When Orna and Isaac Levy stood up before the international community’s top couture designers earlier this summer in Las Vegas to receive the prestigious Town and Country international pearl designer award for the third year in a row, it seemed surreal.
Though the Israeli husband and wife team have become top international jewelry designers with a multi-million dollar business and a following of celebrities and even royalty, they still see themselves as good-old simple Israelis. And despite financial incentives for successful Israeli manufacturers to create, sell, and live abroad, the Levys say Jerusalem has been and will remain their center.
Two decades ago, the couple was dating, and unsure how to make a living. Orna had recently finished her mandatory army service and had quit her job in a family jewelry store, thinking she would study to become a teacher. Isaac was a manager in a supermarket, who, after four years, independently quit his job at around the same time. The two unemployed young people put their heads together and started to think about what skills they had between them.
“Orna grew up stringing pearls even before she learned to walk. So she introduced me to pearls; it was like I discovered a whole new world. I loved it,” Isaac told ISRAEL21c.
Orna came from a jewelry background but also had no idea that pearls would play a role in her professional life. Her mother had a few jewelry stores and was 50 years in the business, since the great grandfather of the Moussaieff family arrived to Jerusalem on camel from Bhukara in 1888 and eventually passed down the business to his 12 children. In 1955, the family entered the pearl business, importing them from the Far East, through Europe.
“Everybody does their [jewelry] internships in institutes but I went to my mother-in law’s store. Her family was shocked. I had no connection to the jewelry business; I had no money; and I wasn’t Bhukaran,” explains Isaac, who came to Israel as a small child with his family from Argentina.
“But I bought pearls from her mother. I’d lay out a mattress on the table and string pearls all night without sleeping. It caught us like a disease,” says Isaac. “In the morning we’d drive or take the bus to Tel Aviv and go store to store – every day – and nobody bought anything. But we thought, ‘if you want to go some place you have to put the bar higher than you can achieve. And that’s what we did.”
Their first break came when, after a few months of only the most minor sales, they knocked on the door of the Padani jewelers. “It was like a royal store in those days,” says Isaac. “Mr. Padani sat with us, he was kind to us, gave us directions for how to work and how to sell, and then put in an order for $990. We finally had our foot in the door.”
When the couple married in 1986, they decided to officially register as an international company. Orna’s uncle, Shlomo Moussaieff, became their mentor, teaching them how to hold jewelry exhibitions abroad. To differentiate themselves from Orna’s family name, Moussaieff, already known in the jewelry world, they took Isaac’s name, “Isaac Levy” as the company name.
Pearls would remain the focus, but they branched out to include accents in diamonds, gemstones, and pink, yellow and white18K gold into their original designs. They spent their free time playing with pearls and gemstones, prodding them into shapes, patterns and arrangements, based on the shape and texture of the pearls themselves.
In 1992 another big break came when showing at an international exhibition in Basel, Switzerland. Recognizing a fellow Middle Easterner who looked lost, Levy used the few words of Arabic he knew to offer him a telephone and assistance: “My home is your home,” he said. Eventually the man from Abu Dhabi became a top client, but later reported that it was hard to sell products with the name “Isaac Levy” to Arab clients.
The Levys sat down to brainstorm and had an idea how they could change their name, while holding on to their identity: They renamed the jewelry company Levy backwards: Yvel. It sounded French.
Today Yvel is valued at $180 million and is widely marketed not just across the US, Europe, the Caribbean and Japan, but across the Arab world in the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. The Saudi and Kuwaiti royal families are included among their clients.
It’s not always so simple, though. The Levys phone the Arab states only from their American line in their Jerusalem office, to protect the privacy of the client firms whose governments might listen in. And sometimes a customer will discover the jewelry is Israeli-made and return the product, as was the case with one Kuwaiti princess.
“We don’t raise the flag of Israel with every sale, but we never hide who we are,” says Isaac. “Our Arab reps know we are Israelis but couldn’t care less. They are business people as we are. If you give politics to business people and business to politicians, we’ll never have wars and we’ll never have business.”
The jewelry industry in Israel is large and diversified with an annual turnover of half a billion dollars, some $400 million for exports and $100 million sold locally in Israel, to Israelis and tourists, says Itzhak Bendor, head of the Israeli Jewelry Manufacturer’s Association.
“One third of exports are diamond jewelry – among them about five or six high end companies. Yvel is at the high-end of the [small] pearl jewelry industry. In general,
the Israeli jewelry industry is at the middle and upper ranges because it is design and innovation oriented, not low-labor [labor in Israel is expensive],” he said.
There may not be a large market for designer pearls in Israel, but the Levys have built an international empire, with stock sold in more than 600 retail stores around the world. Their name and their products are known in top jewelry as well as couture clothing circles.
Top fashion designer Carolina Herrera personally wears Yvel and uses Yvel in her couture fashion shows. “I fell in love with Orna and Isaac Levy’s sensuous jewelry,” she says. “Each innovative, baroque pearl and diamond design is a work of art.”
Couture jewelers Tiffany and Chanel place orders for exclusive pieces to be carried under their own banner. Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, and London Jewelers are also clients. Hollywood clients have included Bette Midler, Barbara Walters, Madonna, Jackie Collins, Candy Spelling and Pauletta Washington, the actress and wife of Denzel Washington. And the former Miss Israel, Nirit Bakshi, was chosen recently as the new Yvel collection model.
The Levys hand-design every item in their collection, focusing on the shape and texture of the materials. Many of the pearls are rare or with unusual shapes, flowing, or cone-like.
While most high-end international manufacturing companies have headquarters in a major European or US city, and their plants in the Far East, South America, or Jordan, for example, Yvel has decided to stay permanently in Jerusalem. It is not a business decision but an ideological commitment.
“I know what we’re missing and business-wise we are losing every day more than just a few million of US dollars [a year],” says Isaac. “We are very comfortable and we have brand recognition, of course, but what we have is very little compared to what we could have been if we shipped our product to the Far East and lived in NY.”
But workers overseas, the Levys say, are treated as slaves, and every decision can’t be a business decision. “We made a decision to raise our kids in Israel; it’s our country, it’s our identity, it’s our character; it’s what we want to be. Of course there are times we can’t stand it here, but that’s Zionism; you put your money where your mouth is. We want to live in a better country, so we have to [stay and help make that happen.]”
The ways the Levys see that they can improve life in Israel is not only by providing jobs to people in Jerusalem, and especially to struggling new immigrants – but teaching the staff skills and values. “Everyone is a small leader in their community. We’re small leaders among our workers, friends and family. If we have the choice to hire a great goldsmith who is not the greatest person on earth or an unqualified mensch, we prefer to take the mensch and teach him to be a great goldsmith.”
To contribute to one of the weakest populations of Israeli society, while helping to increase their own staff, the Levys are seriously considering opening a jewelry industry craft school for local Ethiopian immigrants. The school would not only be subsidized, but students would be paid a salary during their six-months of studies. The Levys are now negotiating with American Jewish philanthropists towards this effort.
More than half of the current staff are immigrants from around the globe, including Ethiopia, Tunisia, Morocco, Syria, North and South America, France and Eastern Europe, explain the couple, who say they are committed to supporting not just immigration but absorption.
“We will never leave Israel,” say the Levys, though only some 0.2 percent from Yvel’s annual turnover includes the Israeli market.