Israeli Life: Jewel in the Rough
Michal Negrin’s floral, ornate earrings and necklaces have a large and devoted following; and her shops, located around the world, are the places where her romantic aesthetic is given free rein.
Incongruous among the factories in the industrial zone of Bat Yam, south of Tel Aviv, blazes the green trademark Michal Negrin sign. It is the same trademark sign you can see in Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas or the St. Germain quartier in Paris. Beyond a heavy factory door is the sabra jewelry artist’s central office, workshop and showroom. Negrin’s vintage floral designs have changed the definition of Israeli jewelry in the world and her fantasy-rich sensibility made her the choice to design a ring and brooch for the Senior Undersecretary to the Minister of Magic in the 2007 movie Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
Her sensibility permeates every inch of Michal Negrin World (972-3-555-3326; www.michalnegrin.com), the Bat Yam office’s visitor center. And it is a world of fantasy come true, replete with Victorian charm—from the hall filled with dazzling chandeliers, gilt-edged furniture and cozy nooks for conversations to a gallery that includes hand-crafted illuminated dollhouses to tours that show artisans at work. At the Gallery Café, the scent of fresh coffee and cake beckons visitors, who sit on ornate loveseats while choosing between sumptuous chocolate tarts and rich cheesecake.
Michal Negrin, 52, a petite, dark-haired woman with a pixy haircut and puckish sense of humor, is at the gallery today. She reaches into a jewelry display cabinet and removes a wide bracelet, turning it, stretching it across her slim, tanned wrist. “Look closely,”she says, pointing to the tiny antique roses, aqua silk florets and brass petals. “In the center of each flower is a bud made of Swarovski crystal. Every flower is slightly different. That’s because we hand paint each one twice.”
Next Negrin examines a multistrand necklace with more than 200 different design elements—flowers and crystals and fine metalwork reminiscent of the Yemenite filigree perfected by immigrants in the 1950s. Jewelry remains the heart of her work, but there is much more. Negrin pauses at the miniature figures and furniture in dollhouse after dollhouse, shows how real water runs in a hanging diorama of a Victorian country scene, then switches on a miniature lamp to reveal a cherub hiding in the diorama. “I like surprises and mystery,”she says.
She also likes hearts, lace, kewpie dolls, shawls, parasols, carriages, fans and the colors pink, blue, peach, yellow, green, lavender and off-white, shades favored in the romantic Victorian period.
Everything in the gallery is handmade—either the work of Negrin’s hands or those of some 200 designers and craftspeople, mostly immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who produce the jewelry and accessories. “I wanted a podium for the ideas I can’t fit in a store in a shopping center,”said Negrin. Michal Negrin World opened in the spring of 2009 and is drawing both Israelis and tourists from abroad. They can witness the artisans at work, choosing beads, painting flowers and assembling collages; watch a film of Negrin’s personal history; and relax and shop in the gallery. Even the bathrooms in Michal Negrin World are tiled with vintage designs and flowers.
Negrin’s alarm wakes her at 5:20 A.M. at her home in Tel Aviv’s fashionable Neve Tzedek neighborhood, where 25 years ago she first peddled her handmade earrings and pins at the city’s famed Nahlat Binyamin crafts fair. She runs three times a week along the Tel Aviv streets and beach front, reads three newspapers together with her husband, Meir Negrin, and then drives south to Bat Yam, the mothership of her international network of more than 50 stores.
She sees her role in the workshops and gallery in Bat Yam as “conducting an orchestra of workers.”She starts the day in the fashion department and then moves to graphics, jewelry and, finally, the gallery. “Over the years, I’ve learned to trust my own taste and to create designs that please me and my customers,”she says. “I always want to elicit a smile, and to create a warm, child-like sense of comfort.”
She has cultivated young designers from the Shenkar School of Engineering and Design in Tel Aviv and the Academic Institute of Technology in Holon to work with her and to use computers in designing her products. “I’m fascinated by the potential to design on a computer screen and then to transfer it to a finished product of metal and other materials.”But her most important lesson to her protégés is “jewelry has more than beauty, it has personality.”
The jewelry that made her world-famous includes extravagant chandelier earrings, elaborate chokers with rows of muted, colored flowers and crystals and rose-shaped rings. In response to customers’ requests, her newest collection has gone upscale, generously using gold and silver instead of brass.
Another new collection deviates from her usual style. “Last year, in the midst of the deepening world economic crises, my staff started to get worried that I was spending so much time playing with paper dolls, moving their limbs, arranging them on paper, photographing them,”says Negrin. “Then, using a computer program developed in our studio, I turned the paper-doll design into brass pieces of women with movable arms and legs, linked them together and fashioned them into a necklace reflecting the special connection among women.”
At first, international franchise owners balked, afraid of introducing new designs, preferring to play it safe with “classic Michal Negrin.”She eventually overcame their resistance. “I simply can’t do the same over and over,”Negrin adds.
Slim and vivacious, Negrin wears her own designs, modeling the jewelry and fashion. Today, she is wearing one of her favorite ribbed A-shirts, the sleeveless undergarment called a Grandpa undershirt in Israel. Hers is dyed green and printed with Victorian images of dancing girls and sailor boys. It is topped with a short jacket. To create the shirt design, she arranged dolls, flowers and valentines on a table, photographed them and then transferred the scene to fabric. The comfortable shirt comes in sizes for real women, insists Negrin. “I’ve always loved these ribbed undershirts,”she notes. “They remind me of my childhood.”
Back on Kibbutz Naan, where Negrin grew up, such shirts—minus the color and decoration—were de rigueur for the no-frills socialist farmers. But while others were bleaching shirts a stark white and decorating public places with the uncluttered, modern lines typifying kibbutz artistic sensibility, as a child, Negrin was catching rides to Tel Aviv, browsing in antique shops for boxes of sepia postcards showing women in long dresses at balls, angels and cupids, men in frock jackets. Hers was an unusual hobby for a girl who took her turn working in the fields, but her indulgent mother, Ada Green, was a non-conformist, too, a modern dance choreographer who lived on the kibbutz. “I think people accepted my being different because I was Ada Green’s daughter,”Negrin says. Her father, David Ben-Gurion’s grandson, Israel Green, worked in the kibbutz secretariat and accounting department.
And so, her intricate rococo, floral designs began to take root on the kibbutz. She began making jewelry on her own, turned down as an apprentice by a professional jewelry maker because, as he said, he “didn’t want to crush her creative spirit.”She experimented with gluing pearls on lace, and joined the other young sabra artists in the crafts fairs on Tuesdays and Fridays in Tel Aviv. She began building a customer base by word of mouth from a cadre of fans, women who returned often to her stand to see her new and original designs. In 1993, she opened her first signature shop on trendy Sheinken Street in Tel Aviv. Today, there are Michal Negrin shops in 15 countries; Japan alone has more than a dozen. The newest store scheduled to open will be in Croatia.
The shops feature a constantly expanding line of products—from bedsheets to perfume packaged in old-fashioned collectible bottles. Actresses Nicole Kidman and Demi Moore are among her Hollywood fans.
Negrin’s franchised stores have to compete in today’s global economic crunch. “There’s plenty of competition out there,”Negrin says. “You have to be constantly creative to keep the customer’s interest and confidence.”And while the old expression is that “imitation is flattery,”her success has inspired many knock-offs.
Several of her franchises did close after her empire expanded too quickly, including her New York store and a number of the Israeli shops. “We’re back to what I like to call ‘more accurate’ size and marketing,”she says.
However, the three-month-old boutique n Boston’s upscale Faneuil Hall (Quincy Market) is doing well. It is a large, bright store—a departure from the boudoir atmosphere of many of her other outlets—and filled with many customers on a Sunday afternoon in October.
Twenty-something saleswoman Michelle Mendrick has sold one customer two skirts and a dress, and another bought three dresses.
A man is interested in buying a pair of fancy, decorated leather boots for the woman in his life. (Today they are 25 percent off the usual $700 price tag.) “They’re handmade in Israel,”Mendrick tells him.
“Customers are usually delighted and impressed that the products are all made in Israel, not in China,”Mendrick says.
“Jewelry is still number one,”says franchise owner Tzion Barsheshet. The fine-gold and silver collections are selling well. Despite the resistance of franchise owners, the paper-dolls turned into jewelry has been the biggest hit of all. “I can’t keep them in stock,”he says.
At the Boston store opening, the Negrins celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary. Their only daughter, Jasmine, 24, has joined the business. “Everyone who works for us is part of the family, too,”Michal Negrin insists. “The idea behind all my work is to create harmony among people and disparate elements—big and small, dark and light, hidden and apparent.”
This harmony is the image of Israel she wants to project in the world: “The work has to have meaning. Ultimately, this is a Zionist message.”
She visits her brothers and aunts who have remained on kibbutz often, and is delighted to see many of the kibbutzniks wearing her jewelry. The fieldworkers haven’t switched to her colorful Grandpa shirts, yet, but you never know what the future will bring. H