Jewelry designer Gaelle Khouri found herself and her own voice through her jewerly designs. Each piece is a silent yet powerful manifestation of her inside world of emotions and experiences. Since launching her first collection Garden of Earthly Delights, Khouri has continued the search of "her, herself and she", the foundation and springboard for all her alluring designs. But designing jewelry hasn't always been on the forefront of Khouri's mind - in fact, she was headed for a career in economics. What changed her mind? How did she build her business all by herself? Let's find out:
When did you first realize your passion for jewelry design?
Gaelle Khouri: The transition didn't happen overnight. I think I always had an interest and knew I would end up in a creative and artistic field but I had never expressed that strongly before.
I grew up in Tripoli, which is a city in the north of Lebanon and the perception of success there is largely dictated by a limited number of academic fields. This has partly influenced my academic choice and led me to major in a scientific field. But when I was getting my Master’s degree in New York, I started to realize I wanted to do something different to what I was doing at the time. I think it was normal as I was growing up and maturing more to develop a better understanding of myself and my real interests. Also, I think having fulfilled my personal academic and professional achievements, I had enough confidence to know what I wanted, say it out loud, and pursue it.
I took the first and second steps when I interned at Oscar de la Renta and then at Elie Saab. I got job offers at both houses but wasn’t fully ready at the time to make the transition. And honestly, I think deep down I knew that I wanted to start and run my own venture.
When I decided not to take the job offer at Elie Saab, I started working again at an investment bank in Beirut. But I certainly wasn’t fully satisfied with my decision back then and so continued my search for something else. I brainstormed a lot; I built models for fashion business ideas, I even started developing a blog! And then I randomly met one of the most well-known painters in the Middle East, and decided to take jewelry drawing lessons with him – not knowing where that would lead. So it started as something on the side, which was very fulfilling from day one. I also think that the fact that I already had some drawing skills made me enjoy it even more.
Then my teacher pushed me to start the production. The field of production was an unknown territory to me but I took the hard first step of giving it a try, and in spite of the many, many challenges that came along the way, things started to unfold and to move forward from there.
And today, I truly cannot express the joy I get out of doing what I do. Despite all the challenges, being at the workshop, creating and crafting pieces is honestly the most beautiful moment of my day.
What's the most valuable lesson you learned from interning at ODLR and Elie Saab?
I learned that this is the field I want to be in. I also learned that it is not going to be an easy transition. Also both experiences gave me great insight into the fashion and design world, I got to see the different departments and sides of the business, giving me a well-rounded idea about how a fashion brand lives and functions.
So what elements are incorporated into your jewelry designs?
I have always felt an instinctive connection with nature, which I try to expose and emphasize. Hence, the first collection, The Garden of Earthly Delights, reflects upon the deep-rooted instinctive connection that exists between woman and nature.
The pieces translate the complexities of the feminine through the complexities of the universal. For instance, some designs portray provocative and appealing physical characteristics of diverse species that compare in strong ways to human psychological characteristics.
A key common characteristic among pieces is the technical complexities and the movements. I am all about details and relief and like the fact that in most pieces, the visual effect from afar is quite different from what the person sees in the piece from a close-up look, when all the details appear.
The first collection is divided into two carefully curated selections; Couture and Conceptual. The Couture collection’s innovative use of coloured stones is integral in highlighting the delicate and intricate designs. The Couture pieces include jeweled insects and twisted forms, resulting in powerful pieces. The Conceptual collection focuses on abstract ways of portraying the beauty of nature. The metals used - treated bronze, rhodium silver, 18 carat yellow and pink gold - make for a melting sculpture that models Garden of Earthly Delights into a stunningly bejeweled extension of woman.
What are you trying to convey through your designs?
Creating the pieces has really been a personal self-exploratory journey. I've used the design process to be inquisitive and reflective.
For me, creativity and inspiration stems from the inside, not the outside. Inspiration does not relate to what I see, but to what I experience emotionally. The pieces I create are almost my inner voice; they are a tangible form of my emotions.
What is outside, like nature for instance, is simply “raw products” to help translate the emotions to channel into the “final product” which is the actual piece.
I think we are all constantly influenced by everything that surrounds us, like random shapes and forms. The amount of information we are accumulating and stockpiling is growing even more due to various social media platforms. Out of everything that gets stocked in my head, I am particularly interested in strong movements and shapes. I find beauty in intricate and complex shapes that are left unfinished and unclean. I feel that pieces like that have a mix of appeal and unattractiveness that creates a particular and exotic beauty.
Your collection compares human psychology along with other species, could you elaborate on why you were drawn to this theme – what aspects of human psychology were you inspired by, what animal characteristics were you drawn to and why did you chose those specific animals for your collection?
Although there are many insects in the collection, it is really not nature. It is very much linked to my emotions and my emotional state. I use what is external, like elements of nature, to try and make this feeling more tangible. For instance, I have a lot of spiders, like the Cuff and Earrings; what intrigues me are the details and complexities of the animal or insect anatomy. I feel like there is something very beautiful, but at the same time very ugly about them – which is exactly how our emotions are. There is always this contrast between feeling good and feeling bad and this is what interests me.
Toughest part about designing your collection?
Challenges exist every day and relate to every aspect of the business but contrary to common belief, the creative part is the least time-consuming of all.
One of the biggest challenges of the business is managing production. When I create a piece, it is always challenging to turn it from a drawing to an actual piece, because there are a lot of intricacies and details that go into each piece. And there is always a feel about the piece that only the designer can see, and sometimes it difficult to translate and incorporate that into the final piece. So we start crafting the jewelry, like a little piece of sculpture on wax, and invest a lot of time in the craftsmanship process until I am fully satisfied with the product. Crafting the piece and reaching the final mould can be quite exhausting for artisans, and for myself, and quite time-consuming. More generally, production was an unknown territory to me when I first started, and it wasn’t very easy to get familiar with the nature of the work and the technical aspect, especially that the industry in Lebanon is private and controlled by a few families.
Another challenge I faced at the beginning, related to the fact that I am a woman working in an industry controlled by men – in the production world - which required me to be sharper than I usually like to be, in order to be taken seriously. However, with enough patience I was able to overcome these issues. And today I have developed a personal relationship with the artisans and suppliers, something that has completely changed the dynamics!
Production aside, I take care of the business and corporate-related issues which also have their own challenges: I spend time thinking about the marketing strategy, and creating the right image for the brand, which involves different factors like presence on social media, campaign shots and the website. I also allocate some time for networking which is crucial to reaching out to clients and buyers, and to understand the market.
And the toughest challenge I am still facing is of a financial nature. I am self-funded, and it's challenging to manage and maneuver with no financial backing, especially in a business that involves a luxurious item and so requires a lot of cash - raw materials are quite expensive. I started production about 5 years ago but I was able to launch only last summer as I took my time building the corporate identity, which I think is as important as the collection itself, and that required significant amounts of investment.
What's the favourite jewelry piece that you've ever designed?
This is a hard question to answer. I think I am emotionally attached to every piece I have created. And every time I look at one, I have a flashback of when and how I created it and in which emotional situation I was at the time of creation. But if I were to choose one, I would say the Anchor earrings: They are one of the first pieces I created from the Garden of Earthly Delights collection. They are made of 18ct yellow gold, set with brown diamonds and baroque Chinese pearls. Pearls often communicate a romantic and feminine feel but in the Anchor earrings, the bold design also creates a sense of fearlessness. This sharp contrast and dichotomy is resonant with my divergent personality traits.
Who do you envision wearing your designs?
I don’t think I have one particular style icon. Any woman who doesn’t follow the pack, but goes for a daring and different style that reflects her personality - all while keeping elegance in check - would stand out for me. I think it is also important for the style to look effortless, as if it comes naturally. Sometimes you look at a woman and feel that a big amount of time and effort were invested in the look. I think that kills the style! I admire women including Daphne Guinness, Rihanna, Pandora Sykes, and Negin Mirsaleh, as well as Tina Leung and Yoyo Cao. I think they are always on point and their styles are always a true reflection of their edgy personalities.
Any hints about future collections/collaborations? Where do you see your brand going?
I have just worked on a collaboration with fashion Lebanese designer Hussein Bazaza for his FW17 Haute Couture collection, which took place in July in Rome.
I am now in the process of working on the second collection which will launch in September 2017. It will feature 15 pieces, across both the Couture and Conceptual collections.
As to where I see the brand going, I envision Gaelle Khouri as an exclusive artistic high-end jewelry brand with a strong international presence. I do not wish to hugely commercialise the brand because the product I offer is not mainstream, rather targets a niche market of women.
I am keen to present the product as a wearable piece of art so the image of the brand will be linked to art as much as to jewelry.
If you could do a collaboration with any jewelry designer or brand, who would it be and why?
There are two different options in my head: I would like to do a collaboration with another like-minded jewelry designer. I admire the work of Lydia Courteille and Bibi van der Velden - I feel our artistic direction is similar in that we offer creative designs that eschew the mainstream. Also, Lydia Courteille is from a different generation where the internet and social media weren’t as developed so her inspiration and creativity was influenced by other elements than the ones that influence us today. Hence, I think a collaborative project would be interesting.
Any advice for those who want to become a jewelry designer?
It honestly depends on what kind of assets people have and start with. If they have the technical knowledge and the financial ability to venture into this industry, then the way will be much smoother. Otherwise, I think it would require true passion for the field. Because only when you are passionate about what you do, will you find in you the patience, the self-control, and the composure, that will allow you not to lose motivation and keep moving forward. The path won’t be smooth, and there will be days where you go on a tough roller coaster of emotions, and it won’t be easy. Just keep thinking positively, plan short term. Have a long term vision for the brand, but work it step by step and enjoy small achievements. But if someone is really passionate about what they are doing, their passion will lead them through it all, they won’t need any advice!
And lastly, just for fun - what's your favorite animal?
I have a cat but I really like all animals – except mice and cockroaches! As Schopenhauer said, ‘compassion for animals is intimately associated with goodness of character, and it may be confidently asserted that he who is cruel to animals cannot be a good man’
Find out more about Gaelle Khouri's designs at gaellekhouri.com.
Some answers have been edited and condensed.
Images by swoonery.com, Talisman Gallery at Harvey Nichols. All images courtesy of Push PR.