It was “inevitable” that Dima and Tania Nawbar were drawn back to jewellery. “Growing up with a jeweller parent, you feel like you’re part of a cult,” says Dima, the elder of the sisters. “Everything you do revolves around jewellery.”

As children, the pair would play after school in the workshop of the Nawbar store that their father, Elie, ran in London’s Bond Street between 1981 and 1997, before the family moved to Lebanon the following year. They felt no pressure to join the family trade but, having tried other professions, found their hearts belonged to jewellery.

In 2011, they launched L’Atelier Nawbar and have since overcome hurdles — including the devastating port explosion that ripped through Beirut in August 2020 — to grow their fine jewellery business into an increasingly global brand.

Jewellery is in Dima and Tania’s blood: their great-great-grandfather founded the family’s jewellery business in Beirut in 1891. But, when the sisters took over from their father, they changed its creative direction by designing and making everything in-house, and pivoting away from its traditional gold and diamonds look. Their aim is “playfulness”, says Tania, and to create “trendy”, colourful pieces that can be layered and stacked by customers to express their own style. The latest collection, Psychedeliah, inspired by an abstract flower, includes 18-carat gold creations set with mother-of-pearl, malachite, agate, turquoise and diamonds.

United Hearts band in yellow gold
United Hearts band in yellow gold

The sisters added ‘L’Atelier’ to the business’ name because they did not know if they “were going to ruin the family name” when they joined so wanted “a separate entity”, says Dima, who handles finance while Tania heads operations. They both design the jewellery.

Judging from the feedback, the family’s reputation is safe for now. Harrods, which has stocked the brand since 2019, extended a L’Atelier Nawbar summer pop-up in the British luxury department store by a month due to its popularity. Features included exclusive and limited edition pieces, and a “personalisation station” allowing customers to design their own jewellery using an app.

Getting to this point has not been without challenges. Tania says the jewellery industry is a “man’s world” and suppliers her father had worked with initially thought the sisters were there to “play around”. “They didn’t really take us seriously in the beginning,” she recalls.

Hass bangle
Hass bangle

The sisters also had to earn respect in the workshop they set up, dealing with artisans who used to drink alcohol at work, and converting naysayers to non-traditional creative techniques that they wanted to use for pieces such as reversible rings.

When a huge explosion levelled buildings in Beirut three years ago, killing more than 200 people, one of their two workshops was hit, as well as their store in Saifi Village and both of their homes. They considered relocating their workshops to other countries, but decided to stay put — not wanting to abandon their workers. They now employ 105 people.

“I still don’t believe it, today, that that’s what happened to us,” says Tania. “If I hear a loud boom or a balloon pop, I scream and jump. These things that are silly little things around you affect us daily right now and I’m working on my kids to get over this . . . If they see broken glass now it’s, ‘Is that an explosion?’”

Their experience of the blast inspired the Fragments of Us collection. The designs comprise different pieces of stones and diamonds, reflecting the shards of glass they saw everywhere, and pay homage to people and places of Beirut.

Fragments pinky ring in blue sapphire
Fragments pinky ring in blue sapphire

“The year that followed [the explosion] was all about picking up your pieces, picking up parts of your lives,’ remembers Dima. “We were displaced, none of us were living in our homes. Even our store was not functioning the way it used to.

“Beirut, itself, had landmarks that were on the floor, things that you’re used to seeing everyday that are no longer there, parts of your heritage. So it was about your life being fragmented and all your memories.”

Following the tragedy — and against a backdrop of Lebanon’s ongoing financial crisis, with the country’s banks imposing their own capital controls restricting withdrawals — the business has not only recovered but expanded. Sales grew by 16 per cent between 2020 and 2021, 32 per cent between 2021 and 2022, and 37 per cent in the most recent financial year.

L’Atelier Nawbar opened its second boutique, in Riyadh, in May. The brand’s designs are also retailed in about 50 points of sale online and in-store in Europe, the US, north Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Department store Bloomingdale’s is holding a three-month L’Atelier Nawbar pop-up in Dubai until 1 January, including a charm bar where customers can personalise necklaces. A further eight to 10 stockists will be added next year, with the US a particular target for growth.

During the interview, the sisters contradict and interrupt each other. They “fight so much” at work, admits Dima — something their colleagues have picked up on. “On the big things, like the way we see our business — on our goals, vision, ethics, morals — we’re aligned but, when it comes to daily stuff, we argue a lot. The minute we leave the office we become sisters again.”

Their shared vision is to be able to pass down the family business. “And . . . [that] is a lot of pressure,” says Dima. “Passing down the torch, you’ve got to keep it lit.”

Other jewellers from Lebanon

Nada Ghazal

The inspiration behind Ghazal’s new collection Doors of Opportunity is a turquoise door she came across when house hunting in London. Her move last year from Lebanon was motivated by a desire to grow her brand internationally. Coming 20 years after her first collection, the new pieces are handcrafted from 18-carat brushed gold and pavé stones in her Beirut atelier.

Walid Akkad

Born in Beirut, Akkad left Lebanon aged 17 and moved to Paris to train as a jeweller. He launched his own brand in 1989 and opened his gallery on the Left Bank in 2013. Known for sculptural pieces, he is unveiling a dozen limited-edition statement cuffs made from ebony, his first experimentation in the wood, at FAB Paris art fair November 22-26.

Gaelle Khouri

Khouri, who grew up in Tripoli and launched her eponymous brand in Lebanon in 2015, relocated to Dubai following the Beirut explosion in 2020 but travels back to the city regularly to meet with the artisans who make her pieces. She is launching her brand’s first online boutique in December. Her pieces are currently sold online through stockists, including fashion platform Farfetch. 

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