"Only through knowledge can we progress. It should be our first goal to give free education to both females and males."
Princess Belquis Zahir, granddaughter of the late king Mohammed Zahir Shah is an Afghan interior and jewellery designer. Born in London, she returned to Kabul at the age of four, where her first memories of her country were formed. The vibrant colours, children playing in the streets and images of people going about their everyday lives against the dramatic backdrop of the dusty mountains would lie deep within her for years to come.
The military coup brought everything to an abrupt end, forcing the family into exile and leaving her only with the hope to return. "Haunting was that wait, while the news churned out images of the brutal agony that my people were enduring and still are. Nevertheless, hope will never abandon me, at least for a better future and lasting peace."
The family's exile brought Belquis to Rome, though her studies continued in England until she returned to Rome to study Interior Design and later Jewellery design with the lost wax technique.
Belquis Zahir's Interior Design projects have taken her from Rome, where she worked for 5 years circa in an established Interior Design company, whilst collaborating, designing furniture and home accessories for TAD, a trend-setting concept store that used to be based in Rome and Milan. In Rome she also started her jewellery collections.
Her love of adventure, new horizons, discovering cultures and peoples have taken her to many countries. The remote island of Filicudi, in the Aeolian archipelago captured her, where she lived for a decade or so. Its volcanic, raw beauty paired with its rural simplicity serve as an inspiration which transpires in her architectural projects on the island and in her Jewellery.
"Living in that beautiful microcosm, practically a dot in the Mediterranean, where you know all of the islanders and they you, changed my very perspective on life and thus my work. I realised that beauty lies in the subtle often overlooked things in life."
She has since, after the fall of the Taliban, returned to Afghanistan on many occasions witnessing the ebb and flow of hope and the many hurdles that the frail democracy faces each and every day.
Belquis built a library in her late father's name for the Red Crescent in Kabul. It caters to young children, giving them access to books and computers. "Only though knowledge can we progress. It is paramount and should be our first goal to provide free education to both females and males."
Having worked in Rome for an established Interior Design company and collaborating with TAD, an innovative, trend-setting concept store, designing furniture and home accessories. Belquis then moved to Filicudi, an island in the Aeolian archipelago off Sicily.
She started a new chapter in her architectural endeavours. This rural architecture inspired her and she specialised in renovating old ruins. This brought her to study and understand the traditional ways of construction using limestone, "long forgotten by the locals which reflected in recently renovated houses from the 70's onwards, resulting in a very different feel and hard edges."
She soon realised that the use of cement which was endemic, was wrong and that the traditional use of limestone had many advantages.
"So, off I went to find the limestone, quite difficult to obtain in this age of cement! Only to find out that the "Filicudari" ( as the locals are called.) had forgotten how to use it, so it was up to me to teach them again. I did one ruin followed by a second which resulted in houses with a softer feel, certainly less humid, warmer in winter and cooler in the summer." The second was done in the abandoned village called Zucco Grande, obviously, no electricity or water supplies were available "challenging to say the least, with a 2 km mule track separating the village from the rest of Filicudi. The house is now completely green and functional with solar panels and a series of cisterns that collect rain water. Everything was brought by donkey and larger items by helicopter."
Belquis Zahir's houses have been published on New Seaside Interiors by Angelika Taschen, AD France and AD Spain amongst others and she continued to work on other houses on the island.
She adds that "Each house or apartment possess a certain Soul, you have to feel it, listen to it... and the rest will follow. Many factors are important, it's époque of construction or simply the cultural environment that they are situated in. Therefore, I would say each project has a distinct personality. Maybe, a certain use of language unites them."
She now lives in Istanbul. Again, she was drawn there for its amazing energy. "Unfortunately, that energy is vanishing day by day." She adds.
Belquis came to the realisation that beauty lies in the subtle things in life. "A pebble or a piece of glass, found on the sea shore, for example, are a product of millennia of friction, giving each and everyone of them distinct forms and making those wonderfully levigated rocks and glass very precious indeed, at least for me. One of my collections was entirely based on these time-consumed wonders."
Belquis works with the lost wax technique, which makes each piece unique and quite sculptural. In fact, she prefers to call them Sculpture Jewellery and exhibits them in art galleries rather than shops.
In an exhibition at the Centro per L'Arte Diego Martelli in Castiglioncello, Tuscany, her works were described by the art critic Federica Lessi as "Timeless talismans, primordial and contemporary at the same time. They exude a simplicity that embraces time itself, possessing a precious equilibrium between materials, light, colour and a fundamental respect between man and nature."
Belquis describes the process "I usually have them cast in bronze or silver occasionally in gold, due to the nature of my work. Of course, I use many other stones besides pebbles and glass. Chalcedony, olive quartz, peridot, fluorite, green tourmaline to name a few and tumbled citrine quartz... just love their water/gel like quality. However, on the whole I am inspired by nature, a true master."
Recently, Belquis has collaborated with childhood friend Pippa Small whom she regards highly. "Pippa is an amazing human being, exquisite jewellery designer and anthropologist. I hold deep respect for her and her work. Pippa has already been creating collections for Turquoise Mountain for nearly a decade, a non-profit organisation founded by HRH The Prince of Wales and the government. It is a formidable foundation which has done so very much in preserving, reviving and passing on precious Afghan cultural heritage of traditional crafts, creating young Afghan talented professionals and thus work opportunities for them. Hope again is key."
With this in mind, Pippa and Belquis created together a collection called Seeds of Hope. A collaboration to celebrate their mutual passion for Afghan culture. "This collection is meant to serve as an ode to hope and a celebration of life in it's purest and earliest form. We were inspired by the nature of seeds and how they propel new life even in the harshest of conditions. An exploration of the often overlooked beauty in the world around us, the small seed-filled pod, the gentle bend and curve of a bean." Crafted in a mixture of bronze, copper and gold. Part of the sales are to be destined to help young aspiring jewellery designers.
THE BLACK COLLECTION
THE TORQUE COLLECTION
THE ICE COLLECTION
SEEDS OF HOPE, WITH PIPPA SMALL.