The talent behind Nounzein, designer Nada Zeineh, talks to ShouRaeyak on her approach to jewelry design. Initially an architect specialized in museography, several projects bear her signature: the Soap Museum in Sidon (Khan el Saboon) and the AUB Museum of Archeology (together with Youssef Haidar Architecture-DPLG). In 1987, Zeineh began her venture in jewelry design and creation, and, in 2004, she opened her showroom on Sursock Street, in Ashrafieh, and launched her label Nounzein. Her collections were presented at various venues, for example, the National Museum of Beirut; Beirut Art Center (http://beirutartcenter.org/design-events.php?exhibid=297&statusid=3), and the 2013 Beirut Design Week (http://beirutdesignweek.org).
When did you first get fascinated with jewelry?
Nada Zeineh: Unconsciously, I did so probably when I was a little girl trying to make a necklace out of pine needles and headpieces out of daisies. Consciously, I did so when I saw, in 1987, the jewelry collections at the Louvre, Paris, and went through training with a compagnon du décor peint who taught me the technique of gilding. My first pieces were made out of terra cotta and covered with a gold thin sheet.
It has never been the actual value of jewelry that fascinated me, but rather that desire that drives every woman to own even the simplest ring, bracelet, or necklace, in other words, the desire to be more beautiful.
How is a collection born? How do you develop the theme of each collection? Is the process directly influenced by photography, films, paintings, moods, etc.?
Nada Zeineh: It starts with a desire to develop one of the many themes that inspire me and are recurrent in my work such as geometric shapes, nature, antiques, archaeological objects, and Islamic ornamentation. Then comes the desire to use beads, stones, wires and sheets of metal, and a compulsive urge to work with my hands and forget myself in this process.
I am certainly influenced by what I have seen, heard, or learned throughout my life. A painting exhibition, a show, piece of pottery, or textiles can trigger whole new collections.
Do you generally have the image of the finished jewelry piece in your head from the start? Does the original idea get modified in the atelier?
Nada Zeineh: Very few pieces are drawn ahead of their final production. I enjoy the process when a piece develops as I work on it. For me, it is a great game, a moment when I let go.
I lack the techniques of jewelry making. I don’t weld or cast, and I don’t use any of the motor tools, so I have to find simple solutions to achieve my prototypes. When a prototype is completed, I discuss how to best reproduce it with my craftsmen.
To what extent do your studies in architectural restoration serve, technically and artistically, your handmade artisan jewelry?
In an interview for the newsletter of the AUB Museum of Archeology, in 2005, you said that it is your passion for designing public spaces that drives your success, and that museums in particular provide you with the opportunity to keep on learning and developing culturally. Are you currently more passionate about jewelry design?
Nada Zeineh: My training as an architect is very evident in my work. For me, each piece is a small project that involves such elements as comfort, proportions, material, price, and other practical considerations, along with the “dream” behind the piece.
I discovered the museography, or the art of creating museums, in Paris. My passion for museums is not only about the actual creation of public spaces; it is also about learning and researching the stories and the history that will make up a specific museum. When we won the competition for the rehabilitation of the Palais Jacques Coeur in France, I learned a lot about the Middle Ages: the way people used to live, dress, love, build, and die.
The fascination comes from all the different elements that make up a museum; buildings, remnants, and all the tales a specific museum is supposed to convey. For example, for the Soap Museum in Saida, we discovered a lot about the traditional techniques of soap making and the rituals of the hammams in the region. For the Archaeological Museum of AUB, the collection was carefully regrouped into thematics, each telling a different story. So, I guess seeing all these objects and learning about all the stories behind them is my patrimony: a cultural wealth and a rich memory that feeds all my designs.
Gold is king throughout your collections. It’s like natural beauty, reflecting rigor and purity. Tell us about Nounzein’s golden age?
Nada Zeineh: I like gold when it is treated like tin (tanak); very thin sheets with the rich and mat color of 21-carat gold. I don’t work with gold because it limits my freedom, the freedom of imagining big pieces without worrying about the price, the weight, or the security of my showroom. Gold is a business that I know nothing about. I like brass, it is a very friendly metal, and so my jewelry is made of brass dipped in 21-carat gold.
I am not sure I like the expression golden age. I really prefer the Bronze Age and the Stone Age; for me they are really more inspiring. As for Nounzein, it is only eight years old—not even Teen Age.
Do you agree that your pieces are to be worn in all different lights? If not, are they rather daylight and evening-light jewelry?
Nada Zeineh: For me, there is no “daywear” or “nightwear”: there is a mood, a feeling. You might want to feel glamorous for a lunch meeting and discreet for a party, it all depends on your mood; my pieces can adapt to a woman’s different moods. It all depends on how she’s going to wear them, with which dress, accessory, etc. I like to say that it is the woman who will wear my pieces and not my pieces that will “wear the woman.”
In the past, jewelry was meant to exhibit status and wealth. Nowadays, when not too expensive, it rather conveys one’s singularity and style. As a personal style signifier, what is your favorite piece of jewelry?
Nada Zeineh: Jewelry that exhibits status and wealth doesn’t interest me. My pieces are more an adornment than real jewelry; they carry a concept, a dream: to seduce, to be loved, to be prettier. For that purpose, a seashell, an embroidered textile, or a tin bracelet can do the job. I have a big collection of jewelry that I bought on my trips from all over the world. Usually they don’t cost a thing, but for me they are priceless, because they carry a desire, a dream; they belong to a collective memory.
I would say my favorite piece of jewelry is always the latest one; the latest one I created or the latest one I bought.
What is your favorite stone? And who are your favorite jewelers?
Nada Zeineh: I don’t have a favorite stone; I have favorite shapes and colors: I like irregular shapes, green, turquoise, violet, and burgundy. Baroque pearls are definitely my favorite.
My favorite jewelers are the thousands of women who bead, embroider, and knit; the women who spend their lives creating adornments for themselves to fulfill a dream—adornments with no brand and no name.