Nadine Kanso is many things: a photographer, a visual artist, a jeweler, but most importantly, an Arab woman. For her latest collections, Hobak Nar and Nasj, the Lebanese jewelry designer found more ways than one to express love, passion and nostalgia. We caught up with her to discuss everything fiery and her take on what is weird and what is wonderful….
Q: I was really stricken by the beautiful details of your two most recent collection, Nasj and Hobak Nar. What was the main idea behind each collection?

A: Well, to start with, “Hobak Nar” – it means “Love on Fire”. It’s about that kind of vibrant love. Obviously, it does comes a lot from lyrics from songs, one from Abdelhamid Hafez for instance. It’s all very nostalgic somehow, but when it comes to the design, it is more graphic and Arabic words are written on the back of some of the pieces, some of the rings. On the ear cuffs and the cuffs, you will be able to notice integration of Arabic calligraphy within the fire element. It’s very minimal, not very visible. There’s a kind of a blur that comes out of the flames of a fire, you have a haze. And although the designs are very strong and bold, I wanted to keep that nuance and subtility, having the words there, but at the same time invisible...

Q: A hidden message...

A: Exactly.

Q: And for Nasj?

A: Nasj means patchwork, assemblage, a kind of sewing. For that specific collection, it is all about the repetition of letters, making repetitions a pattern. Each pattern being different from the other, you can still see the letter, but it is a trompe-l’oeil. On certain pieces, you find cut outs, made like masherbia, to lend this Arabesque feel to the jewels but in a more contemporary approach to calligraphy. Even the fonts used were created for the main line a while back, but it has this kind of newness to it. Especially when it comes to jewelry and integrating these Arabic calligraphy symbols. It is nothing like we’ve done before.

Q: And it does feel very unisex...

A: It is, and you can observe that we have one piece, a locket, with “Hob” [“Love” in Arabic] written on it. Some people can read it and others might interpret it solely as a pattern, without understanding the signification of the letters. The locket can be personalized with any message you’d like – have it engraved or hide a picture. A friend of mine got one and asked to have pictures of her kids engraved on it.

Q: I was actually about to ask you about these lockets in the Nasj collection. What do you think your customers will hide in them?

A: I wanted them to add something personal, make it their own. The locket in my opinion is something so nostalgic, although the pattern on top is classic yet contemporary. Depending on the color combination chosen, it can turn from classic to edgy, with the feeling of privacy.

Q: For Hobak Nar, there’s a pink ring topped with a massive stone, and a fire pendant, radiating with pink sapphires – one of my favorites from the collection. Where did you source the stones?

A: For Hobak Nar, I had bought the XXL pink amethyst a long time ago in Hong Kong. Sometimes you buy things and leave them until few years later, when you’ll make something out of them that will then fit a collection. I thought that this stone added onto this ring was a bold statement with a few color combinations – orange, and white inside to reflect the amethyst, as it’s a very light amethyst.

Q: So you go on trips, explore the world and come back with a collection in mind?

A: We travel to fairs where I buy stones, but I have not attend one in a while to be honest. These were sourced way back and were just sitting there, in their boxes until.... I open these boxes sometimes and just think about possible designs for each stone. That’s the fun part of creating one-off pieces, or bold pieces, or bespoke ones.

Q: It all comes together in the end!

A: Absolutely! And that’s also the hard part when everything comes together! [laughs]

Q: But that must be such a rewarding feeling as well. Have it waiting to be worn and then finally creating a whole piece with it.

A: Exactly, I’m actually wearing it now!

Q: Your designs are quite architectural and intricate, with minutiae calligraphy. Did you ever come across a design that you thought of but then could not eventually physically produce?

A: A lot of times! We had things that we thought we would create but ended up not happening. There’s a lot of trial and error and this is why we start collections much earlier. I do wear all of my designs before they go into production, and sometimes something might need polishing, in terms of design; somethings would need to be bigger,’s a whole process until we get to the finish point. For “Hobak Nar”, the first thing created was the ring with the fireflames. When I created the first ring and wore it in the summer before launching the collection, the top of that ring was flat, but then I said to myself “Fire is not flat, it has so many dimensions”. When you look at flames, it’s almost like a 3D kind of thing. So I gave back the ring to my atelier, and we changed it. I asked for a layer of flames, levels of flames – almost like 3D.

Q: And how long did it take you to wrap up the collections? When did you feel that that was it?

A: Sometimes we do have collections coming together from beginning to end very smoothly, and we have the satisfaction of seeing it as final – I approve it and I’m actually happy about it. But for Hobak Nar, we thought it out in April/May 2019. I drew the designs and the flames and then someone had to redrew it after me, and when they did, they added some details of their own and it was not my idea anymore, and we had to start again. It did delay us a bit, but we launched the collection in November. The earcuffs and the chocker are pieces we do not do usually, so they did take longer than expected. And I then had to wear them to make sure they were comfortable.

Q: How many pieces did you create in total for both collections?

A: Most of my collections comprise four small pieces, and four bigger pieces. So for Hobak Nor, the ring, the chocker, the regular, and two big cuffs. Then smaller pieces with tiny enamel flames, necklace pendants, and hoop earrings. With that, I make tiny flames on which “Hobak Nar” is written. For Hobak Nar, we had more items; the chocker and the pink ring were extra.

Q: I have never seen a chocker – was it the first time you did one?

A: Yes, I usually don’t do them because I usually don’t wear them [laughs]

Q: It’s such a great idea and so of the moment.

A: Wearing it is also very cool. I usually don’t like chockers but this one is very comfortable and very nice.

Q: About this region that you always celebrate, from the name of your brand Bil Arabi and on. Would you ever think of taking the brand on a trip to new landscapes and new countries? Visit other places in the world and let those inspire you?

A: I don’t know if I’ll take Bil Arabi, but I’m working on a new line, which has nothing to do with Arabic. I’m trying to get out of the box a little bit. I’ll keep you posted.

Q: Is that your next challenge? Going international with your ideas?

A: We are selling Bil Arabi internationally, in LA, London, Australia, but I think I can do more. And I need to push myself into doing something different. It’ll be interesting to work with a different mindset because whether we like it or not, not everyone is open to change. It’s going to be fun!

Q: About you, how do you feel seeing someone wearing one of your pieces? There’s so much of you in each of them.

A: I’m always very happy to see people wearing my designs and upset when I see them wearing pieces “inspired” by my designs or copies.

Q: Is there anyone you’d absolutely love to see wearing one of your pieces?

A: I don’t have a specific person, but I’m always happy to know that people in general love what I do. When you have people coming at you and say that they appreciate my work, it makes a huge difference. I feel happy because of them.

Q: You have collaborated with Gucci, Harvey Nichols, Christies. Any other names you’d like to add to that list?

A: I would love to work again with Gucci or Valentino, for example – brands that I relate to and that I appreciate the aesthetics. I love Prada as well. I’d definitely love to collaborate with them and add a Bil Arabi touch.

Q: What gets you emotional?

A: My kids

Q: Our next issue is called the Weird and the Wonderful. What is weird to you?

A: Selfies!

Q: And what is wonderful?

A: Life!

Q: My ultimate question: How do you tell someone that you love them? When I read about Hobak Nar, I learned that there are 24 ways of saying “I Love You” in Arabic. If you had only one way, and one way only to express your love for the rest of your life, how would you say it?

A: A word.... Bahachaek.

Q: What does it mean?

A: It means “I’m passionately in love with you”.

Q: And would you put it on a necklace?

A: I would, although I try to use words that aren’t too difficult to pronunciate for non-arabs!