Jeweller Julien Riad Sahyoun speaks about his career journey from Morocco to London via New York and Biarritz and discusses the universal nature of a work inspired by tragedy
The early spring sunshine mottles the walls, highlighting the plush, deep pink surrounds as Julien Riad Sahyoun joins us for lunch in 5 Hertford Street’s dining room. He sits down with a quiet smile and gently suggests some salads and octopus to share, before complimenting the intimacy of the venue. It’s a space he clearly has some affinity with, having chosen the private members club as the cosy arena in which to launch himself as a jeweller in London. Last year his Just range was unveiled here, putting him on the path to the showcases of Harvey Nichols and La Maison Couture, as well as the recent establishment of his own South Kensington showroom.
In contrast to the plush surrounds, the aesthetic of his Just range is bare, light and organic. The pieces he shows me in his catalogue are reminiscent of tree bark, or coral. “When I was a child I was always attracted by rocks and fossils, I always had this attraction to nature,” he says.
His professional career did start by working with the natural world, albeit not in a way typically associated with a creator of delicate jewellery. “I was in charge of heavy construction machinery, it was something really, really different,” he says of his time working in his family’s heavy plant business. “I was in charge of a department importing these machines and dealing with all the repairs — an amazing experience.”
His desire to create on smaller scale was welcomed by his family and in 2009 Sahyoun enrolled on a course in gemology at the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) in New York. “I loved it. When I finished I wanted to take it further.” That meant moving to the Californian headquarters of the GIA to start “building a creative vision”, while studying a masters specialising in jewellery. “That was the real work, using all the little tools and building from scratch. You have to be so precise, the margin of error is two tenths of a millimetre, it’s nothing; you go over that and you fail. You’re always measuring, measuring, measuring. When you fail once then you know that the second time you’ll do it right. If it takes six hours to fix, you’ll take the six hours. It’s challenging but it’s exciting,” he smiles.
A move to Biarritz to hone his skills in a workshop followed his graduation as a master jeweller before a visit to International Jewellery London in 2013 made him an advocate of the British capital: “I loved the dynamic of the city and also the efficiency; how people work here reminds me of how people work in the US.” He moved to London in 2015 and is now based in Earl’s Court.
Since last year’s launch Sahyoun has been shortlisted for New Designer of the Year by the UK Jewellery Awards and released a new ‘skinny’ range. His work is demanding in its detail: he casually remarks that his Sun Diamond earrings are “quite complex”, containing 430 diamonds. To free his mind from such intricacies he flies back to his native Morocco, looking to “disconnect with the world and reconnect with nature,” moving between the Atlantic coast and the Atlas mountains, visiting the small villages south of Casablanca.
Nature and humanism have informed the artistic vision Sahyoun has built since beginning his career eight years ago. He mentions one of his first jewellery lines: the Just Rebel Star range of rings. “I wanted to make something with an organic shape, comparing the stars to humanity, each star is unique as each human is unique — it’s really about individuality.” Such gestures are unremarkable, almost banal, in any artistic canon but there is an undeniable passion as Sahyoun unravels his inspirations. Himself French, Lebanese and Italian, his family came to Morocco from Palestine in the 1920s.
Rightly, he makes no apologies for celebrating such cosmopolitan roots in his work. “For example this collection, Just Revolution Skin, is about unity and bringing people together no matter our differences, our background, our culture, our races, our preferences or whatever. The pattern is like animal skin but it has to be really thin, like a second skin. Customers can wear your jewellery because they like it because it’s beautiful, but at the same time they can wear it because they like and respect your values and are proud to wear it; it’s not only a piece of jewellery, it’s a way of thinking and that’s even more beautiful — you can deliver a beautiful story that’s part of your values.”
International experiences and an appreciation of nature as a metaphorical leveller have informed his work. However, there are other realities in his life that make his metalwork a story teller.
In 2016 photojournalist Leila Alaoui was murdered by Al Qaeda in a terrorist attack in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, while on an assignment for Amnesty International on women’s rights. “We’d know each other for years,” says Sahyoun. “She’d just moved to Lebanon and last year she came to London two or three times. She said ‘Julien you have to come to Lebanon, it’s your country and I live there now. I want you to come and I can show you round.’ I went just after Christmas and we spent new year’s together. That was the last time I saw her.”
“She told me about this mission she had with Amnesty International, it was just another mission after all the other ones that she had done — during that weekend I was with some friends in London, they said ‘Did you get the news about Leila? She just got shot in Ouagadougou, but don’t worry she’s alive.’ She’d been taken to hospital and had more than six hours of surgery which actually went well, they saved her… but she passed away the next day because of a heart attack, it was too much for the body. That was emotional, they saved her but then no.”
“I took the first flight back the next morning to Marrakech and we were all waiting for the body to return. People were sharing, photos, sharing stories, sharing memories. I was still in shock and didn’t know how to express myself. I wanted to do something that would remember her but remember her not only as a tragic moment, turning this into something hopeful, something that could bring a positive side. This is tragic, we suffer from this, but let’s do something great with it.”
Sahyoun removes the pendant from his neck and shows me a small, silver bullet, made to look whorled and obsolete. “I took a strong symbol, the bullet, and went against that, I wanted to damage it. The bullet is supposed to kill but no, we’re going to write the word “peace” on it in the eight most common languages, we’re going to remember and we’re going to take some action for the new generations and the children in the Middle East.” The Bullet Peace, which can also be worn as an earring, is sold with all proceeds going to charities, helping children in warzones, the plight of whom Alaoui did much to highlight.
It’s hard to think of a more poignant inspiration for Sahyoun’s work. His career no doubt has far to go but already the pieces he makes, so often worn to flatter, have moved far beyond decoration.