Monday July 15th, 2024
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Lilian Ismail: One-on-One with Saudi’s Youngest Jewellery Designer

As part of our exclusive docu-series spotlighting the people, places, and movements shaping Saudi Arabia today, we dove deep with the woman shaping the Kingdom’s Jewellery Industry.

Ziyad El-Helbawy

Lilian Ismail: One-on-One with Saudi’s Youngest Jewellery Designer

“People were commenting here in Saudi. They were like ‘What are you doing for four years?’ Fulfilling your bachelor's in what? What is this waste of time?”

There are many who seek to go against the grain; fight against predetermined societal rules, take a vision heavily berated and belittled and carve with its sharp, determined edges a path through which to follow, but there are only few who go from ‘seek’ to ‘do’. The latter proved to be the case for Lillian Ismail, whose teenage reveries have given way to the reality-becoming dreams of creative women all throughout the Kingdom. As part of our exclusive docu-series spotlighting the people, places and movements shaping Saudi Arabia today, SceneNowSaudi and SceneStyled present Saudi Arabia’s youngest jewellery designer, Lillian Ismail.

Growing up in Jeddah, Ismail found inspiration in small beautiful things—a unique pattern, a braid donned by a Saudi woman forever encapsulated in a black and white portrait, a gemstone's play of light. Lillian's mind wandered to artistic expression. Little did she know these stirrings would set her on a path to make history within the Kingdom’s industry. All pioneers face doubt, but Lillian was determined to transform her passion into purpose. Where others saw closed doors, she envisioned opening them for those to come. As a teenager, she poured heart and soul into her graduation collection ‘Banjar,’ gaining recognition as Saudi Arabia's youngest jewellery designer at 17. However, this was only the beginning.

"I did start ten years ago, and I felt like jewellery was something new and I can actually be creative in it," Lillian recalled. Yet, when attempting to pursue formal training, she faced resistance from family and friends alike, “What are you doing for four years?' Fulfilling your bachelor's in what? How to draw and design jewellery? That's such a waste of time."

Seeking to refine her craft, Lillian studied at New York's renowned Pratt Institute. Later interning with iconic designer Oscar de la Renta, immersing herself in creative communities that nourished her talent. Yet returning home, scepticism remained regarding women in non-traditional fields. Undeterred, Lillian officially launched her eponymous line in 2018 with a message—through her artistry, limits could be redefined.

Each Lillian Ismail design pays homage to Saudi heritage and culture, from ancient tribal treasures to astronomical manuscripts, told through gemstones and precious metals. Pieces become windows into the past and mirrors of the present, conveying more than surface beauty. But Lillian's impact extends beyond her atelier. Committed to empowering others, she teaches the next generation traditional techniques.

"If you walk into a jewellery studio or a jewellery factory, you're going to see more men than women. It's just what has always been common, you know?" she observes. However, she was determined to succeed where few Saudi women had gone before, and that she unapologetically did. "And I feel like nowadays, since we have the opportunity for marketing and exposure and support from the government and support from the community, why not? Why not succeed in this field?"

Upon returning to Saudi, Lillian launched her eponymous line determined to push creative boundaries. "Our pieces are known to be more artistic than what's available in the market here in Jeddah, but also Saudi at large. I tried making jewellery out of bone. I tried making jewellery out of hair, plastic, wood," she detailed. Each piece told stories inspired by her culture yet appealed globally. "We've done a lot of surveys about our jewellery, and we've noticed that our style - despite being inspired by Islamic, Saudi and Arab culture - still speaks to people who are neither Saudi nor Arab.”

Committed to empowering others, Ismail established workshops to share skills and inspire the next generation. "The art scene was very different here in Saudi. I did not have a mentor. I did not have someone to guide me on how to run this business," she noted. "It's all my own efforts. So the fact that we could share it now with everyone is just so great. We wanted to support the idea of a Saudi female-founded brand where people can come and learn how to make and design jewellery."

A decade since those first sketches saw the light of day, Ismail is in the process of leaving her mark not just on Saudi, but the region - and world - at large. Regarded as one of the Kingdom's leading talents, her avant-garde heritage-honouring creations continue to disrupt the industry. By following her inner light against doubt, Lillian proves dreams can be manifested through perseverance and passion. Today, she continues to transform industry and society through art that transcends and inspires.

“I believe in storytelling. I believe in the process of making every piece....


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