All decked up: a century of Egyptian jewelry

Aida Nassar
7 Min Read

Ground-breaking esigner Azza Fahmy releases a book on a traditional arts and crafts

Jewelry is an integral part of an Egyptian woman’s life. Whether it’s the diamond engagement ring, or the gold bangles on a villagers’ arms, it’s a symbol of wealth and status.

In some cases women’s jewelry is the equivalent to opening a savings account, each pound put aside is invested in a bracelet or a pair of earrings, only to be sold when necessary. Alongside its functional use, jewelry in Egypt also has a long history of design and a wide variety of styles that reflect the complexity of our culture and history.

And who better to reveal their meaning than jewelry designer Azza Fahmy?

With about 25 years worth of notes on history that was passed on to her by her masters and teachers when she started off as an apprentice, and her private collection of pieces that either influenced or inspired her, Fahmy felt that she had amassed enough to compile a book.

“Enchanted Jewelry of Egypt: The Traditional Art and Craft will be launched by The American University in Cairo Press this Sunday. It’s yet another on Fahmy’s long list of achievements. She gives the readers access to the last century of jewelry design from across Egypt.

But despite this massive amount of material it still took three years to put the book together. For the first time designers are now armed with a comprehensive history of jewelry design in Egypt.

“I understand how one book can change a person’s life, Fahmy told The Daily Star Egypt.

Fahmy’s own career path was diverted by one such book.

“Little did I know that my visit to the Cairo International Book Fair in 1969 would determine my career. At the German stand, I was awed by an elegant book called ‘Traditional Jewelry of the Middle Ages’ by Klement Benda.

As she leafed through it, Fahmy was amazed by the scores of photographs of jewelry and captions in German, which she didn’t understand, and English, which she knew a little. But the pictures reminded her of the Egyptian jewelry her mother and the women in her family wore, and the jewelry of women from poorer classes, as well as that in shop windows in Cairo, she wrote in the preface of her book.

Determined to learn the art of jewelry-making, she decided to apprentice with one of Khan El-Kahlili’s craftsmen. It was a bold move, and one that surprised Osta Ramadan, who later became her master, since the craft was usually passed on to a member of the family, not a stranger, let alone a woman.

“[It’s a] success story of a woman who had a tremendous passion, and no obstacle could stand in her way, Fahmy recalls. Did she ever feel she was going to be so successful? “I felt it was going to be something big. ‘The sky’s the limit,’ as they say.

Fahmy’s boldness paid off, and today she is a well-established jewelry designer, and one of the first local female designers to forge a strong international reputation.

Her book conveys the passion she has for Egyptian jewelry design. Don’t mistake it for an attractive coffee table book, or a text book on the history of design. The book is a goldmine of information that is relevant for designers, historians, social anthropologists, and anyone curios about Egyptian culture.

Fahmy’s fervor is contagious as she relates the human side of the craft. She interweaves the history and design elements with the social element.

“The women and maidens of Bahari, or sha’abi areas of Alexandria, are famous for their anklets which they wear out of sheer coquettishness; theirs are fashioned out of mabarim or twisted silver wires, with tiny hollow balls of silver around the anklet known as galagil, an onomatopoeic choice to convey their tinkling sound, with a red beat at the end of each ball, she wrote.

“Egyptian folklore has it that each woman or girl can be recognized by the particular tinkling sound of her anklet. A flirtatious woman might wear the pair of anklets on one leg, drawing attention by the sound of the tiny jingles or bells on her anklets, she added.

As the book takes the reader through the history of jewelry design among women all over Egypt, from the Delta villages to the Western oases, from the mountains of Sinai down south to Nubia, the photographs portray real women.

The jewelry is captured in its true element: a peasant woman wearing a pair of King Solomon’s ring earrings or a Nubian woman wearing traditional zaar jewelry as she puffs on a shisha. These photographs keep us rooted in the traditions of jewelry design, and help us recognize its cultural diversity.

Her writing is clear, to the point, and informative. She wastes no time with frilly descriptions and elaborate explanations. In person, she is direct and efficient in her discussions, so her writing style is as much a reflection of her personality as it is of the need to squeeze in as much information as possible.

Fahmy is already contemplating her next venture into publishing.

“We have to do a book on Azza Fahmy, the artist, she said, referring as much as to herself as she was to the brand name she has worked so hard to establish.

Her mind constantly at work, she also suggested a book on the history of the jewelry of the upper social classes. “What did your grandmother wear? she asked in way of explanation.

Fahmy’s inspiration and passion are as strong as ever. There are so many sources of inspiration: “Ottoman, Pharaonic. How can you not be excited? she exclaimed.

“Enchanted Jewelry of Egypt is a treasure, as valuable as any piece in the much coveted Azza Fahmy collection. Her book is bound to provide the same spark of inspiration in the next generation of Egyptian designers.

Share This Article
Leave a comment