the artist hopes will be worn for generations to come

(Photo: Zeinab Khalifa)

With a new exhibition which opened Monday evening at her Zamalek showroom, jewellery artist Zeinab Khalifa offers a new collection emphasising her long-embraced concept of eclectic designs, as she combines Ancient Egyptian and Islamic patterns to produce predominantly silver jewellery that modern women could wear to the office -- and to impress.

“I see no sense in segregating the diverse elements of heritage; by definition, heritage is an accumulated experience,” she says.

For Khalifa, who has been engaged in jewellery design and production for the last three decades, this approach is one way to keep heritage alive. “At times, women like to have a strictly Nubian piece or a strictly Islamic piece; but it is not necessarily everyday jewellery. There has to be a more flexible approach towards the design, otherwise stagnation takes over,” she comments.

Khalifa explains that experimenting with one discipline at a time was easier in her early works. She started with Bedouin heritage, taking it to modern dimensions which allowed her to create the kind of jewellery that Egyptian women of the late 1980s could appreciate. She then moved to her "original source of passion with jewellery, that worn by the Nubian people" who lived and worked around downtown Cairo, where she was raised; "and then came the phase where things were mélanged."

Drawing on Bedouin designs, Khalifa complemented the work with typical Ancient Egyptian stone colours. The pieces sold very well both in Egypt and beyond, wherever she exhibited her jewellery collections.

For Khalifa, jewellery is not "what it has evolved to be" – plain gold and diamond pieces stored in carefully-locked drawers. "I understand the long-standing economic concerns that have forced women and families to think of jewellery as a predominantly financial asset, but it is perhaps why I prefer to work with silver -- not as expensive, yet equally beautiful and certainly as fashionable," she explains.

Khalifa is indeed one of several – mostly female -- jewellery designers to have re-introduced silver, which they often touch up with gold. By recapturing the spirit of Egyptian heritage, their products grant a third option to their upper-middle class clientele, which was previously forced to choose between limited collections of unaffordable jewellery on the one hand and affordable mass-produced accessories on the other. 

"I admire all kinds of beautiful jewellery, but I think it is unfair for a nation with such a rich heritage to resort to uninspiring items that ultimately fade away in material as in appeal. I love to see women restoring the fascinating tradition of our grandmothers' jewellery box – jewellery to catch your eyes and to inspire your soul; jewellery to wear generation after generation,” Khalifa argues.

A Philosophy graduate from Cairo University, Khalifa wonders why she "did not join the school of fine arts or that of applied arts; I was always passionately in love with art, but this is the way things happened," she recollects.

Khalifa does not lament the journey, though. "I think it is particularly the study of philosophy that instigated this ability I have to challenge the norm, to produce beautiful alternatives rather than merely what is predictable."

Throughout her apprenticeship years, Khalifa did what she calls "instrumental" for her career: she travelled all over Egypt to learn about the types of jewellery and to collect as many designs and items as she could place her hands on.

"I am afraid some of the designs are being lost as they are falling out of fashion, even for their ethnic communities," Khalifa says, adding however that "it is not impossible to reassemble the bulk of the designs and re-introduce them, at times in their perfect original fashion and at times in a more flexible style."

Khalifa is convinced that it is only a matter of time before Egyptian jewellery expands on a much wider scale. This, she argues, would not just be a function of the increasing number of keen and aspiring designers, but also a definite outcome of the political developments that have flared interest and passion in all things purely Egyptian.

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