CAIRO – Azza Fahmy's latest collection includes a ring crafted in the image of a mud house found in the south of Egypt, in Nubia.
"See the house here, and the steps leading down, and this stone is the lake," says Fahmy, arranging the ring on the hand of a visitor. "It's up to you. But put it this way on your hand, it's surrounded more by the white of your skin, and I like that."
Fahmy, the driving force behind one of the most unlikely success stories in modern design, likes to have things just so. In 1969 she apprenticed with a goldsmith in Cairo's bazaar district, the first woman ever to do so.
Over the past 50 years, she's built an internationally known family-owned jewelry brand, one of only a handful of medium-sized artisanal jewelers in the world. The company today produces 40,000 pieces a year, ranging in price from several hundred to thousands of dollars, and her brand is a model not only for jewelers and designers worldwide but for Egyptian women: Fahmy is so famous in the country of more than 90 million that she is often recognized on the streets.
The company won't disclose revenues, but an average price per piece of $2,000 would put revenue at $80 million. She expects sales to increase this year by 30 percent to 35 percent. The company employs about 285 people.
Her two daughters have even more ambitions for the company, which this year opened its first store in the Mayfair district of London, adding to a network of 14 branded stores, as well as retail agreements with galleries in global cities such as Washington, D.C., and Dubai, and an online shop.
The heart of the brand's success is its unique designs, drawn from Egyptian history and Islamic culture. From pharaconic collars to twisting serpents, Azza Fahmy pieces have been spotted on celebrities from Naomi Campbell and Rihanna to Queen Rania of Jordan.
In an interview in her workshop on the edge of Cairo, in a district called the Sixth of October, Fahmy shared some of the practices that led to her success in the design business. Sales of luxury jewelry are expected to top $287 billion by 2020, according to consultancy McKinsey.
In the past, the high-end jewelry business was split between local boutique designers and, to a lesser extent, internationally known brands, like Harry Winston, Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels, according to McKinsey. But a handful of strong national brands have begun to carve out a middle territory. Swarovski is often mentioned as a leader in that category, along with Chinese company Chow Tai Fook.
The fact that one of them is run by Egyptian women in the male-dominated business is particularly remarkable. In the Azza Fahmy workshop downstairs, dozens of men in blue shirts bend over machines. Much of their work is done by hand, as Fahmy has renewed some of the ancient techniques of Egyptian jewelry-making: hand piercing and stone setting, and filigree, which involves placing tiny wires and beads onto a backing of the same precious metal.
Outside, the Azza Fahmy building is painted jewel red, a standout in the dusty industrial zone. Fahmy's office has fresh flowers on the tables, and Fahmy herself looks comfortable and casual in a white linen shift with a bright scarf, while her daughter Amina, who has taken over about 80 percent of the designing, sits nearby, interjecting once in a while. Fahmy's older daughter, Fatma Ghaly, runs most of the business operations.
The company is known for its metal mix of 18-karat gold and sterling silver. The stones — bright turquoise, brilliant amethysts, diamonds and others — are handpicked from India by Amina. A collection usually takes from six to eight months to create. Some collections, like one based on styles of the Pharaohs, take longer. Fahmy said she researched the collars and wide cuffs for eight years.
"Azza Fahmy's story means no boundaries," said Yasmin Hamalawy, who manages a Cairo school for jewelry designers founded by Fahmy and an Italian jewelry designer, Doris Maninger.
Opened in 2013, the school offers classes for hobbyists and serious designers, with the aim of preserving the trade and growing the profession. "There are no boundaries for women. And no boundaries for achieving your dreams."
Fahmy grew up in the Egyptian countryside, the daughter of a well-to-do family. But her father died when the children were young. Her mother sold off her own jewelry, piece by piece to support the family. "I still remember when she sold the bracelet my father gave her for their wedding," she said.
She went to work as an archivist for the government of Cairo. But she has always been guided by intuition and a sense that her life had a purpose. "I feel messages and calls along the way. I'm certain something will come from this, and I follow it," she said. One of the first messages came when, as part of her job for the Egyptian government, she found herself in a library. She pulled a German art book from the shelves. It fell open to a photograph of a granulated silver donkey.
"That's when I knew I wanted to be a designer," she said.
She was intent on learning how to become one. "I was dying to have this education, but I didn't have the money," Fahmy said. Hence, her journey into the bustling Cairo market called Khan el Khalili where she insisted on an apprenticeships with Hajj Ramadan and Hajj Sayed. She wore tennis shoes and seersucker overalls to protect her clothes, held down a full-time job while she studied, and reared two daughters as a single mother after her divorce.
She worked with them for two years until she felt her designs and ideas exceeded their knowledge. The British Council in Cairo gave her a scholarship to study at London Polytechnic.
When she felt fear, she went ahead, anyway. "If you look back at my life, you think I was courageous. But along the way, all the time, I was shaking inside." Whenever she decided something was the right decision, she proceeded, no matter what.
When she began marketing her own designs, she bought the material on her own, and then used her sales to buy more. "My first capital ... was 3 pounds," she said.
Shifting from a workshop to a structured business was difficult, she said. She needed to learn to trust a team, so that her craft could become a business.
Over the years, there were daily problems with workers and cash-flow crises. Mother and daughter both remembered a day when Ghaly came home from third grade with a bad report card. Fahmy cried because she thought she wasn't doing a good job as a mother — a lesson Ghaly took to heart. "I never did that again," she said.
The girls were part of the business from early on. At the ages of 5 and 8, Amina Ghaly recalled, the girls were at Art in Action, a jewelry conference in Oxford. "We were selling, polishing, talking about jewelry."
"People think everything is handed to you on a silver platter," said Ghaly, who later got a degree in jewelry design at the University of Central England. "But there are expectations and a high standard to live up to. It's a heavy pressure."
Fahmy has been deeply strategic over the years, with collaborations that raised her profile. One was in 2006 with Julien Macdonald, who worked for Chanel and Givenchy as well as his own label, and one in 2010, with Preen. Her work has also been featured in Egyptian film.
In 2012 she designed a collection for the British Museum retail shop.
Her pathway to international presence has been her focus on Egyptian culture. Her story and passion for culture — she will often spend months researching aspects of Islamic culture before launching a collection — gave her a niche that no one else could occupy.
One of her first collections, in the 1980s, was of jewelry inspired by Nubian architecture. Villages in the region in southern Egypt and northern Sudan were destroyed when the Aswan Dam was built. Before those homes were destroyed, the Egyptian government sent a photographer to document the distinctive architecture. Fahmy drew on those to create this latest collection.
Most of the jewelry these days is created by Amina Ghaly, with the help of market research into how to make culture-inspired jewelry light, sophisticated and wearable, especially in the workplace. Fahmy is still going with her instincts to do the pieces she wants to create.
Fahmy remembers when her daughter began drawing inspiration, like she does, from the history of the region, after she and Ghaly visited a mosque in Syria together and Ghaly designed a piece inspired by the elements of the building. Fahmy realized she had transmitted the value she places on culture and history to her daughter. "I felt, part of my job as a mother is done," she said with a laugh.
Fahmy and her daughters are now looking to expand outside jewelry and have even ventured into an architectural design collaboration with a solar company in Egypt called Karm Solar. "We've gone past the jewelry," she said. "I take the culture and tradition and turn it into something that matters today. I love this."