supplements 05.8.09
supplements 05.8.09

Jewelry designer bringing pearls and wisdom: Israeli Isaac Levy helps Ethiopian Jews

Peer into one of the many illuminated glass display cases at Bloomingdales in San Francisco or Kerns Fine Jewelry in Burlingame, and you’ll find distinctive pieces from Isaac and Orna Levy’s signature jewelry collection, Yvel. 

Strands of iridescent pearls in hues of gold, brown and cream are draped next to earrings of pastel gemstones encircled with diamonds. Exotic combinations of pink sapphires with lavender and pink freshwater pearls, or rubies with gray and black Tahitian pearls infuse Yvel’s pave’ (a setting in which gemstones and pearls literally cover a surface) collection with rich colors.

“We take the pearl as the main motive and build the whole idea around it,” Levy said last week by phone from Jerusalem. “By doing that, I create a one-of-a-kind piece.”

Orna and Isaac Levy

Levy will be at Kerns Fine Jewelry from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. May 8 and May 9. The Israeli jeweler will be bringing some of his specialty pieces. After all, said Kerns proprietor David Mendell, “You can only carry so much in the store” on a regular basis.

“Looking at [Levy’s] pieces speaks so much more than words do,” added Mendell, who has carried Levy’s jewelry for nearly 10 years. “They’re so unique and beautiful.”

As for Levy, a visit to the Bay Area gives him an opportunity to “show the face behind the brand.”

It’s a brand worth more than $180 million, with a slew of celebrity clients such as Madonna, Bette Midler and Barbara Walters. Even couture jewelers Tiffany and Chanel place orders for exclusive pieces to be carried under their own name.  

“Today, jewelry is way more than buying gold, pearls and diamonds,” Levy said. “Business is more personal than it used to be. People who buy jewelry are exactly like people who collect art. They like to meet with the person who creates the art. In our case, that’s jewelry.”

Two pieces from Yvel’s signature collection.

A native of Argentina, Levy immigrated with his parents to Israel in 1963. Though he was just a child at the time, Levy remembers his family being “mistreated” when they arrived. His experience led him to believe that there is “a better way to embrace Jewish people” into the Holy Land.

“It’s a tough country to live in to begin with,” he said. “When I found myself involved with the jewelry industry, I decided here is my chance to educate and love Jewish immigrants.”

Levy and his wife, Orna, play an integral role in launching the Andrea Bronfman School of Jewelry and Art in Jerusalem, slated to welcome its first class in September.

Also working on the endeavor is the Joint Distribution Committee in Israel, an organization that represents North America’s Jewish federations in helping provide rescue, relief and renewal to Jews in need. 

The school, located in a restored winery on the premises of the new Yvel Design Center, plans to provide 25 Ethiopian Jews living in Israel with education in jewelry crafting, employment opportunities and the tools to attain financial stability.

“You make a statement when you go from the bottom, not when you start at the top,” Levy said, referring to his selection of Ethiopian Jews.

School staff will include a director, goldsmith teacher and diamond-setting instructor. A Hebrew teacher and social workers will also be on site to help students integrate into Israeli society. 

Each student will receive a full scholarship (annual cost per student for the first year of school is $36,000), in addition to a monthly salary. At the end of the year, diplomas will be handed out, along with job offers — though, Levy said, he’s not looking to create a group of employees.

Instead, he’s looking to create a group of jewelers. Or better yet, the next Isaac Levy. 

“If the students want to become part of the Yvel family, that’s an option,” Levy said. “If they want to go out on their own, God bless them. And if they want to go to my biggest competition, it’s still OK.”

When Levy and Orna first met, they manufactured pearls for her family, continuing a century-old tradition of creating jewelry featuring pearls and gold in different colors.

He learned the trade from the ground up, sometimes stringing pearls all night long. Then, in the morning, he and Orna would go to Tel Aviv, going from store to store trying to sell their jewelry.

The couple officially registered Yvel as an international company in 1986, the same year they married.     

Today, Yvel — winner of Town & Country magazine’s Couture Design Award for 2005, ’06 and ‘07 — is widely marketed across the United States and throughout the world, including the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon.

“Some people become painters and poets,” Levy said. “I became a jeweler at the age of 25. But I still have many years to go, so I’m happy.”

Isaac Levy
will be at Kerns Fine Jewelry, 214 Lorton Ave., Burlingame, May 8 and 9 from 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Information:,