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Lama Hajj 05 Nov 2014

Generations of Love and Jewelry: Alia and Dori Mouzannar

Upon arriving at the Mouzannar’s charming jewelry shop in the heart of Achrafieh, I see Walid, Alia’s father sitting nearby Dori, his nephew, who is tinkering with some pieces. Alia sits jovially with her cousin Raya, Dori’s sister, as clients walk in and out, greeted affectionately by the tight-knit group. There is no doubt in my mind that this business is a family affair.

Though Dori and Alia are both soft-spoken and poetic when discussing their work, they have vastly different personalities. Dori is an admitted perfectionist, a lover of symmetry, and a patron of technique. Alia, a lover of free-form and fluidity, cannot accept that a shape controls her: “I free myself and the shape” she shares. While Dori’s signature is a tiny ruby meticulously placed on all his designs, Alia’s is the fluidity of each piece she creates, exemplified by a pair of earrings you can wear a staggering 13 different ways.

In the company of these internationally acclaimed designers, you too become part of the family as they lure you into their world of art, creation, and passion. Beirut.com sat down with Dori and Alia to discuss their journey and recent collaboration with Zaha Hadid, dubbed the queen of contemporary architecture.

(Left) collapsible earrings designed by Alia; (right) rings designed by Dori

Beirut.com: Dori, you studied economics and Alia, you studied architecture – did you choose to go into the family business afterward or was there pressure for you to do so?

Dori: It [the family business] was an acquired taste. I did study economics, and when I was done, there was a recession in London. I returned to Lebanon for six months for a break and my father suggested that I go to the workshop to see what’s happening. I almost immediately decided I should stay here and help the family, help the business flourish. Within five years, I had completely changed the workshop – the methods were old, I changed and expanded everything I could.

Alia: [Laughs] Yes, there was pressure to join, but not from my dad, my brother [Khaled Mouzannar, award-winning music composer and songwriter] always had a passion for music, and he didn’t want to be a part of the family business. I was hoping he would do it so I wouldn’t have to [laughs] but now I actually thank him. He also pushed me because deep down he always knew I had these artistic design capabilities; he saw it in me. We grew up in a very artistic family and that is reflected in both of our careers. But I always loved the family ambiance; I still love watching my father work. He taught me everything I know about people, understanding them and giving them advice, while absorbing who they really are, and that is clear in his work and in mine.

Beirut.com: What was the first piece of jewelry you ever designed?

Dori: Actually my first piece was for a friend of mine; she had these huge semi-precious stones and wanted to set them as a necklace which was impossible because each stone was over a hundred carats. I came up with the idea to set them upside down, I added some gold and some diamonds – the result was beautiful. That process and result really motivated me to start designing. That was fifteen years ago. Since then, I consider this workshop to be my playground, and the pieces – my little babies.

Alia: It was around ten years ago, and it really was the starting point for everything I eventually designed. I studied architecture, so I like to craft and draw – I worked a lot with paper, I saw that sheets can be double-sided, they can be folded and manipulated, and that is what helped me develop my signature design of say, the earrings that can be worn a dozen different ways. The freedom of a paper gave me the freedom of thinking about a piece; and because I didn’t study jewelry design, I had the opportunity to think about things in my own way.

(The Mouzannar Family)

Beirut.com: Do you find that you ever clash with each other over work? Do your personalities conflict?

Dori: Working with family is really a double-edged sword. When I was younger, I thought of it as more negative than positive, but with time, I learned that working with the family is great, and keeping the family business together is ever greater. There is nothing more dear and important than family. We make it fun… in this very shop we have lunch together every day, and it is a huge deal for us to spend time together. Although each of us is very different, I feel as though we meet somewhere [in the middle].

Beirut.com: And how do your styles complement each other – with Alia’s love for free-form and fluidity as opposed to Dori’s symmetrical and perfectionist style?

Dori: She helps me, I help her.

Alia: In our work we are very complementary because we are very different; in our visions, our feelings – everything. That is probably why we work together so well, and the results have been great so far.

(Left ring designed for the Philippe Hatem Foundation by Alia; right ring designed for Human Rights Watch by Dori)

Beirut.com:I want to ask about the highlight of your career thus far. What would you consider to be your moment?

Alia: Designing a ring for The Philippe Hatem Foundation was a very rewarding experience for me. The ring sold for over $20,000 and all the proceeds went to the foundation.

Dori: Honestly I can’t pick one highlight, several immediately come to mind. Last year I had the pleasure of designing a ring for Human Rights Watch (HRW); it was a great moment for me to see it being sold for $25,000 – all the proceeds went to HRW.

Alia: Also, winning an award in Shanghai (The International Diamond Jewelry Competition – HRD) for a bracelet I designed called “folding in love,” – there were over 1,400 designers participating and to be selected was definitely a moment for me. The award was somewhat of a confirmation for me; I was no longer just “the daughter of…” it helped me cement my identity as a designer on an international level, as well as a personal level. Another would have to be when Zaha Hadid mentioned our collaboration in a speech she gave at the Tate Modern recently. She mentioned a gift that I had designed for her, [smiles]. That was definitely a moment.

Dori: I want to add another moment that makes me very proud. I have customers all over the Arab world who call me and ask me over the phone to design a piece for them, or say, for their daughter on her wedding day. It feels great to have them trust me enough to design pieces worth hundreds of thousands of dollars simply over the phone or email. They trust the house and they trust me; that is the most rewarding thing. Our whole experience with Zaha Hadid was definitely another moment for me, how she chose our house to celebrate together.

Beirut.com: What advice would you give people who are passionate about design? How much weight would you place on formal training versus raw talent?

Dori: In our line of business, the more you see the more you know. Jewelry is not something you study in college; it is much more about experience. We were born into this; it is in our blood. I would go to the workshop when I was four-years-old and watch my father design and interact with clients from the top of the staircase, and my father did the same with his father before that. Our family is deeply entangled in this line of work; we even have our own dialect that only we understand; it was developed centuries ago among jewelers and lives on through our generations.

Alia: It sounds cliché but it is true, whatever you do, you have to do what you love and believe in. Listen to life, it will always tell you what to do.

Beirut.com: What type of women do you envision wearing your pieces?

Dori: They must be cultured and educated, women who love art and women who are strong so they can wear the pieces well.

Alia: I give women a choice when they are wearing my pieces. My designs are for the working mom, the city girl, the seductive woman – all in one. I like giving women the freedom of creativity, of adapting the jewelry to her mood and her lifestyle; they are designs for the modern woman.

(The Petal Cuff, a collaboration between A&W Mouzannar House and Zaha Hadid)

Beirut.com: And finally, you were recently invited to showcase your work at Zaha Hadid Design gallery in London. What can you tell us about the Zaha Hadid exhibit and the piece you collaborated on?

Alia: It was a pleasure being able to work with Zaha and being able to showcase our designs in the gallery. The entire experience was so artistically stimulating and a lot of fun.

Dori: Yes, I fully agree. It is always great when designers from different arenas and different backgrounds meet to produce something, it challenges art.

The Mouzannar collaboration with Zaha will take place on November 13 at The Zaha Hadid Design Gallery in London. New designs by Dori and Alia will be showcased, along with the unveiling of the PETAL CUFF which was designed by Zaha in collaboration with the house. The magnificent cuff is made of 18K white gold set with 1,048 diamonds.