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All that glitters

Delve into the origins of Bil Arabi, the prized jewellery line by Beirut-born, Dubai-based designer Nadine Kanso

The first port of call for modern fashionistas seeking statement jewellery in the region, Bil Arabi is a storied marque deeply rooted in the cultural fabric of the Middle East. Conceived by jewellery designer Nadine Kanso, the brand rose from humble beginnings and reached the pinnacle of success in a short space of time.

More than just stunning pieces of jewellery, each of Kanso’s creations reimagines Arabic calligraphy and, as such, is a work of art. With the message, “I’m proud to be Arab,” underscoring every collection, each piece tells an inspiring story through which the wearer affirms their Middle Eastern identity.

Kanso established Bil Arabi in 2006, following several years of work in fashion, art, design and photography. Having spent her childhood in Beirut, she went on to complete two degrees from the Lebanese American University in Communication Arts and Advertising Design, following which she worked in various design-related fields, including several stints in journalism. Having found her passion in fashion and art, she began dedicating her time to photography and jewellery design, which laid the foundation for her brand.

It was in the year 2006 that she finally decided to bring her very own label to life, following an invitation to showcase her work at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. Under the theme, Arabise Me, the museum organised a celebration of contemporary music, dance, art and film presented by young artists from the region. On the evening of August 25, 2006, a crowd of 4,000 people gathered together to delve into the culture of the Arab world. And one young artist, in particular, made an indelible impression.

At the show, Nadine found the perfect theme to express her cultural identity. She presented portraits of people from the Middle East who held hand-made cards inscribed with positive affirmations about their Middle Eastern identity. Key quotes rendered in gold, including, 'my love is Arabic' and 'my identity is Arabic', conveyed their powerful messages. The phrase 'bil Arabi' was also a recurring phrase in her work – a concept that would soon go on to set the stage for her jewellery line.

Bil Arabi began as a singular ring in 2006, aptly chosen because Kanso wanted her rings to convey more than the wearer’s marital status. She wanted her jewellery to express her personal and cultural identity, and found that the best way to express it was "bil Arabi", which means “in Arabic”. So she merged her background in design, her love for typography and predilection for bling and the result was a ring called "noon" – the equivalent of the letter "N" in Arabic, which is also the first letter of her name.

Entirely handcrafted in 18-carat gold and embellished with a semi-precious stone, the ring became an instant hit. Soon enough, one letter evolved into the whole alphabet and, eventually, full phrases to form a complete collection of earrings, pendants, bracelets and rings. Continuing to take inspiration from the Arabic alphabet and Arabic calligraphy, she imbued her creations with cultural meaning, positively reflecting what it means to be Middle Eastern in an ode to the region she loves so much.

It wasn’t long before the world started to take notice of Bil Arabi. Her label quickly became one of the most influential brands in the Middle East and, soon, Kanso's prominence in the international jewellery design world grew. In 2008, she went on to showcase her work at Design Miami as part of the Al Sabah Art and Design Gallery. And in 2010, she produced a special piece to be auctioned off at Jewels and Watches: The Dubai Sale held by Christie’s Dubai.

In the years to follow, she went on to collaborate with international brands, including Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Maserati, Christofle and Bernardaud. Her collaboration with watchmaker Gagà Milano in May 2020 resulted in a unisex limited edition watch, which was priced at US$1,500. Kanso's designs also went on to make several red carpet appearances with celebrities, such as Zaha Hadid, Kim Kardashian, Kylie Minogue and Dita Von Teese, donning her creations.

Her collections are structured along themed lines, including hob, which stands for love and is inspired by Kanso’s love for the UAE; athar, which means trace in Arabic and draws from the delicate outline of each Arabic letter; and taim, which is a collection of bold cocktail rings that exude attitude, strength and style.

It all comes together as a nod to Nadine's approach to life: to love, to live and to learn. Through her new collections, she constantly explores unique ways to express what it means to be an Arab in today's world and through her creative presentations, she masterfully highlights these issues, offering her own insightful observations in each piece yet leaving room for the individual to ponder.


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