Azza Fahmy is a luxury jewelry brand that is unique in many ways. Its creative process is founded on years of research and travel to study the world’s cultures and transform that knowledge into wearable art. Each beautiful piece is handcrafted using both modern and age-old techniques that are now being taught at the Azza Fahmy Design Studio, the only one of its kind in the Middle East. And the fact that this successful company is still family-owned, based in Egypt, and run predominantly by women, only adds to the mystique of a firm that likes to tell a story with each of its jewels. The founder and managing director explain how the company has grown these last 50 years, and what their hopes for the future are
What were the challenges you had to face, and how did you overcome them?
Azza Fahmy: When I started my business, there was no system to follow, and I had to do everything by myself. But when there is nothing to follow, you keep making mistakes. I eventually hired an accountant, and then I hired a consultant, and professionalized the business bit by bit. I see now that it’s normal for artists going into a business to go through this kind of process. My children at one point said: Mom, we have to do marketing. And I said, what’s that? So we really built this business brick by brick. We are lucky people who work in something that we truly love.
Fatma Ghali: All of this, the way the business has grown and developed, has happened organically, without a conscious drive. When I am asked about my particular challenges at this company, I am sure they are the same challenges faced by, say, a Venezuelan entrepreneur: finances, growth, problem-solving. It’s a regular business. I never walk into a meeting thinking that I’m at a disadvantage because I am a woman, for instance.
At what point did the company start to look outward and become more international?
F. G. Because our jewelry has always been very unique, we’ve always been invited to do exhibitions abroad, so we’ve always had that international exposure. But now it’s more systematic and more proactive, in that we are the ones deciding where to go, versus having someone tell us ‘we love your work, why don’t you do an exhibition here, or a display there.’ But if you look at our history, we’ve always been going abroad: Brazil, US, France, Germany… Before this, we were focusing on growing the business locally and accepting opportunities to go abroad, whereas now we are actively thinking: how can we grow the business in the UK, for example
How does Germany fit into this picture?
F.G. Honestly, we have not been to Germany yet with the brand, although we are well aware of the market. Some of the biggest jewelry exhibitions take place in Germany, and Azza and Amina both travel to Germany a lot. We haven’t been focusing on Germany because international expansion requires a lot of resources on every level – financial, human and time-wise. So for the last 10 years our focus has been on the UK, especially London, and from there we are looking at growing our footprint in Europe. We chose London because it is a very international market with a lot of exposure, with a lot of people going in and out. And it’s a tough market as well, so if we can crack that, we feel that we can handle other markets.
How close are you to reaching that point?
F.G. It’s a work in progress. We just launched our Mayfair boutique in London in February of last year, and for the next year or so we will be focusing on that, and on the Harrod’s pop-up store. We are currently testing the pop-up concept: we also did a Beverly Hills pop-up for four months, which was a great way to get a sense of the US market.
How was the response there?
F.G. It was amazing. The US is unique because people are very bold about the jewelry and the clothes that they wear – they’re not afraid to try new things. Europeans can be a bit conservative, more classical, in that sense. And Americans love a story, and that’s what our jewels are all about: each piece has a unique story to tell.
Is this what distinguishes Azza Fahmy from other jewelers?
A.F. Absolutely. Each piece was done with love and with research. I think that people feel the love that I put into my work.
What are people’s reactions when they learn that this is an Egyptian, family-owned business?
F.G. We’ve just returned from London where we had a lot of interviews, and the reaction is that people love it. Egypt has a mystical quality, and it touches a lot of people’s hearts, either because they are obsessed with Ancient Egypt, because they were once on a Nile River cruise, or whatever it may be. There is now also a very strong women’s movement, and people have a certain perception about women in the Middle East, so when they see a family business that is run by women from Egypt, it sends a powerful message. We take it for granted, and often don’t even mention it. But I’ve seen the reactions this last week in London and it makes people sit up and take notice.
For you, doing your job is second nature, but for others, you could be something of a role model. Do you feel this?
F.G. Part of the story is that you don’t get a lot of luxury brands coming out of Egypt or the Middle East in general. Luxury brands come predominantly out of Italy and France, really. So that’s been a challenge for us: proving that it is indeed possible for a luxury brand to come out of Egypt. Some Japanese designers have managed it, and some Brazilian ones as well, but it’s not the norm. In this sense, we have been leaders.
A.F. If I didn’t love what I’m doing, I wouldn’t do it. First, I have to fall in love with the object that I am going to design. If there is no connection, it’s over, I just don’t create anything. Without a connection, the piece would be meaningless. I look at all the motifs around me, in flowers, in books, in architecture, in stones, and see them as jewelry. When you make your piece with love, it talks to you.
This is the company’s 50th anniversary. Are you doing anything special to celebrate?
A.F. We’re kicking off the celebrations in October with a new collection that we haven’t announced yet, but which we’re very excited about. A lot of research has gone into it, and there is a message behind it. It’s one of our strongest collections yet.
What are some of your priorities for the coming two years or so?
A.F: My priorities have changed a little bit. I want to concentrate on our jewelry design school, which is the first of its kind in the Middle East, and this summer we opened our first vocational training program to give students the skills they need. The company is already well established, and my daughter Amina is taking over, she’s being groomed to become the next creative director of Azza Fahmy Jewellery. You don’t know how it feels when I see a girl in my school, and she says to me ‘Ms Fahmy, you’ve changed my life.’ Tears come into my eyes, because I am doing what I like to do.
What is your last message to the readers of Die Welt about Azza Fahmy as a potential business partner?
A.F. You have to get to know this country really well, get to know the richness in the people.
F.G. We are looking for partners who share our values; we’re not just looking at the technical aspects. When you get to know the country, when you get to know the brand, and get to know the people behind the brand, if there’s the right connection in terms of values and vision, then amazing success happens.