Kuwaiti Jewelers Translate Grace, Energy, and Dancing Into Inspired Designs

Octium brings its regal Kuwaiti style to American shores

It’s late on a Saturday night in mid-January and Fahad Al Hajiri and Alanood Al Sabah are relaxing at their home in the fashionable Adiliya suburb of Kuwait City. You wouldn’t know it, but just a few hours ago, a crowd of 50 savvy and stylish Kuwaiti jet-setters turned their living room into a heaving dance floor, as they shook their moneymakers to the beats of two bands—a 10-piece Kuwaiti ensemble and an 11-piece Egyptian group—the couple had hired for the occasion of the party (which is to say, no occasion).

“Just to celebrate,” Al Hajiri explained.

The night ended after the sun came up, and the twosome spent the day overseeing the crew of servants that reassembled their living room to its original, refined state. Sinking into a tufted white leather couch, Al Sabah, a member of Kuwait’s distinguished royal family, clutches a pillow stitched with Arabic lyrics taken from a love song by Mohammed Abdu, a Saudi folk singer known as “the Arabian Elvis.”

“‘Every beautiful person I see makes me wish I was with you,’” she translates.

Series III 18k rose gold Crescent bangle with brown diamonds and red garnets; $12,340

It would be easy to imagine that Abdu wrote the song for Al Sabah and her equally beautiful (not to mention stylish and privileged) friends. Watching them dance all night long with exceptional grace and unbelievable energy despite their sky-high heels (red-soled Christian Louboutins, naturally) and form-fitting designer dresses was, for a few spectators lacking their sartorial style and fancy footwork, a humbling experience.

Yet Al Hajiri and Al Sabah have a lot more going for them than a proven track record in throwing good parties. They’ve spent the past six months bopping between London, Delhi, Marrakech, and the Gulf. Their home is filled with interesting and original art that betrays their intellectual leanings—including the striking Islamic imagery of British artist Vanessa Hodgkinson. And they have three happy, healthy children under the age of 10.

Series III 18k rose gold faceted earrings with diamonds; $12,620; Octium, Kuwait City; 96-525-309-888; octiumjewelry.com

Don’t, however, let their charmed lives distract you. Octium—the fine jewelry brand Al Hajiri and Al Sabah introduced to the U.S. market last year in Las Vegas—is a finely made collection of 18k gold, diamond, and gemstone jewelry developed with a great deal of thought toward American buyers.

“This is not a princess’ pet project,” says Adel ­El-Assaad, Octium’s affable communications ambassador. “It’s nothing like that: Sweat and blood goes into this. It’s not a brand that’s spoon-fed just because they’re affluent people who travel abroad.”

Octium is an anomaly, even, or especially, in the Gulf region. It’s one of a handful of homegrown brands in a consuming culture best known for its devotion to franchises. As a recent article in Bloomberg reported, the emirate’s obsession with all things American has made it appealing to entrepreneurs who wish to expand—even if they lack internationally recognizable brands. The truth of this is self-­evident for anyone cruising the food court at one of the local luxury malls. Frozen yogurt from Pinkberry, cupcakes from Sprinkles, burgers from Manhattan’s legendary Shake Shack—the selection of all-­American eats is outstanding.

Series IV interlocking necklace in black rhodium-plated 18k white gold with diamonds, sapphires, topaz, and emeralds; $17,760

When Al Sabah and Al Hajiri were growing up, however, the American experience was far from ersatz. The couple met 13 years ago at a mutual friend’s dinner party in Kuwait, during a break from their respective colleges in the United States. (She studied architecture at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., like her mother, Kuwait’s first female architect; he went to New York City’s Hunter College, where he majored in cultural anthropology and minored in world history.) They married 10 years ago this month. “I came back pregnant from the honeymoon,” Al Sabah says.

As a student of design, Al Sabah found herself sketching pictures of jewelry that she wanted to wear. For her wedding, she decided to make something of her doodles: She designed a brooch/hairpin encrusted with diamond baguettes; its styling was inspired by her favorite jewelry period, Art Nouveau. “I wore it at the wedding with a diamond headband,” she says.

Series II 18k yellow gold faceted bangle with diamonds; $30,420

It took a few more years, however, for Al Sabah and Al Hajiri to make their first real foray into the jewelry business. In 2007, they hosted a local exhibition in a seaside ballroom on behalf of Bangkok-based Lotus Arts de Vivre, whose opulent and organic jewelry and home decor items they had encountered on their travels in Southeast Asia.

“It was a great show, a great venue, and the economy was excellent,” Al Hajiri recalls. “What really encouraged us were the results.”

The success of the Lotus exhibition proved there was a market in Kuwait for jewelry with a distinctive designer ethos. It also planted the seed for a new venture. In mid-2007, Al Sabah and Al Hajiri decided they would open their own jewelry boutique. In its first iteration, the idea was to showcase the work of ­­jewelers they admired—such as Britain’s Shaun Leane and ­Beirut’s Selim Mouzannar—and supplement those pieces with a small number of their own designs.

Octium’s gallery-style boutique in Kuwait’s 360 Mall

In March 2008, the couple met with renowned Spanish designer Jaime Hayon and began to cultivate a vision for a boutique in Kuwait’s 360 Mall, a luxury mecca home to Cartier, Piaget, and Jaeger-LeCoultre, among other international brands. Custom-designed with a cream and ebony color scheme using lacquered woods, natural oak, ceramic, and fabrics, the 2,150-square-foot space evokes an art gallery, with subdivisions housing the main gallery, a bar area, and a plush VIP lounge. Jewels are showcased in vitrines with an emphasis on minimalistic displays that draw attention to the designs and craftsmanship. An unusual feature of the space is its rounded corners—intended as a marriage between the couple’s masculine and feminine design sensibilities.

“I told Hayon that I love Art Deco—my favorite building is the Chrysler building—and Alanood’s favorite style is Art Nouveau,” Al Hajiri says. “He tried to blend both and I think he succeeded.”

Series I 18k rose gold long shank earrings with diamonds; $8,640

The boutique opened in October 2009 but remained nameless for a month while Al Sabah and Al Hajiri contemplated a moniker for their burgeoning brand. “I was born on the eighth of August, and eight is a symbolic number,” Al Sabah says. “It’s endless what it symbolizes. I started thinking octagonal, oct, oct-something. How about Octium?”

The slanted octagonal form that Al Hajiri and Al Sabah came up with to represent their brand—it replaces the O in Octium—is the central motif in Octium Creates: Series I, the brand’s signature collection of 18k rose gold and diamond pieces, which are at once simple and recognizable. (The signature ring, for example, features an octagon-shape shank.) Octium Creates: Series II continues that aesthetic in faceted yellow gold styles that boast an appealing three-dimensionality. The bulk of the collection, which retails from $1,500 to $40,000, is made in Hong Kong, while high-end pieces are manufactured in London, Italy, and Kuwait.

Series I 18k rose gold single Octium ring with diamonds; $5,750

“Over the third and fourth series, we got more confident and began introducing color,” Al Sabah explains, referring to Octium Creates: Series III and Series IV, formally unveiled in April.

Unlike the first two series, which don’t claim any specific cultural inspiration, the third and fourth series are rife with gem-set crescent shapes, an ode to Andalusia, the fabled region of Spain where a mix of Islam and Christianity gave rise to legendary cultural traditions—bullfighting, flamenco, and Moorish architecture chief among them.

Series III, aka the “day series,” features warmly hued gems (brown diamonds and red garnets) set in 18k rose gold, while Series IV, aka the “night series,” features crescent shapes in 18k black rhodium-plated white gold studded with stones in cool tones, such as white diamonds and blue sapphires.

When Al Hajiri and Al Sabah show the collection at the Couture show in Las Vegas later this month, they say they will present themselves as CEO and creative director, respectively. They do not intend to draw attention to Al Sabah’s heritage because they’re reluctant to suggest that petro-dollars are fueling what is, at heart, an earnest effort to build a serious brand. The couple, however, does acknowledge that their luxury upbringing and regal lifestyle give them an uncommon edge when it comes to understanding top-notch service—and simultaneously lends Octium distinction in the marketplace.

“It is an element, part of the character,” says Al Hajiri. “The brand has a royal touch—you can’t deny that.”