Celebrating UAE Culture | The New Gem

BY Harper's Bazaar Arabia / Dec 1 2015 / 22:11 PM

Celebrating the design DNA at the heart of UAE culture, Bazaar meets Emirati jewellery designers reimagining their nation’s heritage in precious stones

Celebrating UAE Culture | The New Gem
Celebrating UAE Culture | The New Gem
Bushra Bint Darwish 22, Emirati, junior designer at Gafla
Celebrating UAE Culture | The New Gem
Salama Khalfan 35, Emirati, designer of Alezan by SK
Celebrating UAE Culture | The New Gem
Rania Elmaghraby 37, Egyptian, show director for the international jewellery & watch show, Abu Dhabi

Before shopping malls full of international brands dominated the style landscape of the UAE, young Emiratis relied on designing their own clothes and adornments. Celebrating the design DNA at the heart of the culture, Bazaar meets Emirati jewellery designers reimagining their nation’s heritage in precious stones

Working as a junior designer for jewellery brand Gafla, Bushra Bint Darwish knows more than a few things about buying a new piece of jewellery. “It’s a six-step process,” she tells Bazaar. “One: know your budget. Two: what colour gold suits your skin tone – rose, white or yellow? Three: do you want to be able to wear it on a daily basis or are you after more of a statement piece? Four: in terms of colour, do you have something similar at home? Build on your own collection. Five: what cut suits you? The round brilliant cut is most common but there are plenty of others. Pick one that represents your personality. And finally, six: clarity and carat size are important.”

When it comes to her own personal accessory style, Bushra says she likes to keep her jewellery minimal by day. “I usually just pick one standout piece and keep the rest simple. For example, recently I’ve been pairing a ring from Gafla’s Jum’ah collection, which has citrine gemstones for a burst of colour, with a simple pair of diamond earrings.” For special occasions, she prefers to make more of a statement with “necklaces and long earrings.” Her most treasured piece of jewellery is “a six-layer freshwater pearl necklace. Though many people don’t like pearls, I find them absolutely gorgeous, as I think they enhance an outfit. You can wear the simplest dresses and by just adding this necklace, the whole look is transformed.”  

On the fashion side, Bushra’s style choices follow that of her accessories. “I keep it simple during the day, mainly wearing black abayas that have a hint of colour or embroidery. And then when it comes to special events, I’ll wear abayas that are a little fancier, ones that have more to the design and different cuts. However, I always make sure the detail is on the bottom of the abaya or on the sleeves so that the necklace or earrings I pair it with are the standout, as opposed to the outfit.” Does she have a favourite abaya designer? “Yes, Rafia bin Drai of Mauzan. She has such a wide range. I can never leave her store without buying at least one!”

The brainchild of three talented young Emiratis – Hamad Bin Shaiban Al Muhairi, 26, Abdulla BelJafla, 27, and Bushra Bint Darwish, 22 – Gafla “recreates and transforms the history of the United Arab Emirates into one-of-a-kind jewellery pieces,” Hamad, the brand’s managing director tells Bazaar. “Our use of high quality gemstones and diamonds portrays the rich culture and traditions of our country. We strive to keep the past alive and all of our collections are inspired by an element of our history.”

The brand, whose name means caravan in Arabic and was inspired “by the journey of nomad travellers in the Gulf,” launched its debut collections – there are three in total: Jum’ah, Merwad and Bahar – during this year’s Dubai Design Week. “We took the opportunity to launch during Design Week to allow guests from all over the world to experience first-hand what Gafla is about and what we strive to create as an Emirati brand. We’re proud of our heritage and want to share that with clients locally and globally.” Jum’ah, which means Friday, “represents the spirit of love and happiness that bonds all families and friends,” explains Hamad. Merwad “describes the perfume wand that ladies use to apply mesmerising scents,” this functional item, “is transformed from an Emirati custom to a masterpiece, inspired by the sensual movement of smoke that is released from burning oud wood, as well as the gentle ripples created by the drops of essential oils stored inside.” Finally, Bahar uses pearls, “which are known as the Queen of the sea in the Middle East, reflecting the main source of livelihood for many Emirati nationals centuries ago,” he adds.

“We recreate and transforms the history of the UAE into one-of-a-kind jewellery pieces”

“The pieces are made from rose, white and yellow gold, platinum, diamonds and precious and semi-precious gemstones,” creative director Abdulla BelJafla explains. “We try to source our materials mainly from the UAE, particularly the pearls. All of our pieces are designed and handmade in Dubai by professional craftsmen.” What are the next steps? “We’re currently working on expanding the four collections we already have. Then, we’ll work on creating new collections which will be inspired by another element of Emirati history,” says Hamad.

They say that diamonds are a girl’s best friend and 35-year-old Salama Khalfan couldn’t agree more. “I am obsessed with diamonds,” she admits. “They make me feel like I’ve got some oomph, even with a basic outfit. I like to wear classical and edgy designs equally, so long as the diamonds are of top quality. I can never compromise on the quality.” She adds, “Each diamond has a character of its own. You see its personality emerge as you look into it through the loupe, moving it against the light to see the reflections of its facets, as well as its inclusions (if any), which in my view give the diamond its uniqueness.”

A love of jewellery is something that runs deep in her family. “The women in my family are collectors of traditional Emirati jewellery so it’s natural, having grown up with them, to have developed an uncanny love for traditional jewels. A few years ago my mother gave me an old pair of earrings and a gold bangle with the signature gold spikes, which had been made by a man named Bin Noureeh who was known for his impeccable goldsmith skills. They belonged to my aunt before that, and her aunt before.” Her mother also gave her another piece of jewellery that has significant meaning. “My most treasured piece of jewellery, which I wear on special occasions, is a diamond necklace cast in yellow gold with the purest emerald with the most lucid green at its centre. My late father, who was in the UAE police force, bought my mother this necklace on his first work trip to Belgium. I grew up seeing it adorn my mother’s beautiful neck. When my father passed away in 2011, my mother gave it to me. It was a very emotional experience. Now, whenever I wear it, I feel like some of her beauty and the love they shared rubs off on me.”

 It’s obvious that Salama has a flair for making a statement, through her accessory choices, as well as her sartorial ones. “I love dressing for special occasions, even when there isn’t one,” she says with a laugh. “I love wearing pencil skirts and sleek dresses to the office, but I equally like wearing them at home. My husband used to ask if I was going somewhere when he’d see me all dressed up but he doesn’t anymore. He’s since learned that dressing up doesn’t need an occasion.”

Salama’s jewellery line is inspired by her love of all things equestrian. “After becoming an international show jumper in adulthood, I bought my horse Penelope, a Selle Français, in 2009, and she is the key inspiration behind my designs,” she tells Bazaar. “The grace, strength and elegance I found in her represents the kind of woman I envision wearing my pieces: formidable with a strong sense of self, who possesses a deep-rooted connection with the horse and all that it embodies – personal drive, ambition, passion, grace, beauty and liberty.” The word Alezan “originates from the French word for chestnut which refers to the colour of the horse’s coat – a deep shade of reddish, burned brown. Penelope is a classic ‘Alezan’, so it seemed like the natural choice for me,” says Salama.

The brand, she explains, “is a collection of fine, bespoke and individually handmade jewellery inspired by equestrian heritage and exquisite craftsmanship. I mixed the spirit of the horseback sport with a worldly refinement and the charm of traditionally-made jewellery.”

“The jewellery is inspired by equestrian heritage and exquisite craftsmanship”

Each collection takes up to a year to create as “a collection must have a story to it, not just the product of a glimpse of inspiration,” and are handmade “by three wonderful artisans.” Of the process, Salama tells Bazaar, “I love hand work because it is imperfect, and no two pieces are identical.”

 Having been creative from a young age, Salama believes a step into jewellery design was inevitable. “Being creative was, and has continued to be, an integral form of self-expression. As a child, I used to create hair accessories and ornaments and give them to loved ones as gifts. It grew more elaborate over time until I discovered the sweet zeal of working with diamonds, and then it became a devotion.” Before dedicating her time solely to jewellery design, Salama was working in corporate strategy. “It helped develop my business acumen and gave me the necessary skill set to venture out and successfully pursue my creative dreams.”

Rania Elmaghraby’s work means she’s surrounded by beautiful jewellery all day, every day. “My relationship with accessories is a never-ending love story,” she says. When buying a new piece of jewellery for herself, Rania says she looks at the design and colour. “The first thing that attracts me to a piece is the colour of the stones and how that will go with my skin tone. Next, I look at the design and how unique it is. I love exquisite pieces, which is why I have fallen in love with Ruwaya. I am particularly obsessed with their rings.” Simplicity is another important factor. “My accessories are very understated. I have a collection of simple rings made especially for me that I wear every day. It really just depends on the day, event and occasion. Some days I’ll wear a chunky necklace, and others I’ll opt for a simpler one that I can layer with precious stones, which I love to wear to balance my energy as well as complement my outfit,” she says.

“My daily approach to dressing is smart, comfortable and classy. I work long hours, which means my days often roll into nights out with clients or friends so my daily outfit has to be something that can work for both,” Rania explains of her day-to-day style, citing Kenzo, Vivienne Westwood and Manolo Blahnik as some of her favourite labels. She confesses that the colour white is somewhat of a staple in her wardrobe, whether it be on tops, dresses or abayas, which she wears “during Ramadan and also to special occasions.” She says, “I love the colour white in everything. I’m very drawn to the new style abayas that have layers of white and pastels.”

When it comes to special occasion dressing, she says, “I like to look-super glamorous. I love vintage so there’s always an element of that in my outfit.” Her go-to piece? “A fuchsia skirt from Bambah. I bought it for my best friend’s wedding but the beautiful thing is that it worked as well for that as it does with a smart white shirt for dinners out. It’s simply the perfect piece.”

For Bazaar's shoot, Rania wears Ruwaya, a label designed by Fatima Al Dhaheri, a 37-year-old Emirati, who left her successful career in banking to pursue jewellery design within her family’s business, Amwaj Jewellery, before launching her own line this year. Ruwaya, named after her grandmother, “is a very feminine brand. The vision is to embrace the strong, bold and beautiful women of the region. As a woman designing for women, I want to bring out their beauty and glamour through my pieces,” Fatima tells Bazaar.

The brand came about “after I started seeing other jewellery designs in buying catalogues and in our display cabinets. I started to sketch pieces with my own ideas of what I thought others would like and it just came from there. It started small and developed into designs I could convert into pieces of my own.” Her design roots run further back than when she began at Amwaj, however. “In the UAE, until about 15 years ago, there were very few options for buying jewellery, or even clothes, so my friends and I grew up designing our own clothes and bespoke products. So, in a way, design is innate to our culture, and I’ve always been creating something of my own in some shape or form.” 

“In the UAE, there were very few options for buying jewellery and clothes so my friends and I grew up designing our own”

Encouraged by her family, Fatima launched Ruwaya following an extensive period of market research, business and product development and education. The result is a stunning three-part collection featuring a variety of handmade styles, each of which dazzles thanks to the cut and quality of the stones used. “Ruwaya is all about texture and the feeling of the stones,” Fatima says. “They capture and reflect light in many different ways, making each piece shimmer beautifully.” 

Fatima says it’s too early to say what the brand’s biggest achievement is, instead preferring to focus on the future. “I want Ruwaya to become the go-to brand for any woman, be it Arab or Western, from any culture, who wants to make a statement. For me, Ruwaya is a dream that has laid dormant for many years and is now coming alive,” Fatima says. “This is what I was meant to do.”

Styling by Sima Maalouf. Photography by Greg Adamski