The Midas touch of Azza Fahmy


Azza Fahmy’s journey as a jeweler began with her fingers as they turned the pages of a book on medieval European jewelry at a Cairo book fair. In an interview with Time magazine she said the book sparked a painful memory of Ms. Fahmy's widowed mother who had to sell her wedding jewelry to make ends meet. That memory prompted Ms. Fahmy to turn her skills to jewelry.

The beginning was hardly easy because she was the first woman to take an apprenticeship in the bustling, historic souk, Khan El Khalil in Cairo. Ms. Fahmy challenged a male dominated industry to become one of the region’s most prolific and respected designers.

Today, Azza Fahmy is a $4 million company and employs 180 designers, artisans, marketers and consultants. It has boutiques in Egypt, Dubai and Jordan, and retailing agreements in Qatar, Bahrain, Dubai and the United Kingdom.

Her collections are fashioned from gold, silver, precious and semi-precious stones and pieces sell from $100 up to $20,000. In 2007, the Financial Times named Ms. Fahmy as one of the 25 most influential businesswomen in the Middle East.

As is always the case, great work is a result of love for what you do. “For me, jewelry is a love affair. I never thought of it as a business. But each time I visited Europe, I thought my work was better than what I found there.” Ms. Fahmy said.

The spirit of Ms. Fahmy’s jewelry lies in the Arabic tradition. Her “culture line,” which is at the heart of her work, is inspired by everything from the hammered silver of peasant wedding jewelry and the repetitive patterns of Islamic architecture to symbols of Arab folklore such as wolf fangs and chili peppers.

Ms. Fahmy blends gold and silver for the visual effect of inlaid brassware found in Arab souks, and echoes of the calligraphy used for Koranic verses and Arabic poetry make their way into her pieces. “Everything I see around me, I turn into jewelry,” is her philosophy.

Ms. Fahmy was born in the southern governorate of Sohaj and graduated from Helwan University in 1965 with a degree in ornamentation and decoration. The British Council gave her a fellowship to study at the City of London Polytechnic School, where she sharpened her design skills.

Her first shop opened in 1981 in Cairo’s upscale Mohandiseen district, in collaboration with her sister Randa, a designer of Islamic metalwork and lighting, and her then husband, the architect Nabil Ghaly. In 1997, she opened the Azza Fahmy Boutique in Maadi, a posh suburb of Cairo, followed by another store in Heliopolis. There are now five Azza Fahmy boutiques in Cairo alone. Her customers have included the Saudi, Kuwaiti and Jordanian royal families.

Azza Fahmy Jewelry has partnered with other designers like Julien MacDonald and the British Duo, Preen - Justin Thornton and Thea Bregazzi. Their joint creative effort resulted in a highly acclaimed collection presented at Preen’s catwalk show during New York Fashion Week in February 2010.

Egypt will always be an ancient land and Ms. Fahmy’s creations will continue to glitter just as the sun turns the Sphinx to gold every evening.

(Umita Raghu Venkataraman, a writer at Al Arabiya, can be reached at: [email protected])