Orna Levy is a fourth generation Jerusalemite whose family has been in the jewelry-making business for the past 100 years. Orna and her husband Itzik Levy, an immigrant from Argentina, created the Yvel company in 1986, and their jewelry line—featuring pearls, sapphires, diamonds and other gems—is internationally known. Today, Yvel (Levy spelled backwards) manufactures its jewelry in Israel and exports to 650 retail outlets on five continents including Neiman Marcus. Katy Perry, Rihanna, Maria Sharapova, Scarlett Johansson and Isla Fisher have been seen wearing Yvel-designed jewelry at celebrity functions and on magazine covers.
The company’s employees are mostly immigrants who have come to Israel from places like the United States, Syria, Iraq and Ethiopia. The Levys’ business philosophy is firmly rooted in social responsibility and philanthropy.
“Itzik’s father lost all of his family’s savings in a bad business deal upon arriving to Israel,” explains Orna. “Itzik has never forgotten this and has always aimed to strengthen weaker immigrant populations in Israel.”
This is why Itzik and Orna celebrated Yvel’s 25th anniversary in 2010 by establishing the Megemeria School of Jewelry and Art, which offers professional training in jewelry crafting and design to new Ethiopian immigrants.
Partnering with the Association for Community Empowerment (Yedid), which assists Israelis in becoming self-sufficient members of society, the Levys opened the school within the Yvel complex, outside Jerusalem. The school gives the students, who are all recent immigrants from Ethiopia, jewelry-making training followed by employment opportunities in the Yvel factory once they complete the program.
While learning the jewelry trade, including gem-setting, gold and silver-smithing, and the design process, the students also receive Hebrew lessons, family budget and management training, math courses, and Israeli cultural lessons. For many of the Ethiopian students, who had little if no formal education back in Ethiopia, these supplementary courses are critical for a better integration into Israeli society and finding employment.
Yedid’s executive director Sari Rivkin says that the first graduating class of Megemeria has produced a special collection which was inspired by the immigrants’ personal and collective journey from Ethiopia to Israel. “Many of the jewelry designs feature words from the students’ native Amharic language. This is a very unique social enterprise,” Rivkin explains.
Once the students graduate and take the Israel Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor certification exam, they can begin working at Yvel’s Design Center either in jewelry design or in sales and administration. For the graduating class this year, eight will continue on with Yvel, making and selling jewelry, with profits helping to cover their salaries and the costs of the school.
Abbito Einalem, an Ethiopian student who came with no background in crafting jewelry, now looks on proudly at a pendant she has created, inscribed with the Amharic word desta, which means happiness. “I want to continue in this profession in the future,” she says. “It has given me so much already.”