In the heart of Beirut’s Achrafieh district lies one of the city’s crown jewels: the workshop of jeweler Selim Mouzannar. Walking through these old and winding, leafy streets, birdsong is conspicuously absent as the feathered friends hide from the cold. Beirut is an ongoing source of inspiration for Mouzannar and his office is a world away from the neighborhood’s French colonial architecture, and light years away from the chaos that is Beirut. Not a paper is out of place; the workshop is crisp and clean.
Soft edges caress white surfaces, and everything is contemporary. Artisans buzz around in white coats like bees laden with nectar. In the midst of it all stands Selim Mouzannar. Effortlessly chic wearing round glasses, he surveys his personal crea ve kingdom and smiles. Hailing from a dynasty of jewelers who supplied the Ottoman courts, Mouzannar has jewelry in his blood. Due to political turmoil and upheavals, his family left Syria in 1860 and settled in Beirut, immersing themselves in Lebanese life. Mouzannar flirted with the idea of becoming a journalist, but family tradition and a sense of responsibility steered him toward goldsmithing, and he embraced his heritage. In 1981, Mouzannar went abroad to study gemology and mineralogy in Paris and Antwerp. An internship in New York followed before he ended up in Saudi Arabia working for Robert Mouawad, the scion of another Beirut jewelry family. Later, he would work hard to educate himself in business and communica on, all the while aveling the world, from France to the US, Thailand to Myanmar, soaking up inspiration as he went and spending time at the ruby mines of Païlin in Cambodia.
“I’ve seen open mining in Thailand, on the ground; I’ve experienced the bohemian side of the business,” reflects Mouzannar. “It’s nothing special being a jeweler in the family. It’s not an honorable thing, it’s actually the easiest path to take.” His father was a modest jeweler working out of Beirut’s old souks, but upon his return to Beirut in 1993, the younger Mouzannar stuck out on his own. “There was a conflict of ideas [with my father]. Nothing major, but I decided to start alone,” he shares. His flagship store opened in 2006, the year Israel and Lebanon went to war. Seeing that his prospects within the coun y were limited, and not just because of the war – “There was no room to grow,” he recalls – he chose to look further afield. “I decided to enroll in major exhibitions abroad and found out how much the international market was interested in my designs, in Paris, London, and the UAE. In particular, an exhibition under the foundation of Sheikha Shamsa bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum – the impact was amazing,” he says, a little wide-eyed. Today, his work is sold at Harrods, Net-A-Porter, Bergdorf Goodman, and Le Bon Marché, and is worn by Jennifer Lawrence, Michelle Pfeiffer, Emma Stone, and more.
Mouzannar’s clientele share his values: they first seek something they are comfortable with. “Something that gives them joy through the colors I use and, like everyone, we all want to own a timeless object. I always try to find this sort of client,” notes the jeweler. The key to his success is his artisans, and his ongoing love of learning and self-improvement. “I go back to the artisans. I don’t believe a designer can be a real designer without knowing the minimum of the business. The progress, how the piece starts and finishes… You can’t design something without understanding the process. This is why I am always in the workshop,” he says.
It’s this dedication to craft that sets Mouzannar apart. His pieces are easy to spot: there’s a distinct, unapologetic style. “The world of gems is huge, it’s part of the earth, and part of nature. You must have your own DNA. It’s so easy to get into the trend, but you will be like a sheep, just another manufacturer, like many on the market,” he states. Mouzannar’s business is niche enough to bestow a degree of rarity to each design. There are thousands of jewelers out there, but precious few have such a personal s le as his. Mouzannar’s latest collection is called Aïda. Replete with transparent mineral enamel, the pieces are a kaleidoscope of greens, blues, and oranges. It’s a poetic name, bringing to mind the opera and Egypt in its heyday. “By coincidence, my mother’s name is Aïda,” smiles the jeweler. Alongside it is Rose de France, a collection featuring special hexagonal step cuts mounted in a contemporary style with gold, paying tribute to the Republic. “If you see the map of France, it looks like a hexagon,” he explains.
To date, Mouzannar has launched 15 collections. Each is unique as he doesn’t conform to a set approach, giving free reign to his creativity. “I do what I love, over more than 40 years of working. I was 21 when I started in Saudi. I learned so much, more in a day than you learn here in years, and that experience carries from one place to another,” he offers. In the same way that a gemstone is polished, Paris polished Mouzannar, professionally and personally. “For me, both Paris and Beirut are the most important cities. I believe in universalism, I love many cultures, which I learned to appreciate ¡ om Asia to Europe to the Arab world,” he says. It’s this appreciation for culture, for universal style that informs every Selim Mouzannar piece – unique and universal, it speaks to a creator steeped in culture and always striving for excellence.
Originally published in the May 2022 issue of Vogue Arabia