In the early decades of the Jewish state, brilliant green Eilat stones and intricate Yemenite silver filigree were the hallmarks of Israeli jewelry. Of course, there were also traditional Judaica pieces: tiny mezuzot, chai charms, Jewish stars, names spelled in Hebrew letters.
The more classic designs captured the attention of my Israeli grandparents, who gifted my mother with beautiful pieces she would wear to synagogue and then tuck away until the next Shabbat or holiday. As we sat in shul, she would ease my restlessness by occasionally handing me a ring or a bracelet. The prayers washed over me as I turned the jewelry over and over, marveling at the craftsmanship and studying every detail.
Some of these pieces are now mine to wear. Among my favorites is a large silver teardrop outlined with fine Yemenite detail. It hangs not from a chain but from a black silk ribbon. A large, beveled smoky topaz rests perfectly in the center. The look is Victorian/Middle Eastern.
This unusual fusion of genres typifies today’s leading Israeli jewelry brands. Several hugely popular brands escape conventional definition. And the hottest designers among them are women whose eclectic signature styles extend well beyond Israel to the United States.
The crowning jewel of them all might be Ayala Bar, (www.ayalabar.com). After graduating from art school in the 1980s and pursuing a career in theater and interior design, Bar has become known for her use of simple metals, glass, stones, beads and fabric, sometimes even presenting fabric under glass in unparalleled combinations.
From her studio in the Tel Aviv suburb of Givatayim, her innovative creations are sometimes referred to as “Art Deco Meets Middle East.” Some have a Bohemian feel; others resemble something Cleopatra could have worn. Released twice a year, each collection features 200 designs and is available for a limited time only.
The extensive online boutique of Israeli jewelry, Setty Gallery, carries many Israeli designers but Ayala Bar’s are the site’s top sellers. Settygallery.com is owned and operated by Israeli-born Yael Setty, who, like me, counts Ayala Bar designs among her personal favorites.
Another pioneer in contemporary Israel jewelry is the much lauded Michal Negrin (michalnegrin.com/country-4-USA). This grandniece of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, grew up on Kibbutz Naan. She got her start selling handcrafted wares in 1988 at Tel Aviv’s popular open-air market. The company very much remains a family business; her husband Meir serves as CEO.
Negrin’s style could be classified as a whimsical mix of Victorian romance, color and contemporary bedazzle. Her pieces range widely from more classic monotones to South Beach-friendly, candy-colored fun. Her massive product line grows each season with everything from simple post earrings and bejeweled key chains to elaborate chandelier earrings, brooches, barrettes, hat pins, apron-style necklaces, bracelets and chokers.
Although frequently imitated, Ayala Bar and Michal Negrin are the true trendsetters. “They are so creative,” Setty says, “they are not copying anyone.”
Another Israeli designer of note is Leetal Kalmonson (www.lkjewelry.com). Among her specialties are large dangling earrings in white, yellow and rose-plated gold, which Setty describes as, “so light and very fun to wear.” A recent fashion show featured mini laptops decorated with Kalmonson designs. In this joint venture with Hewlett-Packard and Compaq, models carried clutch-sized computers with her signature bling on the catwalk — a very far cry from my childhood shul.