“I always knew I’d be in magazines,” says Egyptian jeweller Azza Fahmy. “I just didn’t know why.”
Decked out in a bright pink jumper crested with a dazzling Pharaonic necklace, there’s no mistaking the chutzpah that got Fahmy where she is today: sipping tea in the basement of her newly-minted store in London’s most upmarket district – the latest in a global network of 15 eponymously-named retail stores.
“But it wasn’t always like this,” Fahmy says, with a glint in her eye not unlike that of her statement pieces.
In 1969, when she was in her mid-twenties, Fahmy happened upon a German book about the jewellery of Medieval Europe. She says it was a ‘lightbulb’ moment that inspired her to want to make jewellery that draws on heritage.
At the time, the goldsmiths’ quarter of Cairo’s Khan el Khalili souk was entirely male-dominated, but that didn’t stop Fahmy trying her luck and urging them to teach her the craft.
“They let me in… they liked me,” she says, breezily, as if it was the most natural thing in the world to become Egypt’s first female jeweller.
Her experience in that bazaar would prove critical in her success. After her apprenticeship, she received a scholarship to study jewellery design in London in the mid-1970s, before returning to Cairo and opening her first shop in 1981.
Today Azza Fahmy is recognisable as Egypt’s first truly global fine jewellery brand. The firm has collaborated with British designers Julien Macdonald and Matthew Williamson and lists the likes of pop star Rihanna and supermodel Naomi Campbell among its clientele.
Speaking from her Burlington Arcade store in London’s Mayfair, which opened in March, Fahmy says: “My long term aim has always been to inject culture into jewellery… something pulled me towards it. I had a vision to do this.”
Back in the 1980s, Fahmy began by appropriating her Egyptian homeland’s history into her pieces, and followed up with collections that showcased Gulf, Moroccan, Palestinian and African heritage.
Today each piece is handmade in the firm’s Cairo atelier. Many of the jewels feature Arabic script portraying messages of love, friendship and peace, along with traditional symbols from across cultures.
“We never copy,” she insists, “we understand, digest, and then come up with something.”
Nowadays Fahmy designs the collections alongside her youngest daughter, Amina. Her eldest daughter, Fatma, is the company’s managing director, and has spearheaded the new London store.
Fahmy says her two daughters grew up learning the jewellery trade not through choice but necessity.
“I was a single mother so I took them everywhere; they would be polishing gems, stamping price labels and setting up booths. Actually it was very good for them because they learned everything there is to know.”
Managing director Fatma sees great international potential for the brand. “It was time for us to take our first step out of the Middle East region into Europe. We knew we needed to be in one of the world’s fashion capitals, such as London, Paris or New York.
“We chose London because we have a lot of connection to the UK, it felt like a natural fit for us. It’s a prestigious Mayfair address and has a lot of jewellery heritage.”
Fatma says she wanted to create a European physical store where people can come and experience the story.
“We sell online but it’s not the same, especially with jewellery. People want more than a piece of metal: they want something with meaning that they can connect to.”
Azza Fahmy first launched in Dubai in 2003 in the then-fashionable Emirates Towers Boulevard and later moved into the nearby Bloomingdales department store.
Fatma says: “Right now Dubai is going through a competitive and challenging stage, we don’t feel we are in the right place to have a stand alone shop so the Bloomingdale’s concession works for us.”
Fatma says the Azzy Fahmy brand was initially built on the loyalty of Kuwaiti, Saudi Arabian and Egyptian clients. But the brand is seeing much more take up from Emiratis and Bahrainis today, she adds.
“Many of our GCC clients have children at school in London and they holiday here, so many of them will visit our London store,” Fatma says.
The firm is also witnessing significant online growth in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait as clients become more comfortable with paying for goods online.
“Our online sales are around five per cent of our global revenues and I want to grow it to this within three years to 10 to 12 per cent – I believe we will surpass that,” she says.
As for her mother Azza Fahmy, the lynchpin of this huge empire, what is she most proud of today?
“I am proud that when people think of culture and jewellery infused together, they think of us, all across the world,” she says.
“I always knew I’d be here, in this London store. When I love something and when I want to do something I am sure about it,” Fahmy says, with that fierce glint back in her eyes.
“I don’t care about failing, I will just learn from it and never look back. Listen to your heart and follow it.”
“All I know is that I want people to feel the same feeling that I feel when I see something – whether it’s a play, a flower or poetry. I want them to feel that love and beauty. I want to go crazy with creation.”For all the latest retail news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.
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