In advance of an exhibition at DIFC in Dubai, starting July 24, the Abu Dhabi-based jeweller Azza al Qubaisi talks about craft, passion and gems. I didn't know I wanted to be a jeweller at first. I travelled to England to continue my academic studies. I'd been painting, sketching, collecting things and taking pictures for many years as a teenager, but I never realised that it could be a profession. Here, it's not considered to be a profession, so it was a hobby for me. But when I did my A-levels I stopped biology and maths and focused on my art. I was accepted at Chelsea College of Art & Design for my foundation year, because by then I knew I wanted to be an artist, but I knew painting was not enough for me - I liked working with my hands and I like texture and paints. So I did a BA in jewellery design and allied crafts at London Guildhall University.
To me, jewellery is sculpture on a small scale that you actually interact with. It has a philosophy, it has an idea, it has my sketches... When I returned from London, I actually thought that people would really go for my jewellery and love it, and enjoy the fact that I'm a local working with my hands. I came back in 2002 and my dad supported my project, renting my flat for me, but other people laughed at it - educated people. "What do you do? Jewellery? You work with your hands? That's what you did in England for five years? You wasted your dad's money?"
My close family loved what I did, and while some of them felt it was quite weird as a job, they didn't laugh at me because they knew how stubborn I am. The people that really found it hard to understand were the people that didn't really know me: they thought I was weird and I wasted my life, it should have been a hobby and not a career. I think if I was the person I am now, I wouldn't have been able to make it. I never give up, but it pulls you down, puts you in a place where you can't even move.
People here didn't like my work at all. They assumed that my jewellery was very English or very European, and I said no, I'm not working with their designs, I'm working with my feelings: these are contemporary Emirati designs. When I first did an exhibition in April 2004 at Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation it pulled me up again, because I met people who were talking about my work, and I realised that my work is so transparent that people can feel it, I don't have to talk about it. I felt so happy.
The Finnish ambassador came to my first exhibition and he felt that this work expressed the UAE's nature, which a lot of people don't reflect - they reflect the buildings and the high-rises, but they don't see the beauty of nature. To many it's a hot desert country, but to me it's a hot beautiful desert country, which I love and I didn't even feel until I left the country for five years. It's when you're out of the box that you start looking at what you have.
I have a shop in Khan Murjan at Wafi City, but my work is not about selling - it's about expressing my love of nature and how people should start thinking about energy, the environment, climate change... We're a spoiled generation because we don't think about, say, where the milk came from: the milk does not come from a carton or a plastic bottle, it comes from a cow. We're used to ready things, easy things; we don't think what effects things have.
The issue of the environment has been engraved deep into my soul. My dad is an academic and growing up I used to meet professors who were talking about water rising 15 years ago, and people used to laugh at that, but it's no longer a fiction - it's a reality. He's working with Unesco in producing the Encyclopaedia of Life Systems Sciences. But the environment has been the thing that flamed his passion. I saw all that when he was young by travelling with him. He was also passionate about gemstones - he's a great collector of amethysts, opals, some diamonds. We're not very friendly together because we argue a lot, but he likes the way I think, and he makes it clear to me indirectly. When I'm short of money he's there for me. He depends a lot as well on taking my opinion in many things.