A walk through the streets of Cairo is often as educational as a history class; one that is told by ornaments, proud woodwork, and eloquent mosaics. Amidst the long-standing buildings, intricate statues serve as honest historians while elaborate carvings preserve the ancestors’ tales till the end of time. The eventful lives of Sultan Hassan, Al-Salih Najm Al-Din Ayyubid, and Shajar al-Durr have been recounted many times in an uncountable number of ways; nevertheless, some chronicles can never cease to inspire.
Local jewellery master, Azza Fahmy, chose to delve into the peak of the renaissance period in Islamic history, the Mamluk era, to narrate 12 stories of love, victory, and determination. Borrowing ancient patterns and star motifs from Cairo’s internationally-acclaimed monuments, Fahmy bridged the gap between the present and the past with 18 karat gold and sterling silver adorned with diamonds, sapphires, rubies, pearls, and semi-precious stones such as black onyx, lapis, and green amethyst.
“The Mamluk era was a very rich one in art, design, inlaid woodwork, enamelled glass, calligraphy, marble panels, and metal work. This made the Mamluk era a very rich source of inspiration, the challenge was translating inspirations from architectural elements to wearable art and jewellery, but I was excited to take on this challenge,” said the designer about her latest collection.
The Mamluk era has always been deeply intertwined with her five-decade long career. While the earliest workshop she has ever worked at gave her an intimate view of The Funerary Complex of Sultan al-Mansur Qalawun, her brand’s logo was later inspired by a Mamluk emblem. However, this long tango between history and modern conception only reached its peak in 2016 at the residence of the Egyptian ambassador in London.
The ordinary night took an unexpected turn, when Fahmy was approached by Omnia Abdel Barr, who holds a doctorate in Mamluk architecture and works at the Victoria and Albert museum. In minutes, her earlier infatuation with the ancient era paved the road to a long-awaited passion project. According to the designer, Abdel Barr won Fahmy’s attention when she asked her to rescue the Mamluk Minbars by designing a piece inspired by their architecture and donate a percentage of the profits to the restoration process.
Aside from the financial contribution, Fahmy is also a firm believer in design’s role as a cultural ambassador. “Design is one of the ways that cultures and history are translated to today’s generations in a modern way, so I feel very proud when I’m the reason to educate my wearers about a certain poet, a Sultan, or a monument; I feel happiest when a client asks for the Rumi bracelet or the Sultan Hassan necklace. It’s also a documentation of our history in a different way,” explained the designer.
Even though, they initially sat to discuss methods to save them, the designer soon drifted away towards a whole collection. After a series of bus trips to visit historic Cairo whether with her team or Abdel Barr, Fahmy dedicated two years to this personal and unique collection.
“I got my inspiration from all aspects of the Mamluk monuments and architecture such as domes, minarets, minbars with their inlaid woodwork, Mihrabs with their intricate mosaic marble panels, calligraphy, famous muqarnas structure which transition the domed shape into the square shape of the room, and all floral and geometric motifs which decorated their walls,” Fahmy said passionately.
A true celebration of heritage, the collection was unveiled in time for the designer’s 50th anniversary of using jewellery as a medium for expression and self-discovery. Matching its grand message and rich sources of inspiration, the Mamluk collection was launched at the museum of Islamic Art in Cairo.
Displayed right next to the monuments that inspired and dictated their details, few star pieces such as the Qawsun Necklace, pierced with arabesque pattern and an eight-point star, and the Qalawun Cuff welcomed Fahmy’s guests.
Being an avid part of the creative process, Fahmy’s 50 years of experience reflect on the intricacies of this collection. “Throughout the past 50 years I’ve visited a lot of countries and have been exposed to many cultures, which educated me a lot on how to enhance my design and how to translate the different aspects of culture and history to wearable jewellery and art.” The designer added “this wide exposure taught me how to look at different things that are not jewellery related and imagine them as a piece worn on a woman.”
When asked, Fahmy attributes the longevity of her career to her unwavering passion and love for what she does “it is what drove me to be here today and what still pushes me to continue and to look forward to future collections and more designs.”
As she is about to start a sixth decade in the business of jewellery design, Fahmy is very optimistic with the quality of designers emerging in Egypt nowadays and happy with the rising interest in design and crafts. As for her near-future plans, in line with celebrating the brand’s gold jubilee throughout 2020, “we are working on very exciting collections and we will be doing different activities in the spirit of the celebrations.”