CAIRO: I first came across British-Egyptian jewelry designer Adam Elwan’s work during a 2019 London exhibition themed on the preservation of Mamluk Minbars in Egypt by Egyptian architect and researcher Omniya Abdel Barr.
Elwan had contributed a number of handmade Mamluk Minbar-inspired brooches enchased with mother of pearl, malachite and ebony to the exhibition. I remember seeing photos of both the exhibition and his work online and being utterly stunned by the quality of his designs.
With more than a decade of experience in jewelry making, Elwan has made a name for himself in Egypt’s jewelry market. His work is inspired by Art Deco and features multiple influences that span Egypt’s pharaonic as well as Islamic heritage. Made in sterling silver and 18K gold, Elwan’s pieces are a reinterpretation of ancient Egyptian and Islamic motifs and symbols — from the traditional kaf (palm), eye charm/Horus’s Eye and the Egyptian Lotus (Elwan’s sterling silver Lotus bracelet is a best seller), all the way to the exquisite arabesque pattern.
Handmade by Cairo’s veteran craftsmen, Elwan’s pieces are typically inlaid with different materials, including mother of pearl, labradorite, abalone and semi-precious stones, which together give his pieces a timeless uniqueness.
A graduate of the Jewellery Design school of Le Arti Orafe in Florence, Elwan returned to Egypt shortly after concluding his studies in 2009, where he spent the next couple of years acquainting himself with Cairo’s traditional artisan quarter, Khan Al-Khalili, and producing a lot of jewelry at the same time.
Determined to understand the jewelry trade in Egypt, Elwan decided to “immerse himself in the khan and get used to the atmosphere and to working with people there.”
“I was in the khan every single day pretty much,” he told Arab News.
A couple of years and a few bazaars later, Elwan set up his first shop, where he collaborates with some of old Cairo’s most experienced silversmiths and stone setters.
“Having studied jewelry making, I recognized how time consuming, complex and difficult any art form is, so I appreciated the hard work that went into doing things,” Elwan said.
From earrings inlaid with mother of pearl, and Art Deco-inspired cuffs ornamented with abalone and semi-precious stones, all the way to 18K gold eye charm pendants and arabesque sterling silver cufflinks, Elwan’s jewelry combines traditional jewelry-making techniques with the modern methods he learned in Florence.
Elwan loves Art Nouveau as well as angles and geometric patterns. But, while his designs feature traditional designs and motifs, Elwan’s work is anything but traditional.
One way he experiments with his work is by employing inlaid stones and different kinds of material to make traditional designs “a little fresher,” he said.
“This makes the designs fun and different, especially that I’m using real stones and not enamel. I always believe using natural materials gives the piece you’re designing a soul. I also like to introduce a bit of color,” he added.
Following a decade spent designing and producing jewelry, Elwan has learned that the secret to keeping a jewelry business alive and kicking is robust quality control.
“At the end of the day, it’s the finishing that matters. It’s making sure there are no imperfections because unfortunately we do see flaws in a lot of the work that’s being made. And it’s mainly because the designers who are wanting this work made for them study short courses then start designing right away. They draw quick sketches without including any measurements and ask the silversmith to follow the design as it is,” he said.
Elwan is hoping to build an international brand in the future, but not at the expense of the quality he maintains by being in the khan.
“They say that starting something is the hard part. Absolutely not. Maintaining something is the hard part,” Elwan told me, before quickly changing his mind.
“Maybe hard isn’t the right word to use here because ‘hard’ means it’s not necessarily enjoyable.
“It’s challenging. Challenging means it’s fun,” he added.