About Azza Fahmy:
In the preface of this book, Azza Fahmy, or “AF,” as her daughters call her, shares the story of how she became one of Egypt’s most prominent jewellery designers. It was happenstance, when the Sohagi-born stumbled upon a book titled, “Traditional jewelry of the Middle Ages,” by Klement Benda (Artia/Praha, 1966) at the 1969 Cairo International Book Fair. Inspired, Azza became the first woman to train in Egypt’s jewellery quarter before developing her distinctive style and starting her eponymous brand. Azza’s designs are inspired by culture and heritage. She frequently draws inspiration for her collections from architecture, poetry, and traditional and historical jewellery spanning different time periods.
Azza Fahmy is renowned for her ground-breaking technique of combining gold and silver in the same piece, challenging the common convention of determining the value of a piece of jewellery based on its weight in gold or silver. As her creations often feature both precious metals, their weights cannot be precisely determined, transforming them into pieces of art that are cherished by discerning collectors.
Azza provides a first-hand account of life in the jewellers’ quarter in Cairo, emphasising the jewellery craft’s demand for a high degree of honesty and trust, as young apprentices transport significant quantities of gold between workshops (up to 10 kilograms on a single trip). Azza draws a connection between the absence of social security systems for women and families in the past and the tradition of acquiring jewellery, particularly gold, as a form of savings. She illustrates this idea with vivid anecdotes, such as observing peasant (falahī) women, whom Azza defines as the inhabitants of rural areas and villages, purchasing crescent-shaped gold earrings at jewellery shops after the harvest season. In contrast, the classes lower than the middle-class who inhabit cities and towns (Sha’bī), would select gold bangle bracelets to stack, with the length of the stack indicating a woman’s wealth. This notion of (Zinah_wa_khazinah), meaning ‘beauty and wealth in one’ is shared in many other countries across the Arab World, and our collection contains several objects that are adorned with gold and silver. This kandurah embellished with 18-carat gold from our collection is currently on display at the Shindagha Museum.
Prior to delving into the first chapter, Azza clarifies that the book centres around jewellery worn by most Egyptian women from the early 1900s to the present day, rather than the jewellery preferred by high-society women.
Chapter One: “Peasant and Sha’bi Jewelery”
In this chapter, Azza cites the World Gold Council’s estimation that Egypt consumed 120 tons of 24-carat gold in 2001, with 70% allocated to the production of jewellery for the falahī and the Sha’bī classes. However, Azza acknowledges the difficulty in precisely attributing a piece of jewellery to either class.
Azza emphasises the crucial role of master craftsmen in creating these jewellery items, employing a range of techniques such as the filigree (shiftishi) work, which bears a striking resemblance to lace. She highlights waterwheel (saqya) earrings worn by falahī women in Upper Egypt as a noteworthy example and points out the mention of these earrings in Edward William Lane’s 1836 book, ‘An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Middle East.
Chapter two: “Desert Jewelry”
In this particular chapter, Azza notes that the demand for jewellery in Egypt’s desert and oases regions is lower than in the Nile Valley and the Delta. Despite the Nile separating Egypt’s Eastern and Western deserts, she underscores the commonalities in their jewellery, which often incorporates silver balls, semiprecious stones, and glass beads, most found in their surrounding environment.
Azza expresses admiration for the ingenuity of Bedouin women, who display exceptional artistry in crafting desert jewellery. These women embroider their black cotton dresses with vibrant threads in various colours such as green, yellow, orange, red, and fuchsia. Bangles, hair ornaments, veil pins, and amulets are all prevalent adornments in oases like Al Dakhla and Al Kharga. Azza also shares personal stories, including her friendship with Hagg Makkawi, a Tunisian jeweler known for crafting the dumluj, a wide bangle worn in Siwa, Tunisia, and Libya.
Chapter three: “Nubian Jewelry”
In the third chapter, Azza explores the region of Nubia, situated between southern Egypt and northern Sudan. She traces the name “Nubia” to the Ancient Egyptian word “nub,” meaning gold, hence the appellation “land of gold.” Azza describes Nubia as consisting of three distinct groups, each with unique yet similar jewellery. Nubian women treasure their jewellery, wearing some of it daily and considering it a focal point of marriage rites and traditions as part of the dowry. Pharaonic influences are also still apparent in earring styles. Azza refers to depictions of King Akhenaten’s daughters during Al Amarna period (1353–1336 BC) wearing a collection of earrings similar to those of Nubia.
Chapter four: “Jewelry for special purposes”
This chapter explores jewellery crafted for unique purposes, such as the zar, a ritual aimed at warding off evil spirits. The zar ceremony involves chanting and folkloric dancing, led by a woman adorned with numerous necklaces and amulets inscribed with Allah’s names and Qur’anic verses.
Healing charms are made of silver and are believed to have the power to cure or ward off illnesses. Azza notes that these amulets are made to order with the shape tailored to the ailment, for example, a person suffering from a heart condition may wear a hollow silver heart charm.
Chapter five: “Egyptian hallmarks”
The final chapter examines the organisational structure of goldsmiths and jewellery makers in Egypt. Azza notes that despite Egypt’s long history of jewellery making, there hasn’t always been regulation to control the quality of the items made. Saladin established the first official hallmarking authority in Egypt between 1138 and 1193 AD. Its main function was minting coins and authenticating precious metals. It was Muhammad Ali Pasha who mandated that gold and silver jewellery be stamped according to their specific carats.
In 1940, hallmarking incorporated various symbols on precious metals, such as the ibis for gold. Initially, all jewellery was hallmarked in Cairo, before the Department of Hallmarks and Measures expanded its branches to different regions of the country.
This captivating book, informed by Azza Fahmy’s four decades of experience and extensive research, presents a comprehensive exploration of Egyptian jewellery over the past century. The book is distinguished by its exceptional visual aids, with dedicated pages showcasing each region’s jewellery types, including earrings, necklaces, and bracelets. Catalogue images are supplemented with striking photographs of Egyptian women adorned in their jewellery, as well as goldsmiths and trade masters. Among some of the women featured in images are silver screen icons such as Tahiya Carioca and Camillia.
Azza Fahmy offers the unique perspective of a skilled, traditionally trained artisan and a cultural heritage enthusiast. Her accounts of personal encounters with the creators of these jewels provide invaluable cultural context, which might otherwise have been overlooked or lost. Many of the book’s illustrations are Azza’s own drawings, offering readers a glimpse into her creative mind and meticulous attention to detail.
Also by Azza Fahmy:
- My Life in Jewelry – 2023
- The Traditional Jewelry of Egypt – 2015
Format & Layout:
- 236 pages
- ISBN 10: 9774249011