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Tchenshol: Jewelry that puts a smile on your face

ADMA, Lebanon: For a hint of style, designer Yasmina Sawma recommends wearing kibbeh around the neck.

For vegetarians, she offers other fashionable mezze: a bracelet of stuffed grape leaves or hummus dangling from a silver chain.

“I love hummus. The mezze are my most popular pieces,” Sawma says.

“At first, people are shocked. They say ‘No I won’t wear it.’ They are scared of what people will think. I love watching how people react.”

Sawma creates her offbeat jewelry line, named Tchenshol, from a living room-turned-humble studio in Adma.

The name Tchenshol is Arabic for the sound of jewelry clinking together.

An interior architect by training, Sawma started her line as a personal hobby, but it grew to become an audacious – and somewhat ironic – collection of pop art jewelry.

Pop art, the use of symbols from popular culture and advertising in unconventional design, takes on a uniquely Lebanese spin in Sawma’s collection.

The images of Western cultural icons – cliches like Marilyn Monroe or the British flag – flood the local accessory market. Unlike these, the Arabic icon dangling from Sawma’s ears needs no explaining to older generations, as the earrings depict a young, pigtailed Fairouz.

Other faces smiling from the necklaces and earrings around the Tchenshol workshop include a glamorous Sabah at her wedding to handsome Egyptian actor Rushdy Abaza, renowned Lebanese comedian Shoushou and Gibran Khalil Gibran.

Sawma debuted Tchenshol at a Faqra-Kfar Zebian exhibition this month, where an older crowd eyed the familiar faces incredulously.

“Older people see my jewelry with the famous people, and they are so nostalgic, they have so many good memories of them,” she says.

“But they are not used to the idea. They say, ‘But how can I wear them around my neck!’ I love this.”

In addition to mezze and Arabic pop stars, Tchenshol includes rings made from backgammon game pieces, pendants of nargileh pipes and Arabic coffee cups, and mini-brooches made from tiny Lebanese lira.

Sawma makes the necklace and bracelet pendants by manipulating photos she finds online. In other cases she uses odds and ends she finds around her family home or at the toy store, such as backgammon pieces, dice, lego pieces, teacups taken from her childhood dollhouse and colorful ribbons.

A mini saltshaker hanging from one of her necklaces was picked on a trip to the supermarket, she says.

Just like her work, Sawma’s entrance into the field of jewelry design was a bit unconventional.

Upon graduating from Alba, Lebanon’s fine arts academy, Sawma recalls having little to do each day except hunt for a job.

Despite looming unemployment, her creative juices continued churning and she killed long hours at home by making her own accessories. Their quirkiness appealed to friends and the rest, as they say, is history.

Still in its humble beginnings, Tchenshol’s prices remain very low, especially given the line’s unique nature. Most pieces range from LL12,000 to 20,000.

The use of knickknacks from her childhood has also given part of Tchenshol a childish flair suitable for tweens and young adults.

For example, one of Sawma’s more clever creations is a necklace that reads “I thumbs up you,” with the thumb alluding to the word like – a youthful and often more accurate expression of “I heart (love) you.”

Sawma also gives a peak at some designs still under construction on her laptop, including a string of pendants on a necklace, each depicting one of the famous Disney princess kisses, as well as some made-to-order necklaces for a friend’s bachelorette party.

Though Sawma is still interested in getting her feet wet in interior architecture, thoughts of taking jewelry design classes have started to percolate.

But for now, the young designer will continue job hunting as well as dedicating her afternoons to making fashion statements out of Lebanon’s cultural heritage.

“Every time I wear something from Tchenshol, it makes other people smile,” Sawma says. “The reactions are so funny. It’s really a statement.”

To purchase or specially order items from Tchenshol, contact Sawma at 70-634-305.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 15, 2012, on page 2.

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