Back in 2006, award-winning photographer Nadine Kanso was invited to exhibit at the V&A as part of a group show called Arabize Me, a multidisciplinary celebration of contemporary music, dance, visual arts and film by young Arab artists. Proud of her heritage and determined to inspire a more positive perception of Arab people in a post-9/11 world, Kanso presented a collage of portraits in which ordinary people of different nationalities held handmade cards inscribed with affirmative words and phrases associated with Middle-Eastern identity. Messages such as “My love is Arabic” and “My identity is Arabic” were inscribed in gold writing.
These lyrical gilt messages went on to inspire Kanso’s fine-jewellery line. Bil Arabi, which translates to “In Arabic”, combines striking visual graphics with the intrinsic beauty and calligraphic shape of the Arabic alphabet. Kanso updates traditional lettering with her own contemporary twist, supported by a graffiti-like aesthetic and vivid colour choices. “Ultimately Bil Arabi jewellery is about love,” says Kanso. “Love is inclusive and accepting; it is the key to peace. The message I want to communicate through my jewellery is about inclusivity and acceptance in a culturally diverse world.”
Take the Ahwak Collection, for example – “ahwak” means “I love you”. The one-off pieces have a greater focus on gemstones than Kanso’s other collections. An eye-catching elongated amethyst and turquoise pendant (price on request) has the word for passion, “oshq”, wrapped around a vibrant teardrop in a flourish of 18ct gold script. The sensual asymmetrical shapes of a pair of triple-stone ruby, iolite and green apatite earrings ($4,950) are framed by an 18ct oxidised rose-gold and pavé black diamond-set setting bearing the script “hobb”, Arabic for “love”.
The exquisite shaping of the lettering on the 18ct gold and blue-heart topaz Hobb Hobi cuff ($5,000) gives this piece an inherent strength; the poetic script (“Love of my love”) infuses it with a delicate sense of femininity. A pair of 18ct gold Hobb earrings ($2,000) with domino-like baguette diamond-set letters are part of the Masar (“Path”) collection, intended to be symbolic of choosing new paths in life.
In keeping with this trademark focus on lettering, the 18ct gold Khatt signet rings (from $1,850) pay homage to a traditional Arabic phrase meaning “calligraphy” or “line”. Featuring all 28 letters of the Arabic alphabet in abstract styles, the colourful enamel stripes and diamond details allow the wearer to personalise each piece. “Signet rings make a personal statement,” says Kanso, “and they remind me of my parents and grandparents – these are my interpretation of a modern-day heirloom.”
Juliet Hutton-Squire is a jewellery consultant and co-founder of Adorn Insight (adorninsight.com).