The husband and wife team behind Yvel, an internationally renowned jewelry design and manufacturing company based outside of Jerusalem, has crossed the globe many times over in the search for the “next big thing” in gem stones. Yet one of the key aspects of their business is rooted very close to home.
Isaac and Orna Levy are the faces behind Yvel, established in 1986 and part of an industry in Israel that brings in annual revenues of around half a billion dollars, according to recent statistics from the Israeli Jewelry Manufacturer’s Association. Yvel’s products are sold in more than 650 stores internationally; its high-end designs -- which focus on pearls, gold and multihued sapphires -- have been worn on the red carpet by celebrities including Scarlett Johansson, Katy Perry, Selena Gomez and Rihanna. Yvel has also nabbed multiple design awards, including the prestigious Town and Country honors – the “Oscars of the jewelry world."
All photos by Rebecca Stropoli, except for portrait of Isaac and Orna Levy, provided by Yvel.
An immigrant workforce
Yet a visit to the Yvel design compound provides a glimpse not only into the specialized world of jewelry-manufacturing but also the diverse immigrant population of Israel. Of the 100 employees that work at the 50,000-square-foot facility, more than 90% are Jewish immigrants.
This isn’t an accident. From Yvel’s inception, Isaac and Orna have made it a point to employ mostly immigrants. While Orna is a native Israeli, Isaac immigrated to the country (also called “making aliyah”) from Argentina nearly 50 years ago. He keenly understands the adversity faced by so many in the attempt to adapt to a new culture; his own family’s story provides the perfect illustration. Upon arrival to their new homeland, Isaac’s father – an entrepreneur in Argentina – invested in a sausage factory, but just months later his business partners vanished, taking his money with them. Memories of his father’s struggles as a new citizen in a strange land inspired Isaac as he and Orna, whose family has been in the jewelry industry for more than a century, made plans to begin their own company. And, as an added twist that could easily fit into an inspirational movie script, Yvel’s design center now sits on the very land that once housed Isaac’s father’s failed sausage factory.
While walking throughout the Yvel factory, a visitor will come across employees from 22 countries including Russia, Syria, Iraq and the United States. But it is one particular segment of the immigrant population that is the focus of Yvel’s new “business within a business,” the Megemeria School of Jewelry. Megemeria, established by Yvel in 2010, trains and employs only those who emigrated from Ethiopia.
Supporting the Ethiopian community
Ethiopian Jews have been officially making aliyah since the mid-1970s, and now more than 120,000 call Israel (which has over 7 million citizens) their home. But facing massive initial language, cultural and literacy barriers as they move from an impoverished agrarian society to a modern, industrial one, this population's adaptation has proven particularly difficult. Despite making significant strides in employment, education and integration over the past several decades, Ethiopian-Israelis still live with serious socioeconomic challenges, including much higher poverty and unemployment rates than the general Israeli population.
It is this inequity that Isaac and Orna hope to help combat through Megemeria (a word meaning “genesis” in the Ethiopian language of Amhara). The hope, Orna says, is “to help them transform from being new immigrants to being proud and contributing citizens of Israel.”Megemeria’s first class of 21 students, composed of men and women ranging in age from 20 to 55, graduated in 2012; the second class began shortly after. Not only are students taught jewelry design, goldsmithing, gem setting and tool-handling, they are also offered instruction in Hebrew and everyday-life skills to help them to adapt to Israel’s very different culture. Training is free and students are provided a stipend of 4,300 NIS per month (the minimum wage for Israel and equal to US $1,084), with many of the funds coming directly from Isaac and Orna. Additional backing has been provided by “a handful of friends,” says Orna, along with Jewish organizations such as The Joint, the San Francisco Jewish Federation and World Ort. The Israeli government, notes Orna, “has also recognized this important project and [given] some financial support.”
The Megemeria collection is created by the students to tell the story of their native country -- and help fund their new company.
“Half [of the graduates] are working within the Yvel factory and the other half have chosen to stay on with the Megemeria business enterprise,” says Orna. Thus, Megemeria has its first staff of 11 full-time employees, who help train and mentor the next class. This small company within the larger one, Orna says, is “definitely a for-profit business. The objective is to create a financially self-sustaining venture.”
A major component on its path to self-sustainability will be the Megemeria jewelry collection, a line of Amharic-inscribed brass and gold-plated pieces created by the students and sold through Yvel's retailers.
The competition for admittance to Megemeria is intense; there have been close to 300 applicants for both the first and second classes, and there is still just room for 21.
One of those students, a woman who asked not be named, provided Yahoo! Finance with her story by email. Raised in Western Ethiopia, she was married at 13 and had two children when she and her husband made aliyah. Her assimilation was, she says, extremely difficult at first. She worked as a cleaning woman but, she says, was “seeking a trade I could pursue throughout my life.” After making it into the Megemeria program, she continues, “I succeeded in acquiring a profession. This place gives me self-confidence and pride.”
There have been some recent "fairy tale" stories emerging from the Ethiopian community in Israel. For example, in February Yityish Aynaw was crowned the first-ever Ethiopian-born Miss Israel; she met and dined with President Obama when he took his first presidential tour of the country. The story of Megemeria and its students, however, is no fairy tale. It’s fair to imagine that the recent graduates, who are initially being paid the same minimum wage salary they received while studying, are still struggling financially. But, Orna says, the skills they’ve learned give them the opportunity to grow their income and break the cycle of lower education, higher unemployment and poverty still plaguing the population. While at Yvel and Megemeria, the graduates will, she says, “get raises according to their progress.”
As well as having great hopes for the Megemeria students, Orna is enthusiastic about the tiny company’s future prospects. She says, “We need to start small and grow to what we believe Megemeria will eventually be: an international social business that will employ hundreds of people and be an example for other companies to follow.”