Israeli luxury jewelry brand Yvel is known for creating distinctive pearl jewelry that is very different from what your grandmother would wear. Yvel’s jewelers use rare, baroque pearls to create nature-inspired pieces that have been worn by the likes of Barbara Walters, Scarlett Johansson and Barbara Streisand. Isaac Levy, who co-founded Yvel with his wife, Orna, joined the Jewelry Journey podcast to talk about the history of the company, how Yvel gives back and why women have cherished pearls for decades. Read the episode transcript below.
Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey podcast. Today, I’m pleased to welcome Isaac Levy, co-founder of the luxury jewelry brand Yvel. Rare organic pearls are Yvel’s signature design motif, with a selection of natural diamonds, emeralds, sapphires and other gems prominently featured in the company’s award-winning designs. Yvel is based in Israel and has several boutiques there and in the U.S. Isaac has dedicated his life to his passions, aesthetic design and innovation. We’ll hear all about his journey today. Isaac, welcome to the program.
Isaac: Thank you, Sharon. Hi everyone, I’m glad to be on the program. There is one small, little correction. I dedicated myself to three things. The third thing, which is the first thing, are women.
Sharon: Well, it’s good to hear they are the first thing. Tell us about your jewelry journey and how you combined it with your passions, because you didn’t start out in jewelry.
Isaac: No, I didn’t start in jewelry, but I married a beautiful girl by the name of Orna that was, at that time, 23 years old. She happened to come from a very prominent family in the jewelry industry, a family called Moussaieff that some people will know. Moussaieff is based out of London and they have jewelry stores in Geneva, Hong Kong and Israel. I was smart enough to know who to marry and smarter to be liked by my mother-in-law, and the rest is history.
Sharon: When you started designing pearl jewelry and working with Orna, what was it that attracted you and keeps you working with pearls? That’s what you’re known for, the beautiful pearls. What is it that attracts you to pearls?
Isaac: The truth of the matter is that Orna came from a family that established their business in 1888. Orna’s great-grandfather used to be one of the biggest natural pearl collectors, at that time, in the Far East. He later met Kokichi Mikimoto and they started to cultivate pearls together. Later on, when he moved to Israel, Palestine in those days, he had four sons that he sent all around the world, one to the Mississippi to collect shells, one to Japan to deal with pearls, one in Paris to sell those pearls in Europe and the other one was in Israel to take care of the family business in the pearl industry.
When Orna and I entered the world of jewelry, for us, it was relatively easy to say that we came from the Moussaieff family. All the doors were opened immediately, and this is where we started to build our relationships between the pearl farmers and pearl dealers who slowly, but surely, let us into their world. From there, we were pretty smart to know how to penetrate the market through the world of pearls. There were not necessarily a lot of other Israelis in the diamond world. Later on, we came into the diamond world, but that was the second or even third stage of taking the company to a different level.
Sharon: Is there something that attracts you to the pearls, though? Your building and entering the market sounds a lot easier than I know it actually was, but is there something that keeps you in pearls?
Isaac: The true story is that my wife and I were sitting—at that time, we were playing in jobs. She was working at her brother’s jewelry store, and I was working at my father’s supermarket as a delivery boy. Both of us were unemployed at a certain time. I asked her what we should do, and she said, “I don’t know. I only know how to string pearls.” My question was, “What are pearls?” and she pulled out an earring that she had in her ear and explained to me that if I scratched the pearl between my teeth, I would feel a kind of sandy feeling and if it’s a sandy feeling, it’s a pearl. That’s what I did, and that was the moment that got me fascinated with this world. I asked to learn more and the next thing, I had $2,000 in my bank account; I gave it to her. She went to her mother’s jewelry store and bought pearls for $2,000, some gold beads and other materials and we started to string pearls. It was not an easy journey, but it was definitely a fascinating one. We started Yvel in 1984, so this year we’re celebrating 35 or 36 years. It’s been a long journey, very difficult, but extremely rewarding.
Sharon: Seeing the results, I can see why it’s been so rewarding. The jewelry is beautiful and so are your facilities. In 1984, pearls were not popular; they’ve undergone a renaissance since then. Did you meet a lot of resistance when nobody was wearing pearls? What can you tell us about that?
Isaac: I have to say that pearls were popular since the time of the Bible. Joseph said that maybe one of the oldest gems in the world were pearls. There were merchants that used to exchange them instead of currency. They used pearls instead of money. That’s just to give respect to pearls to begin with. It is true that the pearl is not always the most attractive gem that people appreciate. It’s been admired by women, a little less by men. Men always like to deal with diamonds. They are big shots in diamonds and maybe in gold, but if you look at it and think about it, pearls are the most feminine gem in the world. Men, at least not the men I know, cannot wear pearls, but the woman, if she wants to have a classy look, very elegant, very sophisticated, she will always have a piece of jewelry that is made from pearls.
There is resistance in every business; the question is how you bypass it. There are all kinds of ways, and I have to say that it has to do with a lot of passion. I was very passionate about what I did. You bypass and overcome all kinds of challenges through passion, and when people see the passion in your eye and the way you speak and the way you design your jewelry with those pearls, they have a different appreciation of what you represent. That’s the idea.
Sharon: I adore pearls. I think they are so elegant. I’m thinking back 30 or 40 years ago, you didn’t wear a string of pearls, but today they’ve become so much more popular. Why do you think that is?
Isaac: I have to disagree with you on this one, Sharon, because I go back again to Orna’s great-grandfather. He made his fortune on pearls, and when I say he made his fortune, it’s not a million or two or 10 million. The guy built a neighborhood in Jerusalem called the Bukharim neighborhood, very famous, very close to an orthodox neighbor to Jerusalem called Malkhei. It built an entire neighborhood that, at that time, was worth tens of millions of dollars, and today it’s worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The guy was one of the wealthiest families in Israel. They had the first car. They had the first refrigerator. They were considered one of the richest families at that time in Israel. It was all thanks to pearls. So, it was always popular. If you go back and look at pictures of your family, any picture, black and white, color, you name it, you will always see a woman with a strand of pearls. That’s exactly what the history of pearls goes through. It’s a pair of diamond earrings or a diamond ring, but pearls were always in the small, little box of jewelry of your mother or grandmother or great grandmother, because pearls are a part of a woman’s identity. A woman without a strand of pearls is not a complete woman, at least to me.
Sharon: I’m sure there are some women who might have a different take. As I said, I love pearls. You’re right; that’s what you see. In photos from 100, 150 years ago, they’re not wearing diamond earrings; they’re wearing pearls. That’s true.
Isaac: I will tell you another thing, Sharon, because a lot of times people say they don’t appreciate pearls because they don’t hold their value; the value of the actual price they paid for it. Only a couple of weeks ago, I bought back a strand of pearls from a customer of mine that was sold to her about 20 years ago for $15,000, and I sold it a few weeks after for over $40,000. Maybe it’s not an investment that insurance companies or banks are going to go after, but if you know how to take care of a pearl, if you treat it properly and wear it in a beautiful and nice way, you can one day sell it and even make a profit.
Sharon: That’s interesting because I think most people don’t think they don’t hold their value, but they don’t appreciate it. Let’s say that. Maybe it’s the same thing looking at it from different perspectives.
Isaac: It all depends where you buy it from. If you buy it at an exaggerated price, obviously it’s not going to hold its value. There’s a saying that if you don’t know jewelry, you’d better know your jeweler. I’ve been blessed to be known by a lot of women and families that appreciate our jewelry and our taste and our integrity. It does work for them.
Sharon: That’s a good saying because you have to be able to trust your dealer. Who wants to learn every detail themselves? You have to be able to trust somebody.
Sharon: You said, although the jewelry you create is made of pearls, they’re not your grandmother’s pearls. What do you mean by that?
Isaac: Again, if we go back to your old albums to look at the pictures of your mother and grandmother and maybe your great-grandmother, you will always see them with a strand of pearls. If you look closer at those pictures, you will also see that the strands of pearls were always round and white. What Orna and I represent through our company, Yvel, is a line of mostly baroque pearls which are not evenly shaped. There are different forms of pearls with different colors, different shades, and that is basically what nature is all about. When a pearl farmer plants the seed inside of the oyster, for him, the best pearl that could come out after six years or 16 years would be a beautiful, round pearl. In nature’s judgment, sometimes it decides differently, and the pearl that is going to come out is not going to be perfectly round. It’s not going to be perfectly white or perfectly black. Sometimes it’s going to be off-shade or a baroque shape. The color is going to be a mix between white and gold or black with a little bit of a pistachio color inside of it. These are the pearls that I particularly prefer because I respect nature. I deal with nature and I prefer to always design with pearls that nature created and not humankind.
Sharon: You’re right. It’s not the kind of pearl you would see in your grandmother’s picture. I know you built the Yvel Design Center. You could have built another boutique, but you built this—I’m having trouble figuring out how to describe it. Plush isn’t the right word because jewelry stores are plush. How would you describe it? It’s beautiful. What made you decide to build it this way? Maybe you can describe it better than I am.
Isaac: How much time do I have for this question to answer?
Sharon: Take your time.
Isaac: In 1963, my family, my parents, decided to move from Argentina. We were born in Argentina, my parents and my brother and I, and for various reasons, they decided to move from Argentina to Israel. My father at that time was in his mid-30s, and he decided to invest a small, little fortune into a sausage factory that belonged to an Israeli guy, who ran away with the money and left my father, us, as we joked years later, with a sausage in the hand. Today it’s funny to say that, but obviously when you’re five years old and you don’t the understand the culture or speak the language and there is no money in the house, needless to say my childhood was a tough one. That’s how I grew up in Israel, and one of the things I never understood is how a country that supposedly embraces you as an immigrant takes care of you in such a poor, miserable way. After a couple of years, that sausage factory was turned into a winery, and that’s how I grew up in Israel. I went to elementary school and then to high school and then to the army, and after that, I met that beautiful Barbie who I was lucky to marry.
All that time, in my mind was that sausage factory. In 2008, after 47 years living in Israel, I came to my wife and told her that I’m buying the winery. She thought I had lost it. She went to see the winery and it looked terrible, and she said, “I think we’re going to lose all the money we saved,” and I said, “Don’t worry. I want to buy that winery.” Of course, she didn’t understand that that winery was my father’s sausage factory. We took that bad soil for the Levy family and turned into a blessed soil for the Yvel family, and if you take the name Yvel and turn it backwards, then you get back to my last name. That thing about what goes around comes around is a true thing, at least in my life.
We not only built an amazing, state-of-the-art factory, but in 2010 we also opened a school that we dedicated to the Ethiopian Jewish community. Every year, we take 21 social cases and pay them a monthly stipend. We teach them how to become goldsmiths, diamond setters and model makers. After a year of teaching, we either embrace them as a part of the Yvel family, or they start to work in a factory we built next to the school that allows them to create their own jewelry. Yvel is one of their better distributors that helps them sell the jewelry and make the salary they are very happy to make. That is to the benefit of all of us in Israel because one of the things we need to always remember, is to try to reach out to the ones who were not blessed like us. So, that’s what we do.
Sharon: Wow! It’s impressive seeing the fruits of your labor, literally and figuratively. You still have the winery. Nobody understood why the winery was in the middle of this jewelry center.
Isaac: That’s true. Now everybody will understand, as least the ones who are listening to the program. The reason is because it used to be a winery. We wanted to keep part of it as a winery. For people that come visit, the visit is not just to see another jewelry production in action, which is not so bad, but it’s also a beautiful way to see Zionism in action, to see what a social business means when you have tons of graduates who sit there and manufacture their own jewelry. Then you can go into the winery and have a glass of wine and taste some great Israeli cheese, and speak to the students and other visitors and enjoy a few hours from a totally different angle of what a lot of people think about Israel. We’re very happy and proud to create such a center like the one you’ve seen. I think you’ve been there, right, Sharon?
Sharon: Yeah, I was there with Jewish National Fund in October with the art and fashion group.
Isaac: Right, this is where we met. You can tell the story better than I do.
Sharon: No, you did a great job. I do have to do a plug for the wine. My stepdaughter was in your facility a few years ago, and the only thing she asked me to bring back from Israel was two bottles of your wine.
Isaac: The nice thing we learned is stick to what you know, and we know how to manufacture beautiful jewelry. We let people taste the wine we produce there, and if people want to buy a bottle of wine, most of the time we’re going to give them the wine, because we understand that’s not where the success comes from. The same with the school. It’s not only that we don’t make a buck; it’s a project that costs Yvel about $2 million a year. We are financing this school from the proceeds of the sales of Yvel. Again, what goes around comes around. Also, with the wine, I want people to remember that they had a great experience when they came to visit us. If it’s through the wine, or through the school, or through the jewelry, or through a smile they got from one of the employees, from Megemeria or one of the Yvel family members there, what difference does it make? I just want people to leave there with a smile on their face and say, “That was a different experience.”
Sharon: Looking at my colleagues who were with me, how can you not have a great time looking at all the pearl jewelry and the beautiful things there? The name of the school where you teach Ethiopian immigrants is Megemeria?
Isaac: Yes, Megemeria. The meaning of the word “megemeria” is genesis in Amharic, from the beginning. It really is something we took from the beginning that was not established or created before. Unfortunately, there are no other factories, not necessarily jewelry, nothing that does what we do. One of the things we always try to do is show other businesspeople that there are different ways to reach out. There is no reason why every successful business does not have a school or a program that will support the weaker link in that societal chain. That’s what we do. We want people to come and copy what we did because it’s a good thing.
Sharon: It’s admirable and the story is fascinating. What is next for you and Yvel? Your mind must be going a million miles an hour in terms of ideas you have.
Isaac: I can tell you that there are exciting plans for Megemeria, the social business side, and exciting plans for the Yvel side. From the Megemeria side, we are now working with a gentleman by the name of Reverend Eddy from Chicago that came to visit and saw our project and fell in love. We are trying to help him build the same concept of the school, Megemeria, but instead of Jerusalem to do it in Chicago, and instead of reaching out to the Ethiopian community in Israel to reach out to the ex-convicts of Chicago. But it is the same idea, to give them a chance through teaching and through providing jobs after their studies, so that’s a very exciting program that we are working on.
From the Yvel side, I can tell you that just a few days ago, we signed an agreement with the biggest and most luxurious horse show in the world. We are going to be partners to that horse show that does very exclusive horse competitions around the world, starting in March in Doha and ending in late September in New York. Yvel will be the official jeweler for that competition. We’re going to be participating in the major competition under the brand Yvel, showing the crème de la crème of what we have to offer to the crème de la crème of people that can afford it. We’re talking about the daughter of Bill Gates, who is jumping there, and the daughter of Michael Bloomberg who jumps there, and a lot of other extremely wealthy families. We hope that during 2020 we will become, slowly but surely, the jewelers of these people. It’s always nice for me to remember that at the end of the day, we started as two kids from Jerusalem with 2000 bucks to string pearls. Every year we try to achieve something, and that’s the upcoming year’s achievement, hopefully.
Sharon: That sounds exciting and very different. Thank you so much for telling us about your story and your upcoming plans. It’s fascinating and inspiring. Thank you very much, Isaac, we really appreciate your being here.
Isaac: I’m not there in L.A., but I am in the United States. I thank you for the time and for the opportunity to share my story with your audience.
Sharon: You’re in Palm Beach right now. As I was listening to you, I thought, “I wonder if you’ll ever get a chance to unpack your suitcase at home.” It sounds like you’re always on the road.
Isaac: The truth of the matter is that at this time, I was lucky to unpack because I’m here for the next couple of weeks. We already did one contemporary show about 10 days ago, and now we’re doing the second one on February 13th and then we keep traveling. This is the life of someone that is looking constantly to bring enough work to Israel, to the 150 people that we need to make sure they have enough work. So yeah, that’s my life. I don’t complain. I’ve very happy.
Sharon: It sounds fabulous and hectic, and it sounds exhausting and invigorating. Thank you so much for sharing with us. To everyone listening, that wraps up another episode of the Jewelry Journey. If you like what you heard and you would like to hear more, you can subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts, and please review us. We’ll be back next time with another thought-provoking guest giving us their professional take on the world of jewelry. Thank you so much for listening.
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