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Jordanian jeweler flashes into international spotlight

In an interview with Al-Monitor, Jordanian jewelry artist Lama Hourani opens up about her childhood and her path toward designing world-inspired pieces.

An established trendsetter who has headlined fashion magazines worldwide, Jordanian jewelry designer Lama Hourani is elevating Arabic heritage into high-society niches of eclectic, chic and well-traveled clients.

In the 36-year-old designer’s work, notes of desert architecture and prehistoric art flirt with Peruvian Inca symbols — like the snake, which represents truth, insight, fertility, and the condor, a bird of peace — and Masai colors borrowed from garments of African tribesman. Her style is not easy to pin down, but this is part of what is making her an international phenomenon.

Hourani grew up in the art world. The young jeweler’s mother founded the first private art gallery in Jordan in 1991. Using it as an inspiration was the natural next step. The designer recounted the family’s legacy over a Skype interview from Shanghai, where exotic sculptures and pop-art paintings dotted the wall behind her.

“My parents are very special. My father [Hani Hourani] is an artist as well as a prominent political scientist. Being part of this cultural sphere is rare in the Arab world. Growing [up] in this atmosphere has been important and fundamental for my artistic process,” she said.

Today, Hourani splits her time between Amman, Barcelona and Shanghai, while her creations travel the world on the necks and wrists of celebrities and royal families, socialites and fashion bloggers alike.

Jordan’s Queen Rania and Queen Letizia of Spain are only a few of Hourani’s most prominent admirers.

But not only celebrities have taken notice of Hourani’s work. The artist’s intricate pieces of gold, platinum and silver jewels fused with rubies, sapphires, diamonds and rare stones from around the world have also been exhibited in modern art museums spanning Moscow, Tokyo, New York, Paris and Milan.

Hourani’s start was a gradual and intimate one. It began 15 years ago, in the kitchen of her family’s art gallery.

With shining almond eyes like the “Shalabi girl,” as sung by the Lebanese singer Fairouz, the designer remembered her first collection. A young Hourani sought the help of a silversmith, who sat hunched over a wooden table and used rudimentary tools. Shortly after, in 2002, she left for Italy to study gemology and product design. 

Long after the silversmith, the artist said her creations still begin the old-fashioned way, with a pen, a sketchpad and not a computer in sight.

Now a speaker at World Economic Forums, Hourani sees herself as a Jordanian first, then as a woman and Muslim, as her origins played a big role in shaping who she is today and her vision of the world.

“I come from a small country with many perks, but it’s also very poor and lacks any sort of natural resources, making it difficult to sustain its own economy. I grew up knowing that human resources like passion, talent, capacity and skills set Jordanians apart from other places.”

This has made her unique in the design world, she said, with multi-faceted creations having become her signature.

A team of 15 employees currently run the company’s headquarters in Amman, a high-ceilinged space where artful jars of colorful stones line the walls, waiting for their turn to be set into place.

Sounds of metal grinding, tapping and clicking pass through the artisans’ section, the core of Hourani’ s production, where a unique silver piece gets molded every hour.

Inside Hourani’s private studio, or the “cave,” as she calls it, the walls serve as pop-up inspiration boards, with pinned photographs of markets, architectural landmarks and people from her trips around the world.

Three years ago, the designer relocated to China with her husband and launched a new branch of her production there. At first she was intimidated by the dimension of the Chinese market and its mass production.

“I was scared of not finding a placement for my products, as my pieces are unique and collectible while everything here is on a large scale. I asked myself: How am I going to appeal to the masses with my limited edition pieces?” Hourani said.

But she soon realized Chinese clients were actually craving modernity, sophistication and the exotic, all of which her pieces delivered.

With Shanghai studios showcasing her elaborate creations, today Hourani said the Chinese market for her work is second only to the Middle East. And she’s targeting the country’s wealthiest echelons with a new, gold-packed fine jewelry line that’s more lavish than ever.

“Since the market is oversaturated with brands, Chinese people have now reached a point where they really want to be different. What I thought would be my biggest challenge has instead become my biggest plus.”

Against the backdrop of Jordan’s shifting political arena, where the government has only recently started implementing legislative reforms to improve and protect women’s rights, Hourani sees female empowerment as a priority. For Hourani, improving the status of women is the only way toward major social changes. The designer makes a point of extending part of her workforce to underprivileged women in the hopes of empowering them financially.

“We need more exposure to the women success story. We need to highlight how independent, skilled and enlightened many women are in the Middle East, and how difficult and challenging it is to create an environment where women’s businesses can thrive,” Hourani said.

The artist is on a mission, but redeeming the image of a part of the world largely regarded as the cradle of terror and extremism is no easy task. Hourani believes efforts need to extend to all wings of society. And it could start with elevating the Arab world’s more beautiful realities.

“I don’t only produce beautiful things, I am also reinventing a culture … which is now, more than ever, objectified with many misconceptions. All people are talking about are the wrong aspects of Islam, identifying Arabs as creators of terror,” she said.

People from the Middle East carry not only the mission of success on their shoulders, Hourani believes, but also the responsibility to open up more possibilities for the region.

“I am an Arab who is doing something that is understood by the world. I try to draw people’s attention to the Middle East by presenting a work that can be grasped by a plurality of different people. I build bridges between Jordan, the Middle East and the world by projecting a beautiful image of where I come from.”

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