Lebanese jewellery design Gaelle Khouri masters the complexity of genre mixing, whereas she goes more poetic with enchanting bugs earrings or rock’n’gothic with blackened sterling silver cuffs. Her shift from finance to design, her challenges and goals, Gaelle Khouri told us it all.
How did you start your jewellery line?
GK. I started my jewellery design journey five 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 jewellery brand ‘Gaelle Khouri’ in July 2015.
My professional development started shortly after obtaining a BA in Economics and a minor in Mathematics from the American University of Beirut (AUB) and completing a Master’s degree in Economics at New York University (NYU). Following my graduation, I worked for Toyota Motors as an economic consultant in NYC, and as a senior economist with Blominvest, a regional investment bank in Beirut.
The transition from economics and finance to design did not happen overnight. I always had an interest in the creative and artistic disciplines but I had not been able to openly express it before due to circumstance at the time.
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 however that I started to realize that what I want to do was different. 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 at 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.
When I moved back to Beirut I immediately sought and undertook extensive private jewellery lessons with a renowned Lebanese painter and worked extensively on developing my first portfolio within a few months.
Jewellery 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 Blominvest. Moreover, I found that designing jewellery satisfied my thirst for exploring and expressing the creative side of my personality that had long been suppressed. Afterwards, I was faced with the challenging but fascinating world of production.
The jewellery 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 over the past five years I soon developed a solid network of highly competent artisans and trustworthy stone suppliers that 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 which included shooting the product and building my website. As I am self-funded, this process took just over three years to fully launch the brand, which I am now in a position to look forward to expanding internationally.
What is your biggest challenge as a jewelry designer today?
GK: Challenges exist every day and relate 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 technical details that go into each piece. And there is always a feel about the piece that only the designer can see, and sometimes it gets a bit difficult to translated and incorporate it into the final piece. So we start crafting the jewellery as a little piece of sculpture on wax, and invest a lot, a lot of time in the craftsmanship process until I am fully satisfied with the product.
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 that I usually like to be to be taken quite seriously. But 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!
And the toughest challenge I am still facing is of financial nature. I am self funded, and it is a bit challenging to manage and maneuver with no financial backing, especially in a business like mine that requires a lot of cash, and raw materials are quite expensive. I started production about 6 years ago but I was able to launch only two years ago as I took my time building the corporate identity, which I think is as important as the collection itself, and because that required significant amounts of investment. So this requires a lot of patience and self-control, in order to keep moving forward. Also, I always plan long term but try work for the very 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.
Who is the Gaelle Khouri customer?
She is between 20 – 50 years old, she appreciates crafted work. She is cultivated, sophisticated and a fashion-forward thinker. She can afford fine jewellery but is looking for a distinctive edge in the pieces she wears. She seeks quality and does not follow the pack when it comes to personal luxury.
Are you influenced by your Lebanese origins when your design?
GK. In the city where I grew up, the Gold Souk is of the oldest in the region. I was exposed to that since I was young and this has definitely steered my artistic direction. I believe my genuine interest in intricate craft and design and the detail and time that I invest in my pieces stems from my Middle Eastern heritage which is renowned for its elaborate jewellery. In addition to this, much of my pieces follow movement with the fingers and hands which also relates to my Middle Eastern roots as women used to cover themselves and their hands with statement jewellery. Like for instance, the Attachment bracelet, Glowing Connection ring, and Wings bracelet that embrace the finger or the upper back of the hand.
But overall, my pieces are a mix of different things I was exposed to as a person, visual but also emotional. As much as you see a Middle Eastern influence in the pieces, there are many influences and stories in each creation.
What is your label’s ambitions? Where do you see it in 5 years?
GK. That is yet to be learned and is an ongoing discovery. I think the evolution of my designs will be impacted by two main factors: Firstly, the continued development of my personality – my thoughts and emotions are the catalyst to my creativity. Secondly, the constant ‘noise’ from what is around me and what I see whilst also considering what I think the market wants. I try as much as possible not to be impacted by the latter, but I think it is unavoidable.
But of course the DNA behind the Gaelle Khouri brand will be strongly preserved: There is always a 3D approach to designs that makes the technical part of the work highly intricate. The pieces are not mainstream, they target a niche market of women, But this segment is growing: Consumer behaviour is changing and evolving towards more sophisticated and unique products. The global market is saturated with small and safe jewellery pieces, while consumers are being more aware of what is on the market and are asking for something different. In terms of numbers, the global fine jewellery market is worth about $207 Billion and it is growing at 6% CAGR (McKinsey & Co). Also, the growth is partly fuelled by the shift to E-commerce. So this is an area not to be neglected. And in terms of geography, the US remains the largest global fine jewellery market, followed by Europe, China, and the Middle East.
So the plan is to grow the brand as an international brand, and invest heavily on the digital presence.
If you had to choose only one piece out of all the ones you’ve designed, which one would it be and why?
GK. That is a difficult question as I really feel attached to each and every piece I create. Each piece represents a different side of me or thought process, and so much thought and work from design to production has gone into each and every one. If I had to pick, I think I would advise a woman to get the Anchor earrings which are one of the first Couture pieces I created from the Garden of Earthly Delights collection. They are crafted from 18ct yellow gold and set with intricate brown diamonds and large baroque pearls. Pearls are often worn by older woman and evoke romance and femininity, however with the Anchor earrings, the bold and striking design also creates a sense of fearlessness. The sharp dichotomy resonates well with my divergent personality traits. I think it is a beautiful piece, quiet but at the same time a statement. It has so many facets that I think it can go with any type of personality.
Another piece I am very much attached to is the Frogs earrings. They are among the best seller pieces! They are fun, different, beautiful, and timeless!
Discover more about Gaelle here
Octopus , credit Talisman Gallery at Harvey Nichols London