One Woman’s Journey from Economist to Philosopher to Fine-Jewelry Designer

GAELLE KHOURI - PORTRAIT IMAGE 3
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Deep down, Lebanese fine-jewelry designer Galle Khouri always knew that she would end up pursuing a creative profession – but her journey to that destination was anything but linear. Her professional development started at American University of Beirut, where she earned a degree in Economics with a minor in Mathematics. From there, she landed at New York University, where she completed a Master’s degree in Economics. Growing up in the Middle East, a straightforward profession in a “safe” field of study – like Economics – assured a predictable life, a predictable outcome.

But it was while landing in the business side as an intern at Oscar de la Renta (and later at Elie Saab) that opened up Khouri’s eyes to the world of design. In the three years since she launched her eponymous jewelry brand, her successes have been rapid and astonishing due in large part to her dedication to the craft and the intense training she underwent to become a top-notch jewelry designer. She threw herself into her passion in the way only a woman with a mission and clear-eyed vision can do, with a singular fixation on expressing philosophical thought through the metier of jewelry design.

As one of the most brilliant, thoughtful, and self-aware designers we’ve ever had the pleasure of conversing with, Khouri stands apart from the rest, representing the entrepreneurial spirit of a determined mind in a way that inspires and provokes. In turn, her jewelry designs are unlike anything we’ve ever seen before, much like the brilliant woman behind the craft. With a new collection freshly launched on Net-a-Porter, Khouri spoke exclusively with Savoir Flair about her remarkable story, her design philosophy, and her perspective on being a role model for fellow entrepreneurs in the region.

Gaelle Khouri campaign
Photo: Courtesy of Gaelle Khouri

What is your background and training in jewelry-making?
I started my design journey seven years ago. At the time, I was working as a senior economist at one of the top financial institutions in the MENA region. As much as the transition from the science to the design world seems unusual, it was the most natural step forward in my case and led me to launch my eponymous jewelry brand, Gaelle Khouri, in July 2015.

I grew up in Tripoli, a city in the north of Lebanon, where the perception of success is largely dictated by a handful of academic fields such as medicine, engineering, law, and economics. This perception partly influenced my academic choice and led me to major in the scientific field. It was during my time in New York as a graduate student and professional economist that I started to realize that what I want to do was different. New York helped me widen my perspective and taught me how to think freely. It enabled me with the strength to deviate from the herd and express my individuality through my creativity, which I had disregarded for a long time.

A better understanding of my aspirations, passion, and identity then started to form and the notion of design was very central to it. I took the first step when I interned at Oscar de la Renta in New York and then Elie Saab in Beirut. My role at both institutions focused on strategic expansion and business development, but contributed significantly to my understanding of the design aspect of the business. I was fortunate to be offered full-time positions at both houses, although I decided to opt against it as I was already taken by an entrepreneurial drive to start my own venture.

The jewelry industry in Lebanon is notoriously secretive and closed – it is privately controlled by a small number of families, making it very hard for an outsider to penetrate.

When I moved back to Beirut, I immediately sought and undertook private jewelry lessons and worked extensively on developing my first portfolio within a few months. Jewelry design – as opposed to fashion – was a more natural choice for me as it offered some flexibility whilst I continued to work full-time at an investment bank. Moreover, I found that designing jewelry satisfied my thirst for exploring and expressing the creative side of my personality, which had long been suppressed. Afterwards, I was faced with the challenging but fascinating world of production.

What was challenging about the world of production?
The jewelry industry in Lebanon is notoriously secretive and closed – it is privately controlled by a small number of families, making it very hard for an outsider to penetrate. This proved to be a difficult obstacle, though I developed a solid network of highly competent artisans and trustworthy stone suppliers over a span of seven years. They continue to assist in the creation of my intricate designs.

I would go to the workshop every day after work to sit with artisans, absorb their knowledge and skills, and learn about the various metals and precious stones to develop a holistic understanding of the industry. I then started work on producing my first collection, ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’, and building the brand identity. As I am self-funded and wanted to master the technical aspect before going public, this process took just between three and four years to fully launch the brand, which I am now in a position to expand internationally and launch on Net-a-Porter.

Gaelle Khouri campaign
Photo: Courtesy of Gaelle Khouri

Why did you return to Lebanon to launch your brand? Is your line fully produced there?
The level of craftsmanship in Beirut is very outstanding, thanks to Armenians who migrated to Lebanon following the genocide in the early 1990s. They moved to Lebanon and brought with them the incredible skill of crafting jewelry, which has been passed over from one generation to the next. I have my workshop in Beirut and fully produce the collection there.

Women from the Arab world are starting to see more representation in the fashion and jewelry industries at large. How does it feel to be one of the pioneers?
It’s an amazing thing to see this happening – and it certainly reflects on how much talent there is in the Middle East. I think it is due to three main factors: the Middle East in general – and Beirut in particular – is a place with a very rich culture that has definitely steered our artistic direction. Our heritage is renowned for its elaborate jewelry; Middle Eastern women used to cover themselves and their hands with statement jewelry.

The country has witnessed a lot of wars, and people struggled and fought for their lives amidst poverty, wars, and injustice. These tough experiences built us in a strong and resilient way. Growing up, living there, and witnessing all the atrocities that a war can bring has taught us perseverance and real determination. It taught us how to get out of our comfort zone and challenge ourselves – and that instilled in us a high level of ambition and pushed us on an entrepreneurial route.

Do you see yourself as a role model for women who want to take the path less traveled?
I don’t like to look at myself as a role model. I think every person is unique and every woman’s aspirations are different. Everyone comes from a different environment, different experiences, different emotional baggage, different insecurities, has different strengths and different weaknesses, and therefore different ambitions. Personally, I think I do what I do because I’m a person who doesn’t like to live in comfort zones. I thrive on challenges.

This is what makes me feel alive. But this is not necessarily the case for other women. Some women find their happiness in security and comfort. The only piece of advice I can give is to take the time to create a bond with oneself, to care less about the judgement that other people form of us and more about how we truly see ourselves – to learn about oneself, about the person we really are, and then do what we want and what we enjoy no matter what that is.

We are quite intrigued by the fact that your new collection finds its foundation in philosophy, particularly the “intangible realm of the mind and thoughts”. Can you clarify what you mean by that?
I’m fascinated by philosophy and the intangible realm of the mind and thoughts. Hence, the inspiration for ‘The Next Perspective’, just like for previous collections, stems from the inside. The story behind the collection is based on French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s thinking: “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.”

The collection reflects on the idea that humans are prisoners of their own mind, incapable of attaining the true world. Humans can never detach their mind when they look at things as they are always emotionally engaged and influenced. Hence, all judgements they form are simply interpretations, a play of our reasoning mind. The absolute truth, therefore, does not exist.

Gaelle Khouri campaign
Photo: Courtesy of Gaelle Khouri

How does this philosophy play out in your collection?
Pieces are comprised of complex compositions of abstract ellipses, representative of the interpretations of the mind, which are in a constant state of motion. This thinking happens in three dimensions – ideas float in the inner empty space of the mind to take on volume, all of which is reflected in the manner with which the pieces are constructed.

Taking cues from the previous collection, ‘The Originators’, ‘The Next Perspective’ uses circles that are layered and intertwined – much like the synapses of the mind – to form wearable pieces. The circles are also the circle of thoughts that occupies a man’s inner world. Thoughts are depicted in the form of lines, drawing on the notion that lines bend and twist. And when considered separately, a single thought – like a line – feels simple and straightforward. It is when a multitude of thoughts come together to interact that simplicity is removed, and the thinking and emotion become a complex system.

The fact that I don’t have an academic background in design has given me this freedom in creating.

They say there’s nothing new under the sun, but this collection doesn’t look like anything we’ve ever seen before. Can you describe your design process?
I try as much as possible to let my creativity guide me freely and without constraints. I think this will give rise to more daring and beautiful pieces. I also think the fact that I don’t have an academic background in design has given me this freedom in creating. Nowadays, it is becoming more challenging as I am on the market and constantly absorbing what is around. The constant ‘noise’ from what is around me and what I see will always influence me, but I try as much as possible to not be impacted by the latter. I think it is unavoidable, though.

What inspires your designs the most?
Out of everything that inspires me and is stored in my mind, I am particularly interested in strong shapes and movements. I find beauty in intricate and complex forms that are left unfinished and impure; I feel that pieces with a contrasting fusion of appeal and unattractiveness create a particular and exotic beauty.

The Italian architect Renzo Piano, for example, has such complexities in his work – there are so many different perspectives in one piece when you look at it from a number of angles. Similarly, Jean Tinguely’s sculptures are very relatable to my own designs and inspire me to create as his work focuses on movement and technical challenges – something that triggers my own personal interests when designing.

Gaelle Khouri campaign
Photo: Courtesy of Gaelle Khouri

What are the phases of production that your designs undergo, from thoughts and ideas to actualization?
Creativity aside, the production aspect is equally challenging and tremendously impacts the feel of the final product. The first phase is carving; all the pieces are handmade, I carve most of the design on wax, so all the intricacies and movements are expressed in the most artistic and realistic way.

Carving is the most challenging and time-consuming part and, once the design is carved, it is moulded on metal, which is also not without its challenges. The difficult part is ensuring that the complex idea translates into a wearable piece. Here, the technical part and mechanisms need to be well studied, and production done with the utmost level of expertise.

You have officially launched your collection on Net-a-Porter. How did it feel to land at one of the world’s biggest luxury e-tailers?
I’m thrilled, overwhelmed, and very grateful. This is a very important milestone in my career, one that I’m very proud of, considering especially that the brand is still young and was launched only three years ago – that is, if we don’t take into account the previous six years of hard preparations before the launch.

However, every time I achieve an important step forward, it’s a bit hard for me to live in the moment and simply enjoy. I rather feel the urge to push even higher, focus on what’s next, and create the next step forward to further grow the brand. And that is exactly how I feel now and where my focus is.

Your successes are piling up quickly. What has been your proudest moment so far?
Being picked by my first buyer – the Talisman Gallery at Harvey Nichols, London just two months after launching the brand – brought a lot of happiness and pride. And being approached by different buyers with many years of experience – Stanley Korshak, Auverture.com, and Browns – within less than two years of launching is another great achievement. And, of course, seeing the beautiful feature about the brand in the Financial Times just shortly after the launch was a huge highlight!

Photo: Courtesy of Gaelle Khouri

Some pretty big movers and shakers in the industry have been praising your brand. What are some of their insights that you carry with you?
To quote Vivienne Becker: “As a jewelry historian, journalist, and author of many books on the history of jewelry design and contemporary jewelry, I immediately recognized Gaelle Khouri as a highly original talent in today’s jewelry world. She stands out from the crowd. First, her serious, cerebral approach sets her apart as she clearly looks at the future of fine jewelry […] Her jewelry is engaging, provocative, and emotive; it is contemporary yet poetically beautiful, extremely well-crafted. Then, I am impressed by Gaelle’s professionalism and her understanding of the background, roles, and meaning of jewels – something lacking in most other designers.”

How big is your team? Are you handling both the business and creative sides simultaneously?
On the production side, my design studio is in Beirut and I work with a team of five artisans. On the business and operational side, the team is very small; I have an intern with me and I work with a PR agency based in London, with whom I launched the brand. They are a huge help with press and buyer relationships.

With your Net-a-Porter launch, you must be gearing up for a busy summer. What’s next for Gaelle Khouri, the brand?
Still trying to figure that out! We will definitely be launching a new collection shortly after the launch on Net-a-Porter, and we are working on an exciting collaboration to be revealed soon.

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