Architectural Digest (UAE)
Jewel in the Crown
For generations, family workshop Maison Tarazi has hand-crafted furniture and architectural finishes for Beirut’s historic royal palaces and museums. This is its fascinating story
Until August 4, 2020, the ceiling of Maison Tarazi’s showroom in the Mar Mikhael district of Beirut was a striking showcase of its craft: a honeycomb of plaster hexagons and squares, each delicately hand-painted and carved with floral and geometric patterns. Then, an explosion of ammonium nitrate, stored just 500m away at the city’s port, left it in fragments, along with much of the family firm’s work. For decades, Maison Tarazi’s extraordinary decorative furniture and finishes – ranging from inlaid mother of pearl to delicately engraved brass, moucharabieh panels and trompe l’oeil friezes – have been a feature of interiors across Beirut and beyond, in royal palaces, museums, hotels and private villas. Now, the workshop that has long specialised in restoring historic buildings finds itself challenged with its biggest reconstruction project yet.
It’s not Maison Tarazi’s first brush with adversity, reveals Camille Tarazi, who runs the business alongside his father Michel Emile, mother Lina and siblings Carole and Charles. “When Dimitri Tarazi founded his shop in Beirut in 1862, then expanded to Jerusalem, Damascus, Cairo and Alexandria, several Tarazi sons went to each of the cities to establish themselves,” he explains. The original shops sold furniture, textiles and oriental goods alongside the family’s signature line of printed postcards, which conjured the romance of the Near East.
“After the First World War, they went bankrupt in both Egypt and Palestine. A fire destroyed the Damascus shop in 1924, and the branch in Beirut was forced to close by loss and debts. Despite all this, my great-grandfather Georges Dimitri Tarazi decided to carry on, buying the shares of his brothers and sisters in order to honour the family name.” This resilience endures to the present day, with Camille joining the company while he was still an architecture student at Beirut’s Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts. “Passion, perseverance, quality, creativity,
a sense of challenge – these are just some of the principles that we maintain from generation to generation, which have ensured the legacy of Maison Tarazi.”
On the day after the explosion, Camille and his team made the rounds of the city – particularly the Sursock district, with its network of palaces and museums – gathering up pieces of woodwork, stained glass and moucharabieh so that they could begin the task of reconstruction. Luckily, no-one from the showroom was injured in the blast – it had closed early that day due to Covid-19 restrictions – but everyone was reminded of just how many important buildings Maison Tarazi has made its mark on. Among them are the famous Sursock Museum, founded by collector Nicolas Sursock in 1952, and the Sursock Palace, where the carved brass entrance door, created by Maison Tarazi in 1915, was blown out and broken in half.
Many such projects have been worked on by multiple generations of Tarazis. The magnificent Résidence des Pins is a case in point: built in 1916, the official residence of the French Ambassador boasts a sculpted wooden gate by Gebran Dimitri Tarazi, which was restored in 1996 by Camille’s father along with an opulent panelled Ottoman Room. Not everything the company works on is traditional, however; it has embraced modern technology, such as laser cutting, to improve its execution.
“We always complete things with handmade touches and reinterpret classical styles in our own way,” says Camille. “Sometimes, new directions emerge during the making process; it depends on the client’s desire to experiment.” Many of the artisans Maison Tarazi works with have been linked with the company for generations, producing everything from hand-blown glass to marquetry in Lebanon, Syria and Morocco.
While Beirut’s landmarks are undergoing repairs, Maison Tarazi’s continued presence is assured thanks to its elegant furniture, lighting and homewares (including a line of contemporary spoons and candleholders by Carole Tarazi). You’ll also spot its craftsmanship at the Yildiz Palace in Istanbul, which houses a carved wood throne made for Sultan Abdel Hamid II in 1900, and on ornamental panelling at Four Seasons hotels in Beirut, Alexandria, Cairo, Bahrain and Damascus. Meanwhile, the private owners of Tarazi works, in homes from Athens to Amman and London, doubtless prize them more highly than ever. maisontarazi.com
Claire Choisne is a jewellery magician. The Boucheron creative director’s charm and modesty belies her absolute power to innovate and captivate with her creations, and at the same time make pieces that are utterly wearable. Having captured real flowers for eternity and turned sand into precious baubles in the past, her latest high jewellery collection, ‘Contemplation’, seeks to evoke the heavens by utilising materials more commonly used in space exploration.
It is a project that has been in development ever since she visited Naoshima, Japan’s remote art island, three years ago. A skyroom by James Turrell, where the visitor’s eye is directed to the clouds drifting by in the roof opening high above their head, was particularly inspiring. “Life is such a rush most of the time and I loved that the island gave me so much space for contemplation,” she says.
It was a feeling Choisne wanted to transfer into jewellery, no easy feat given the elusiveness of both emotions and changing skies versus the forever nature of precious metals and gemstones. Success, was achieved with a determination that she has had ever since she was at jewellery school. “I would get so frustrated when my teachers would tell me that I should focus on technique and that my ideas
were impossible to create. It really represented a lack of freedom to me,” she laughs.
Fast forward to Boucheron today and Choisne is able to let her imagination run wild first and then set out to find a way to bring her vision to life. The Fenêtre Sur Ciel necklace is the result. “I wanted to offer a piece of the sky to the woman,” she says. This was achieved by creating a titanium knit scarf of tiny hexagons that are set with diamonds and mother of pearl. The iridescence of the latter glimmers through 30 microscopic layers of lacquer which recreate the effect of ever-changing skies. In lesser hands, this could have been an experiment gone horribly wrong, but Choisne has been bowled over by what her artisans were able to achieve. “It really is like gazing at the sky and the flexibility is amazing,” she says.
While looking for another way to capture the sky in a jewel, she came across Aerogel, a synthetic porous material derived from a gel, in which the liquid component has been replaced with a gas. One of the lightest solid materials known to man, it is more commonly used to insulate spacesuits and Mars rovers. Yet, for Choisne, it was its ethereal appearance that captured her attention and led her to search for a craftsperson (she finally found one in Athens) who could set it for eternity in a large pendant of rock crystal and diamonds. “It’s like a magical stone,” she says. “It’s slightly transparent and hard to say what it is when you see it, but like a blue sky changes with the movement of the sun, it changes with whatever you wear it with.”
In contrast to many contemporary high jewellery collections that offer a rainbow-wide spectrum of coloured gemstones, in Contemplation, Choisne has stuck to a pared-back sky-inspired palette of white, greys and blues. She is grateful to Hélène Poulit–Duquesne, Boucheron’s chief executive, for giving her the freedom to remain true to her original vision rather than pressuring her to offer something to please all tastes. “It makes the entire collection coherent and pure,” she says. She also counts herself fortunate that Boucheron’s clients are similarly bold in their trust as well. “They don’t just want the biggest diamond in the world. They understand the value of creation,” she says.
In other pieces, innovation takes a backseat to archival inspiration and refined craftsmanship. A 1901 hair piece of graduated diamonds had a simplicity and sense of movement that appealed to Choisne. She turned it on its side to create En Passant, an earring that appears like a cloud hovering over the ear. “It expresses the lightness and movement of a cloud perfectly,” she says.