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How can a piece of jewellery be such a striking statement, yet completely effortless and wearable? It’s just good design. But what is good design? “A lot of designing, in the end, is good editing”, modestly says Zohra Rahman, the creative brain behind her eponymous label. After leaving her hometown of Lahore in Pakistan to study jewellery design in London, she returned to launch her studio and has since been creating cutting-edge designs for people all over the world. Realising that what she was doing was completely new, she opened her workshop in-studio and trains local apprentices up to be skilled craftspeople. Keeping traditional values alive, all the while discovering new and exciting forms of ornamentation and construction? Now that’s good design!
Zohra, we’d love to know a bit about you – your creative family, the journey taken to London to study, and establishing your brand back in Pakistan. Could you tell us?
I grew up with a lot of creative freedom. My parents were busy setting up Pakistan's first ready-to-wear clothing brand, and as the youngest by far of three sisters, I had plenty of time to myself to do as I pleased. My mother supported all of my ‘projects’ – whether drawing or painting, learning ballet, riding horses or playing tennis. I could dye and cut my hair however I fancied, for instance – a privilege no one else at my school had. I would design my own outfits at my parents’ clothing factory no matter how outlandish they'd turn out to be. I think this gave me a lot of opportunities to learn and explore my creative side but also encouraged me to have interests of my own. I was allowed to make my own mistakes and figure out my interests. I was always into art and fashion but jewellery was an unexpected venture for me.
When I went to Central Saint Martins, I wasn’t sure that this is what I’d be doing. But now, looking back, it makes a lot of sense. I feel that while jewellery may not serve a tangible purpose the way art does, an item worn on the body is still a creative expression for whoever wears it. I'm also fascinated by the mechanisms and technicalities of constructing three-dimensional pieces. I enjoy figuring out how parts are to be put together, the conversations they have with one another, and how they end up functioning. I guess that's an aspect of product design.
Coming back to Lahore was almost a logical part of my journey. It’s had its unique challenges but has been rewarding in a way nowhere else could be. I have the support to do my own thing here and have been able to nurture my creativity relatively freely. It’s also really exciting to introduce new concepts to a place like Pakistan. At the end of the day, I suppose your passport and where your family and support structure are matter a lot when you're setting up your own thing.
When you have an idea, you really run with it to create a cohesive and refined collection. But you’ve mentioned before that, sometimes, you have to completely exhaust an idea to the end, so that all paths of possibilities have been experimented with. Have you ever explored an idea so far that it turns into something completely different than when you set out?
I try to explore an idea/concept/form and adapt it in my designs in a profound way. It definitely evolves and takes a new shape by the end of the process, but I can usually trace it back to where it came from. However, I do have to shed some elements or designs in the process to make the pieces or collection more coherent, clear or strong. A lot of designing, in the end, is good editing.

As a creative designer by nature, I bet you get impatient to experiment and move on to the next concept. Do you have a whole list of ideas to try out or maybe even a list of things that didn’t work out?
Yes, definitely. I constantly have a lot of ideas I want to explore. Most of them end up sitting around and I don’t get time to develop them. I’ve come to realise a lot of times it’s good for them to germinate — to know which ones are worth exploring or take to maturation and which ones are not worth developing further.
After graduating and moving back to Lahore, you set up your workshop and studio in-house so that you could see through the designing and craftsmanship from start to finish. Could you explain to us the eastern tradition of ‘Gharānā’ that your brand upholds?
The concept of Gharānā is something that’s very much alive here. Most craftspeople and musicians learn through their masters. But the process is actually much more painstaking than a casual tutor-student relationship. The knowledge is passed on very slowly – only when a student has shown his or her loyalty and commitment. Our studio is a modern twist on this concept: we hire untrained apprentices and immerse them in the process of jewellery making from the get-go. What we create is not traditional; one could say we use traditional training to fashion new ideas.
In a region that has low ethical standards in the workplace, low wages and potentially hazardous working conditions, your brand’s mission breaks this. Do you think other companies or brands will follow suit any time soon? Also, are you paving the way for change to help the community?
There is definitely less structure in Pakistan and that complicates things. But I do think there is much more awareness and accountability than one expects  – a lot of companies are under a lot of scrutiny and the press is now very vocal about unsavoury practices, especially in fashion, sometimes even inaccurately so. Having said that, there is definitely a lot of exploitation that continues unnoticed. For example, there is still pervasive bonded labour, especially in villages. The cities are much better in this regard.

Having your conceptual – or even sculptural – designs handmade by traditional craftsmen, it pushes the parameters of jewellery design. Looking at your intricate designs, I can imagine it’s a painstaking process. Do you embrace any imperfections in the results or do you strive for absolute perfection?
I embrace imperfections during the design process, especially recently with the abstract collections. A lot of happy accidents that happen by chance can never be achieved through planning. I don’t want to overthink and ruin an organic/accidental decision with too much consciousness. But when the pieces go into production, we do strive for absolute precision. Every piece has to perfectly imperfect.
Whilst your jewellery definitely makes a statement, it’s also fairly understated and effortless. How has your jewellery been received in Pakistan compared to the rest of the world?
It’s good to be noticed for that. I am wary of creating pieces that make a wearer look frivolous or like a fashion victim. So I focus on keeping a balance in my pieces. In Pakistan, a lot of people have embraced our studio. There is a loyal customer base and I’m grateful for that. Internationally, there has been a lot of appreciation for our manufacturing and I think it’s surprising for people to learn that it’s from Pakistan without being ‘ethnic’.
I’ve read somewhere that in the design process of your Unsent Letters collection, you literally tore up bits of notebook paper and wrapped them around different parts of your body to experiment how they’d look. As a lot of your pieces challenge the boundaries of traditional craftsmanship, do the craftsmen in your workshop ever wonder what on earth you’re doing or question your ideas?
Some are pretty used to it or, at least, they are good at pretending to be used to it. People in the jewellery district definitely have raised eyebrows with regards to me and my designs, and whenever a piece is sent to the general market for finishing or plating, people recognise our work and know it must be ‘that crazy lady’.
Having said that, sometimes I have the most surprising and special interactions with traditional craftsman who are able to look past their preconceived ideas of what design/jewellery should be and are genuinely able to appreciate the forms and techniques. These moments allow you to reaffirm your faith in design and in the craft that connects people. It makes one realise that design, like art or music, can communicate with so many people, no matter their culture or background.

Previously, you’ve mentioned that Kazimir Malevich’s artworks have influenced your designs – and similarly you use abstract shapes and hold a modern minimalist aesthetic. But Malevich’s paintings are quite geometric and harsh. I see more crossovers with artists such as Alexander Calder – his mobiles are all about balance and suspension, and hold an elegant softness much like many of your beautiful pieces. Do you believe in jewellery as being a form of wearable art?
I am definitely inspired by the writings of many artists, including both Malevich and Kandinsky. I approach my work in jewellery as I would with art. For me, the term ‘wearable art’ has been overused and lost its meaning. I do treat the jewellery I make to be wearable sculptures, but with the added challenge of infusing style and purpose into each.
Also, the Zohra Rahman Instagram feed is full of art posts, including paintings and drawings of your jewellery designs (which are stunning, by the way.) Would you ever consider exploring that further within your brand? Maybe the illustrations and artwork could further tell the story of your jewellery?
Yes, this is one of the many ideas I haven’t had time to explore. My first love has always been drawing. Hopefully, when I can build a bigger team, I will get a chance to give more time to that.
Finally, your designs absorb both masculine and feminine traits and are more genderless or androgynous. Do you think that this is the direction jewellery will be heading, as a form of adornment unspecific to gender?
Design-wise: definitely. Marketing wise: the structure is pretty limiting. I find it quite restrictive that one has to be known as a unisex jewellery brand just to make gender neutral pieces. I want to create a range of pieces that go from more masculine to more feminine, and some that meet in the middle as well. But I am not really in favour of genderlessness or androgyny only being associated with more masculine pieces. There is beauty in all forms and I find it very boring not to let myself explore freely. Genderfluid or unisex pieces should not only mean more masculine pieces.

Peach Doble
Matt Monfredi

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