Tell us about yourself! Where are you from?
I am the founder and designer of Gaelle Khouri, a high-end artistic jewellery brand that launched last summer in London. I am 30 years old and Lebanese.
What was it like growing up in Lebanon?
Being Lebanese, I grew up in a country that witnessed constant war and suffering. I think this has given me resilience and strength to get out of my comfort zone and pursue what I want.
In fact, I was particularly distressed by the increasing poverty and lack of educational opportunities that I saw pushing many young residents of Tripoli into delinquency. To help address this situation in my hometown, the second largest city in Lebanon, I co-founded the “Tripoli Alpha One Leo Club,” the idea for which stemmed from my belief that meaningful city-wide impact must come from young people. The club taught youth how to better serve their community, which in the process changed their mindset about achieving it in their own lives – I think this was my first experience in the entrepreneurial world and has definitely contributed in a way to where I am now.
Also and on a more artistic level, in the city I grew up in is the Gold Souk, one of the oldest in the region. I was exposed to it from a very young age and it has definitely steered the artistic direction I took. I think my interest in intricate work and the amount of detail that I invest in my pieces comes from my Middle Eastern heritage, which is known for its crafted and elaborate jewellery. Many of my pieces follow the movement of fingers and hands, also relating to my Middle Eastern roots, seeing as women used to cover their hands and bodies with big jewellery.
How did you first become interested in jewellery?
I think I always had an interest in creative and artistic fields but I had never expressed that strongly before – professionally I mean. And the transition did not happen overnight: I grew up in Tripoli, which is a city in the north of Lebanon and the perception of success there is in big part dictated by a limited number of academic fields. This has partly influenced my academic choice and led me to major in a scientific field.
I took the first and second steps when I took on an internship at Oscar de la Renta and then at Elie Saab. I received 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 business.
You left Lebanon in your early twenties for New York City. How did that affect you? Did it have an impact on your work?
I think having achieved myself academically – graduating top of my class at NYU – and professionally, working with renowned companies in the field of economics – gave me enough confidence to know what I want, say it out loud, and pursue it.
You studied Economics. What made you transition from a job in the financial world to making jewellery?
When I was getting my Master’s degree in New York, I started to realise that what I want to do is different from 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.
Where did you learn to make and design jewellery?
I took extensive private jewellery lessons and developed a strong portfolio within a few months following graduation. Though I did not know at the time where I was going, my teacher pushed me to start the production. The field of production was an unknown territory to me but I took the difficult first step of giving it a try, and in spite of the many challenges that came along the way, things started to unfold and to move forward from there. It took 4 years to launch the brand because financially it was a bit of a challenge given that I am self-funded, and additionally I was keen to learn and master the extensive technical side to the work before launching.
Additional note: We actually have the best craftsmanship in the Middle East and I think one of the best worldwide. It is worth mentioning that the jewellery industry was introduced to Lebanon with the Armenians’ migration after the Armenian Genocide in 1915.
You spent time working for Oscar De La Renta and Elie Saab. How has that shaped your career?
These experiences taught me that this is the field I want to be in. I also learned that it was not going to be an easy transition. Both experiences gave me great insight into the fashion and design world, I got to see the different departments and sides of the business and have a well-rounded idea about how a fashion brand lives and functions.
What has been the biggest struggle as a new designer?
Challenges exist every day and this relates to every aspect of the business.
Production for instance 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.
Another challenge I face relates to the process of production: when I create a piece, it is always a bit challenging to turn it from a drawing to an actual piece, because there are a lot of intricacies and details that go into the final product. There is always a feel about the piece that only the designer can see, and sometimes it gets a bit difficult to translate this and incorporate it into the end product. We start crafting the jewellery as a little piece of sculpture on wax, and we invest a lot of time in the craftsmanship process until I am fully satisfied with the final product.
Another challenge I faced at the beginning related to the fact that I am a woman working in an industry with a traditionally male foundation in the production world, and as such required me to be sharp in order to be taken quite seriously. With enough patience I was able to overcome these issues and today I have developed a personal relationship with the artisans and suppliers which has completely changed the dynamics!
The toughest challenge I am still facing is of the financial nature. I am self-funded, and it can be challenging to manage and manoeuvre with no financial backing, especially in a business like mine that requires a lot of investment and raw materials which are quite expensive. I started production about 4 years ago but I was only able to launch in the summer of 2015 as I took my time building the corporate identity, which I think is as important as the collection itself and also because this required significant amounts of investment. Ultimately, this requires a lot of patience and self-control in order to keep moving forward. I always plan long term but try to work for the short term; for the very next step, because I am aware that for the moment this is what I have the ability to do and control.
What does jewellery design mean to you?
It is a silent tool and tangible way of expressing myself. We all have necessary needs that need to be fulfilled – for instance, the need to eat and to breathe and laugh. In similar ways, I feel a need to push this thing that is looming inside – the thing that I call creativity – to the outer world, and I do that through design. The pieces I create are my inner voice, they are a tangible form of my emotions.
Tell us about your debut range “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” What’s the story behind it? What inspired the collection?
Creating the pieces has really been a personal self-exploratory journey. I have used the design process to be inquisitive and reflective.
I have always felt an instinctive connection with nature which I try to expose and emphasise, so the first collection entitled The Garden of Earthly Delights, reflects upon the deep-rooted instinctive connection that exists between the woman and nature. The pieces translate the complexities of women 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.
The first collection is divided into two carefully curated selections; Couture and Casual. The Couture collection’s innovative use of coloured stones is integral in highlighting the delicate and intricate designs. The Casual collection focuses on the primal beauty of nature’s Flora and Fauna. Simultaneously raw and emotional, as mentioned the pieces include jewelled insects and twisted forms, resulting in powerful pieces with a gothic edge.
Can you tell us about the materials you used for the collection?
The metals used include treated bronze, rhodium silver and 18 carat yellow and pink gold. All the pieces I create are handmade which means they are crafted on wax first, like a small sculpture. This process requires great craftsmanship skills which we definitely have in Beirut. The pieces are then set with diamonds and precious stones.
Who inspires you the most in life?
It is more a matter of ‘what’ than ‘who’. 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 stocking is growing even more due to various social media platforms. We passively store the things that our eyes are exposed to in our memory, and for people that design, everything they are exposed to influences their work, whether this is a conscious effort or not.
Out of everything that is stored in my mind, 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.
Visual influence aside, my reflective thinking is very much influenced by philosophical thoughts which consequently impact my creative process. I was particularly influenced by the writings of Michel de Montaigne, Hegel, and Nietzsche, who helped me develop a better understanding of life and supplied me with the strength to pursue what I really love.
What career aspirations do you have?
It is been less than a year since the launch of the brand so we are still in the early stages and a lot is yet to come! I am definitely looking forward to build on that and position the brand internationally as a niche, luxury and exclusive brand.
What advice would you give to aspiring jewellers or creative people?
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 the transition will be smooth. Otherwise, I think it will require true passion for the field, because only when you are passionate about what you do, will you find in you the inner patience, self-control, and the composure that will allow you not to lose motivation and keep moving forward.
The path won’t be smooth; it is a tough market, it is a tough industry. The entrepreneurial world in general is tiring and offers many challenges and there will be days where you go on a tough rollercoaster of emotions and it won’t be easy. Keep thinking positively and plan short term. Be resilient and leverage on every asset you have or can access. Be aggressive and invest in every opportunity that comes your way. No matter how stressed or scared you are, know that it is normal be aware that starting your own company is the toughest thing anyone can achieve, and don’t lose focus!
Have a long term vision for the brand, but work with it step by step and enjoy small achievements. If someone is really passionate about what they are doing, their passion will lead them through it all – they wouldn’t need any advice!
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