Success, one Arabic jewellery at a time

For the graphic designer, photographer and artist Nadine Kanzo, jewellery design is an attempt to express her Arab identity.

“It was something that I was driven to express about how the media and the West were perceiving this part of the world and that we are not all terrorists,” says the 46-year-old Lebanese fashionista, known almost as much for her chic style as for her distinctive bling-bling gold and diamond creations.

“I started to create Arabic letters in gold. It’s quite big, so it’s quite a statement. For me I wanted to change the perception of the classical Arabic jewellery. The thought was, why should we not wear Arabic initials instead of wearing Latin ones?”

But what started as a form of artistic expression for an art exhibit at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum quickly became Bil Arabi, one of Dubai’s best known home-grown independent jewellery brands creating handcrafted contemporary pieces retailing in Harvey Nichols and Bloomingdale’s.

For SMEs who want to place an ad free of charge visit:

Net profit for the company stands at slightly more than Dh1 million a year from between Dh3m and Dh4m of sales, enabling Ms Kanso to employ two other people and invest the Dh1m or so she needs to put into stock.

Pieces cost anything from Dh650 to Dh15,000 and are finding an audience with buyers ranging from sheikhas in Dubai and Abu Dhabi to tourists looking for something representing the Middle East to bring home from their travels.

“For me jewellery is a medium,” Ms Kanso says. “As an artist I see gold as like sculpture. I love the material itself. Not because it’s precious, but because of what you can do with it. For me it is more artistic than commercial. Now, after working for eight years and registering the brand, it has become a business where we have orders, we have suppliers, we have points of sale, all of that. This is where things have changed. But at the beginning it was all about art.”

After trading for eight years under the auspices of a workshop in Dubai’s Gold & Diamond Park, this year Ms Kanso is planning to open her first office at the new Dubai Design District and bring a business partner on board after launching a new men’s line in February.

“From the very first piece I sold, I reinvested it in another piece and another piece and another piece. That’s how I got where I am today,” Ms Kanso says proudly. “I don’t have my dad’s money or anyone else’s money to be able to just throw money around. I will not even take money from my husband to invest in my business so far. If I can manage it on my own as much as I can I’ll keep on doing that.”

As a woman setting up a business, Ms Kanso says that living in Dubai is a major help.

“Being in Dubai is a big plus,” she says. “We are properly supported. I have two kids but at home I have a nanny, which gives me a lot of time – not the first or second year but after that – to work and concentrate on something I want to do for myself. Dubai is a young city and open for all opportunities and the sky is the limit here. I say I am always growing with the city. It pushes you to be more ambitious.”

But although Ms Kanso says that Dubai Design District has been especially supportive of helping her expand the business, getting money from the banks has been far less straightforward.

Despite having a strong track record of sales in the UAE, Bil Arabi was rejected for a loan at last month on the grounds that the business did not fit its lending criteria. The decision clearly annoyed Ms Kanso.

“It made me think. What if someone else wanted to set up a small business? I’m someone who has been living here for 15 years and can manage, but other people will have trouble,” she says.

The amount of cash needed for stock is also a major concern for the business. Ms Kanso says that because she designs jewellery based on Arabic letters, the stores she sells through often put pressure on her to provide examples of all 28 letters of the alphabet in the various designs available.

“I have, between Harvey Nichols and Bloomingdales, roughly 300 pieces,” she says. “It’s a bit tricky when it comes to letters. I know that not all of the letters work. We know by now which are the letters with the most demand. For example there are a lot of words with a D or R, but these are very geometrical. They are not very sensual or feminine. So most women tend to take another name. The shops do not understand that. There are so many designs, with diamonds, without diamonds, with mother of pearl, without mother of pearl, with charms, with a stone. We cannot do all of them.” And with global cuts in oil prices and forecasts that the Dubai property market will slow significantly this year, the economy is another cause of concern to Ms Kanso and her business.

“From the feel of the sales report I get from the stores since last July, things have slowed down. Things are pretty regular but they are not like last year. We used to do slightly double in certain months. Now the average is very regular, but not as it used to be. People are wary because of political and economic situations – what’s happening with the oil, what’s happening with the Russians. All of that comes to play. Although my clientele is mostly Arab, still people are always concerned. It’s a cycle,” she says.

We are on the lookout for SME success stories. If you want to have your business profiled, contact us at

Follow The National’s Business section on Twitter


Share This Post