Is There Such a Thing as Israeli Jewelry?

A new book by Iris Fishof asks that question by looking at the history of the local industry, up to the politicized current scene

Dr. Iris Fishof had 340 works at her disposal when she had to decide which of them to present on the cover of her new book “Jewellery in Israel: Multicultural Diversity 1948 to the Present,” published last month by Germany’s Arnoldsche Art Publishers. The choices one would have expected were traditional jewelry from the 1950s, the kind that may be easy to identify as Israeli. She also would have been expected to do the obvious thing and use a work of one of the four “well known women” or the “great jewelers,” as she and others refer to Bianca Eshel Gershuni, Esther Knobel, Vered Kaminski and Deganit Stern Schocken.

Instead Fishof chose to put a work on the cover which has nothing about it that’s easily identifiable as Israeli. Take, for instance, a necklace created by Gregory Larin in 2009 named “Penetration.” The pendant can be seen as an excellent example of the jewelry Larin designs: mostly sculpted pieces to which he combines traditional materials with more modern stuff, such as paper, leather, hair and polymers. Larin studies physical and metaphorical questions in his work such as anatomy, the human body, fetishes, graffiti and much more. Is this Israeli? Fishof is not the only one who thinks the answer to that question is positive. For his body of work in recent years, including “Penetration,” Larin recently won the design prize from the Ministry of Culture and Sport for 2013.

Apprenticing
on fighter jets

“I intentionally chose to put something contemporary on the cover, I wanted to leave the ‘well known women,’ whom I very much appreciate but they are very familiar,” explains Fishof. “I wanted something unknown to show that the tradition continues, that there is a new generation. Larin is an immigrant from Russia who made aliyah alone and served in the army. He told me that he learned this technique from repairing airplanes. It turns out that after every flight of a jet fighter plane, microscopic cracks form and then you need to fix them. That was his job in the army, there he learned this skill,” she said.

“If we delve deeply into his jewelry, it is possible to read about his military background, about the period he lived in Jerusalem during the intifada. There is the entire story of the conflict and the terror there, which is not expressed at the stage when you wear the piece. Either way, in the end this is jewelry-making par excellence,” said Fishof.

A historian and curator of art, Fishof has been a senior lecturer on jewelry at the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design in Ramat Gan since 2005. Before turning to jewelry she specialized in Judaica and Jewish ethnography, and from 1983 to 2003 worked at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem as chief curator of Judaica and Jewish ethnography among other positions. In 2012 she curated the solo exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art of Shirley Bar-Amotz, winner of the 2012 Andy Prize for an Israeli artist in ceramics, jewelry, textiles or glass.

The move from Judaica to jewelry was a natural shift, says Fishof. And after she became quite familiar with the international scene in the field, she says,“It was clear to me that at the next stage I must research jewelry in Israel. I had the feeling of having a mission of recording the history of the piece, I knew that was the right thing to do. There were partial works on the subject, but I wanted to write an all encompassing book that would give a complete picture.”

And that is what she did. “Jewellery in Israel” presents for the first time an in-depth survey of Israeli jewelry’s history. It starts with the spirit of the Bauhaus, which was brought to Israel in the 1920s and 1930s by immigrants from Europe; continues with the description of the activities of the state-owned and other institutional jewelry companies such as Wizo and Maskit; and reaches up to the artistic designs of the 1980s and today’s young artists.

Fishof enables us to see how the road was paved to the international success of famous jewelry artists such as Eshel Gershuni, Kaminski, Knobel and Stern Schocken. She also highlights the big names of recent years - Shirley Bar-Amotz, Attai Chen, Einat Leader, Larin and others.

“I talk about jewelry in Israel, I intentionally was careful not to say Israeli, since I don’t know if there is such a thing,” said Fishof. “In any case, I wrote an introductory chapter that surveys the period before the state. It is important to know what was here before: The folklore, the immigration, [Boris] Schatz’s Bezalel [art academy, founded in 1906]. There is a great deal of interest in the field in the world and I needed to explain what is Schatz’s Bezalel and what is the new Bezalel, who were the olim who came in the 1930s, and so on.”

So is there such a thing as Israeli jewelry? Can we speak today at all about a creation according to nationality or location?

“There are issues that occupy the contemporary jewelry artists in Israel, such as Shirley Bar-Amotz who is dealing with tradition that was thrown into the garbage, and she regrets it, or Aviya David and Tehila Levi Hindman who deal with the same issue but from a different direction. The emphasis on the craft is a trend that is happening at the same time all over the world, and nonetheless there are also local issues such as the cypress, which symbolizes rootedness and Israeliness, or Israeli aesthetics - gray and brown colors and all that is connected to a paucity of material,” said Fishof.

Yellow badges and gold sardines

The chapter on contemporary Israeli jewelry looks at the political content of the work. “I was excited that Zoya Cherkassky took the yellow badge [from the Holocaust], an object of shame and embarrassment, and turned it into a piece of jewelry,” said Fishof. “The same with what Yaacov Kaufman did with the Jewish nose, and also the works of Ada Vardimon, Michal Oren, Einat Leader, Bar-Amotz, Chen, Stern Schocken - all of them make political works that are influenced by the situation.”

The last work presented in the book is an installation by Chen, the most recent winner of the Andy Prize and who has been working in Germany in recent years. Chen took 500 dried sardines and coated them with gold leaf - all by hand - and presented them arranged like soldiers in formation, each fish in a slightly different size and in a slightly different form, all covered and embalmed in pure gold.

This work, like others in the book, and especially those that appear in the last chapter, also raise the question of what is a piece of jewelry, and not just what is an Israeli piece of jewelry. “A piece of jewelry is an object, usually small, that you wear close to the body,” answers Fishof. “A piece of jewelry has always expressed identity and answers such questions as, Who am I, or, What do I represent? In the second half of the 20th century jewelry started adopting trends of the art world such as breaking conventions, blurring borders, defiance and protest. All these things are jewelry. That is an entire world, a small piece that can do a lot, that can tell, express, excite.

“A good piece of jewelry is one that has a fascinating presence, arouses curiosity,” she says. “Maybe I will tell why I am drawn to jewelry: Curiosity and falling in love. To see jewelry and fall in love with it, to return to it, to touch it. The need to touch is very important to me. If I enjoy something I must hold it in my hand.”

Ori Gershuni
David Bachar