The ‘Jew’ in Jewelry

Israelis in Thailand and around the East are designing, manufacturing and selling silver jewelry — for the body and the soul



Tibor Krausz

The Jerusalem Report, July 14, 2003



In Bangkok's Chabad House, Eyal Karoutchi drops to a cross-legged lotus position on the parquet floor of his crammed little room, which he shares with an ultra-Orthodox yeshivah student, one of Chabad several emissaries striving to lure wayward Israelis to the ways of Torah. From his stuffed shoulder bag, the Israeli jewelry designer-merchant fishes out a woven sack and unwraps a CD-size pendant. "This one is called Dance of the Elements and is about finding order in chaos," he proclaims. On his palm lies a silver disc etched with elaborate flower patterns and ringed by an outer circle crowded with undulating waves and clouds. Set within the disc ("the vortex," he says) is a dappled warped-pentagonal sugalite, and placed around the purple twisted matchbox-size semiprecious stone at the four compass points of the outer ring are teardrops of another stone, yellow citrin. An exquisite piece both in design and craftsmanship. Yet there's more to it than meets the casual though appreciative eye.


"The sugalite," Karouchi explains, "stands for the earth (first element). The yellow citrins are leaps of fire (second element) blowing in the four directions of the wind (third element). The silver outer ring represents water (fourth element) and encircles the other elements the same way an ocean encircles the world in Hindu mythology." He adds: "It's the myth of creation embedded in a piece of jewelry."

A model shows off some of flamboyant Israeli jewelry designer Eyal Karoutchi's silver creations, which he invests with deep spiritual meaning


Karoutchi is part of the somewhat starry-eyed, sky’s-the-limit backpacker crowd, many of whom — to make ends meet — end up selling trinkets and silver jewelry. It’s a job that suits vagrant spirits like Karoutchi just fine: he can lug his ware around in his backpack. Next, he unwraps a packet of silver rings. Set in each is an oblong jungle-green tourmaline or gold amber with miniature handlebars running down both sides of the ring's face. The design looks vaguely yet intimately familiar. Karoutchi offers help: "I was reading about the Ark of the Covenant when the idea struck me."


The 33-year-old Karoutchi's designs are as eclectic as his spiritual interests, or vice versa. An Israeli of Moroccan descent from Ashdod, he displays the disparate hallmarks of a budding Torah scholar and an aspiring Hindu guru. He sports a bushy black beard and a crocheted pink skullcap over an embroidered flowery Kashmiri shirt and pajama-like Indian cotton pants. Karoutchi -- who begins his emails with "Dear soul” and concludes them with "May you find divinity!" -- is on a decade-long spiritual quest, which has taken him from Hinduism back to the threshold of Judaism. A certified yogi who studied under several Indian gurus, a self-professed expert in the tenets of sacred living based on the Vedic scriptures, and a therapist in the ancient alternative Ayurveda medicine, Karoutchi ran a secluded yoga retreat on a remote island in southern Thailand until last summer (where he personally delivered his daughter, now 3, born on his bungalow's porch to a Chinese girlfriend). Then he had a revelation. "Krishna told Arjuna the warrior that a reincarnating soul chooses a bodily vessel for a purpose, and mine chose to be a Jew," he says.


Now alternating yoga with Jewish studies at Chabad, he also finds time to indulge in his passion: jewelry design. He's an inspired artist. "Following my meditation, I'm tranquil enough to hold a single thought for minutes," he says. "I like to reflect on religious themes, or else rework natural shapes, say patterns on coconut tree bark. Butterflies taught me a lot about color coordination."


Presently, an American Jewish woman with piercing studs in both her dimpled cheeks and her boyfriend, who looks like a Hell's Angel Elvis impersonator with a pompadour and colossal sideburns married to an armory of tattoos, come and say hi to Karoutchi in Chabad's restaurant. Between hugs, he inspects the man's chunky rings and her silver belt buckle. “Occupational habit," Karoutchi says, then delivers his verdict: "Tsk, tsk, tsk." He produces a small bundle and unpacks a silver belt buckle. It's a large oval-shaped affair with a sizable piece of amber. The churned honey-hued stone, entombing a mosquito, is held in place by a serrated rim flowing down to motifs of foliage all around the silver buckle. "It's the primeval forest," he offers. He flips the buckle over: Carved on its back is a rose with amber showing through its empty petals. "Not for sale," he tells the disappointed woman. "It's a one-off piece and could fetch Eyal $800," he brags.


* * *


Silver jewelry is an in-thing with the young and hip, New Age-type backpackers and hippies, and spiritual seekers of all ages. For many of its wearers, silver ornaments — like Oriental tattoo designs (dragon motifs, say) to which they’re routinely accessorized — evoke powerful religious-mystical connotations (plus, they come far cheaper than gold, of course). No wonder, many of silver jewelry’s designers, makers and sellers are erstwhile backpackers themselves -- and from Bangkok to Tokyo, scores of them are Israelis. In Japan, the streets of Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka have long been the turf of Israeli "cartels" peddling silver pieces from India and Thailand; Israelis have also entrenched themselves in Bangkok, the primary manufacturing hub, whence they bombard overseas markets with low to middle-priced jewelry. On Khao San Road, Bangkok's hyperactive tourist district, numerous open-fronted trinket booths and glass-walled silver jewelry emporia have Israeli owners. ("It's not for nothing that there's a 'Jew' in 'jewelry,'" jests a sympathetic Chinese merchant.)


Alon Beck, 37, from Tel Aviv, started out in the typical Israeli traveler-turns-seller fashion, much the same way as Karoutchi. An ex-paratroop commander just out of uniform in 1992, he hit the backpacker trail to India. In Jaipur (a gemstone and jewelry center), he befriended a fellow Israeli who initiated him into the business, telling Beck: Find a local seller with fine fare, stow your purchase in your backpack, go sell it in Japan, Australia, the U.S., or Europe. Ah, and if you can spirit your goods through customs, well, all the better for you. Soon Beck was plying the roads of Germany, Austria and Italy, roving Gypsy-style in a clapped-out Volkswagen and selling his Indian and Thai goods out of the trunk at flea markets and parks. Two years later, he had salted away enough wherewithal to convert a dormitory in a guesthouse on Khao San Road into a live-in workshop, selling his own and locally produced silver pieces worldwide. Today he employs some 50 Thai artisans in his factory, and supplies to dozens of wholesalers in the U.S., Europe and Australia as well as numerous retailers.


He couldn't have done it, if he'd remained a slavish copycat. "You stay in business by taking trendy designs a step further," he stresses. He produces a heavy choker: It looks like a chain of lozenge-shape woodchips reduced by termites to porous sponges, then cast in silver. It's one of his most sought-after designs. Says Beck: "It looks ethnic, like something produced by primitive tools. People like anything that looks authentic." Although hardly an Yves Saint Laurent of jewelry design, he considers it a mark of recognition that several of his creations have been extensively copied, with imitations cropping up as far afield as Jerusalem and Canada: One such design is a post-modernist menorah-shaped pendant inlaid with blue-green Eilat stone.


But therein lies the Jeweler's Curse: Wholesale glut and copying have brought uniformity. Dominating most catalogues are cheap mass-marketed designs, most of which are derivative variations on hackneyed themes: gothic (skulls, snakes, gargoyles), ethnic (Egyptian, Indian, Maori), New Age (yin-yang wheels, Hindu-Buddhist symbols, perennial kitsch (zodiacal signs, heart shapes, Celtic crosses). Judaica, too, is ubiquitous. Stars of David and menorahs grace many a Christian and Buddhist finger. Beyond the attractive imagery of Jewish designs, “people recognize the spiritual depths of Judaism, even if they don’t practice it,” Beck volunteers.


Men in their mid-30s rarely wax nostalgic, grandpa-like, about a bygone golden age. But Jerusalemite Micky Krainer, 37, an established Israeli silver-jewelry merchant in Bangkok and erstwhile busker who started out selling his wares on Tokyo's curbsides a decade ago, does just that: "Back in the early 90s," he says, "I could sit at an old master's knees in Kathmandu (Nepal), watch him painstakingly produce a sterling piece, buy it from him and then go sell it in Tokyo as a unique piece of handcrafted jewelry." He adds, with a touch of melancholy: "Nowadays, from Nepal to Thailand, craftsmen like him have been muscled out by factories that crank out lines and lines of identical designs."


His lament on the woeful rise of a soulless industry seems peculiar, given that he utters it in just such a factory — his own. Hunched over their workbenches with an eye to finely sketched blueprints, his Thai workers — all 130 of them, in a four-story building — are welding, filing, polishing, measuring and quality-checking rings, earrings, toe rings, pendants, nose studs, bracelets, anklets, armlets and piercing studs of varying but set designs. Take a closer look, though, Krainer invites. "A T-shirt is a T-shirt," he says. "But are they all the same?"


His redesigning secret: Take a familiar motif (preferably with mystical connotations) and rework it into a new creation ("leave your fingerprints on it," as he puts it), but be careful not to twist it beyond recognition. Medieval tiaras and crowns have metamorphosed in his hands into exquisitely wrought rings, complete with tiny stones pitching in for crown jewels. Flamboyant Victorian patterns have found themselves transfigured into fantasy-style rings and pendants inlaid with stingray, snake and lizard skin. Moorish and Arabian motifs have ended up in fine "poison rings," whose flamboyant tops flick open like caps, revealing not cyanide but tiny diamonds inside. "Nice gimmick, no?" says Krainer. "These rings are selling right off the workbench." Inspired by a book on Aztec art, Krainer is now grafting Aztec pottery motifs onto a new line of jewelry. It'll be a guaranteed winner, he believes, because it's to incorporate two of silver jewelry's key selling points: exquisite motifs and mythical-mystical overtones.


For many customers, silver jewelry is as much a spiritual as a fashion statement. Take semi-precious stones for inlays. Harking back to alchemy and pagan gemology, a veritable cult has developed around the presumed curative powers of minerals. "I wear different stones for my different spiritual and biorhythmic needs," says Eyal Karoutchi. He unfastens a miniature obelisk-shape talisman from around his neck. "Hold it in your palm," he urges me. I do. "You're feeling hot and revitalized, right?" I can’t say I am — beyond a sweaty palm. It's a moldovite, he says, a "celestial" stone (it comes from meteorites), and gem lore has it that it eases stress and bestows peace of mind. Rose quartz enhances unconditional love; garnet energizes its wearer; amber strengthens resolve and “improves babies' teeth.”


And that's what jewelry design is ultimately about, Karoutchi believes. "You take a piece of metal," he says, "shape it and form it, imbue it with meaning, and generally do your best to make its future owner feel it's something special that's his or hers alone."


He’s trying to do just that.


Previous page