Writer: Joumana Samandal / Photography: Oskar Proctor
Palestinian-Lebanese, brought up in Germany and now based in London, Husam El-Odeh could almost be the poster child for cosmopolitanism. From everywhere and nowhere, a jack of many trades, his present incarnation as jeweller seems the ideal setting for a talent as versatile as his.
As I enter Husam El-Odeh’s London workshop in an aesthetically derelict cluster of artist studios on Sarah Lane in Hoxton, he warns me to be careful where I put my scarf. “It’s quite light-coloured,” he says, “it might get dirty.”
Until then, I hadn’t considered just how messy the act of making jewellery can be. While El-Odeh’s workshop doesn’t come across as especially unclean, as I brush my finger across the desktop, I realise that it is coated in a thin film of grit.
For such a delicate product, the process of making jewellery is both messy and brutal. Welding irons, rasps, scissors and pliers are used to solder, shave, cut and twist the metal into its desired shape, showering surrounding areas in smudge-making particulates.
Soft-spoken and shaven-headed, El-Odeh occupies a rather unusual niche in the world of jewellery makers. Whether through inclination or circumstance, he finds himself working most often with fashion houses – including some of the biggest names in the business – to produce pieces for runway shows and collections as well as pieces that are made to be directly applied to clothes or shoes. Happy to work with fabric, even to use it in his pieces, he shows a willingness to stretch the meaning of jewellery beyond its usual remit.
“I have a take on fabric and I like playing with it. Corrupting it, I suppose. Most jewellers wouldn’t be comfortable doing something in cloth to an equal standard as metal, but because I didn’t really come from a jewellery background, it’s not such an issue.”
Beyond that, he’s done sunglasses, tin-can heels for shoes, illustrations, he’s even decorated shop windows. If for others, this profusion of creation is confusing, for El-Odeh, it’s quite straightforward. “For me it’s not disparate at all but it is a challenge to translate, so that people get why I’m doing it,” he explains. “It’s probably easier in a way if you’re known as the ‘guy who does that’, but I try to pull it together.”
This flexibility of creation endears him to the couturiers but it’s his ability to accommodate the tight deadlines associated with their trade that makes him even more sought after. “I get it. If the show is then or the shoot is then and the piece is not ready, that’s that. It’s simply not good enough to say ‘I’ll do it tomorrow or next week’. It’s too late,” he says, emphasising another difference that sets him apart from most other jewellers. “It’s quite stressful but it has its highs. Fashion is an exciting context. I do like it.”
If his approach to the craft is unusual, it’s probably because as with most of the more interesting designers around, El-Odeh’s arrival was somewhat circuitous. As a child, he says he wanted to be an actor and later, a doctor, like his father. But somewhere around the age of 14, he decided he wanted to be an artist.
And so he did, beginning his studies in Fine Arts in Berlin. That was until he became fed up with what he calls the “masturbatory” aspect of contemporary art and in particular, the artist’s obsession with occupying centre-stage. Taking a year out to reconsider his options, he decided to take a complete break from being creative. For a while, he even considered becoming a simultaneous translator.
Having already caught a glimpse of his need to create - a need he later admits can be something of a compulsion - I laugh, thinking he’s making a joke. “Actually I was quite serious about it,” he says, with a solemnity that cuts me short. “I grew up with two and a half languages. As a child, I read a lot and I enjoyed playing with words, thinking of a word and how it sounds and how it might mean something else in another language.”
In the end though, it was Nature, not Nurture that triumphed. “I was really German about not creating, I wouldn’t even allow myself to touch a pencil. But it didn’t work. I just had to make things.” He didn’t want to go back to Fine Arts but he’d done a few courses on jewellery-making and felt it was a good option.
“It’s a craft, though a lot of people perceive it as a product, even as a useless product,” he says with the kind of self-deprecation that feels curiously English. “In that sense, jewellery-making is a lot like Fine Art. Useless. For me, it’s enough if someone just finds what I do pretty.”
And so in addition to the pieces commissioned for the fashion world, El-Odeh has two lines of his own; one that is more classic, made using metals like gold and precious stones and one that is more experimental, where he gets to play with both materials and context.
When I ask him how he creates, he becomes less precise in his response but then this may also be because the question itself is too unwieldy to answer in anything more than platitudes. He contents himself with talking about meeting the brief – whether his own or his client’s – and adds that thinking about where something will be shown, why and for whom, also affects his approach before adding that generally speaking, he likes to take away, rather than add.
“There’s an editing process,” he continues, adding that inspiration is accumulative. “Pieces in museums that you see as a kid when your parents drag you out for some culture. Stories you read about treasure chests. Uncle Scrooge taking baths in money. I guess it all starts there. Every piece contains every piece that you’ve already made in the background, I suppose every piece you’ve ever seen.”
Wherever inspiration comes from and for whatever reason, El-Odeh’s playful approach to creation is always present. Browse his current selection and you find necklaces made of actual rings interlocked to create a chain, a red-gold plated ‘watch’ that is not functional but is made to function as a bracelet, delicate pendants so small that they practically require others to lean in to appreciate and in the process, perhaps serve as an invitation to get to know the wearer better. Simple and subtle, even when they are being slightly cheeky, they are pieces that demonstrate the maker’s confidence that beauty is at its best when it’s understated.
So how does that jibe with the use of precious stones like diamonds? Well, you won’t find either collection weighed down by carats, nor do they give an impression of being flashy. El-Odeh’s diamonds, for example, are small, especially when used in profusion. In the case of his hinged rings - which look like they can be opened up and worn on two fingers - the stones are either entirely obscured or else hidden in a cleft between the halves.
The point? Well, that’s a bit of a (mind) game too. Or even possibly, something of a tease. The wearer of the ring knows the stones are there but because they are hidden, no one else does, at least not until the wearer chooses to reveal their presence. It’s a ring that allows its owner to bare it all or to pass incognito, perhaps enjoying the secret knowledge of what the ring contains. And understood in that sense, it’s as though in creating them, Husam El-Odeh has come up the lapidiary world’s equivalent of a pair of naughty knickers.