BEIRUT: Henry Loussian’s shop on Hamra Street is so small that were it not for the plethora of trinkets in the window, most people would not even notice it was there.
Rows and rows of leather bracelets, beaded necklaces, and flashy earrings line the walls of a room barely big enough for five people, from where Loussian has been selling his handmade jewelry since 2000, slowly building his brand to his now-famous position.
He began making jewelry aged just 17, after admiring a necklace a friend had bought in Africa. “Whenever I see something that looks really appealing, I have to have it by any means,” he says. “Because I couldn’t travel to Africa, I had to make it myself.”
Loussian started out making items for friends and family, and, buoyed by the reception he received, decided to set up a stall outside the American University of Beirut on Bliss Street, selling to the student population.
“At that time there was nowhere in Lebanon where there was handmade stuff,” he says. After the popularity of that venture, he decided to set up Henry’s Handmade.
The materials for Loussian’s jewelry are sourced entirely in Lebanon, and feature Arab type and imagery heavily – bracelets featuring Fatima’s hand, named after Prophet Mohammad’s daughter, are one of his current most popular pieces, as are designs customized in Arabic script.
Arab culture is obviously an important reference point for Loussian. Though he speaks English, he prefers to conduct interviews in Arabic, and his shop displays the slogan of a Lebanese campaign to maintain the use of Arabic in everyday life.
His other influences come from the street, from people he knows, as well as from current trends and fashion.
‘I look at magazines just to know what they are thinking,” he says. “I like colors, so I see which colors they want and I make them my own.”
Loussian never received any professional training, and says he prefers it that way. “I don’t like to study or to sit at one place,” he says. It was this impatience with traditional education – he says he used to get into a lot of fights at school – that really spurred him to leave at 17 and start his own business, despite having no real experience.
“I’m very proud of myself. And my father and my mother are very proud of me,” he says. “Because when I started I left everything. I left school before I knew that I would be [as successful as] this.”
People buy his products, Loussian says, because they are unique. He is still a favorite among students, particularly from the nearby Lebanese American University, as well as from AUB, but he has now built up a much broader fan base, as well as attracting plenty of tourists. He also still sees some old faces.
“Since I was outside AUB, the former students have graduated and some have left, and when they come back to the country, they come back here.”
Karim Khalil, an 18-year-old student at LAU discovered Henry’s Handmade via his 27-year-old brother, and says he returns to the shop because he can’t find products like Loussian’s elsewhere. “I wore one of his bracelets for five months, and as soon as it got old, I came back,” he says.
Despite his popularity, Loussian says the end of the road may be near for Henry’s Handmade. There are plans to knock down the building where the shop is housed in the next two or three years, and Loussian says if that happens, he won’t open a new one.
“There is no location like this. I have been here so long, I cannot start from the beginning. It will not be the same,” he says.
He is philosophical about the possibility of closing the shop. “Everything has an end,” he says. “And that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.”
It’s a philosophy he takes to his work. “I think everything that I’ve made, it will not be vintage, it will not last forever. It will break over time, like me,” he says.
Still, Loussian may face some opposition if he does decide to shut up shop. “I’d follow him wherever he went,” says Khalil.
Loussian says that if that day does come, he has a new, currently secret, venture up his sleeve.
Given the extent of his popularity, he will no doubt already have fans, whatever he decides to do.