I n 1982, when I was 10 years old, I saw an animateD FILM,
“The Secret of NIMH,” in which a secondary character, a crow named Jeremy, seeks to impress his female counterpart by giving her jewelry. “Gimme the sparkly,” he beseeches of the main character, a mouse named Mrs. Brisby. “I gotta have the sparkly! Girls can’t resist sparklies!”
I was reminded of this statement over and over while touring the factory of jewelry designer Michal Negrin, which recently began offering tours to the public, and which is dazzling in its array of sparklies.
Those who neither live in Israel nor have a young daughter might need some catching up on the phenomenon that is Michal Negrin, both the person and the fashion empire which has become one of Israel’s most successful exporters.
Negrin grew up on the starkly poor Kibbutz Naan in the 1960s. Perhaps as an escape fantasy, perhaps influenced by her dancer-painter mother and bohemian grandmother (and despite being the great-niece of the ascetic David Ben-Gurion), she early on developed a fascination with Victoriana. By high school she was decorating watches for her friends; in the mid-’80s her first table of hand-crafted jewelry at Tel Aviv’s Nahalat Binyamin craft fair sold out within hours.
Women around the world flock to buy Negrin’s neo-Victorian, ultra-feminine wares, which range from clothes to household décor to her iconic earrings and necklaces, which are handmade and decorated with angels, curlicues, lace, flowers and a plethora of colorful Swarovski crystals.
Today, Negrin’s factory in the coastal Israeli city of Bat Yam spans 30,000 square feet and employs 580 Israelis, mostly Russian immigrants. She has 52 concept stores worldwide, including 16 in Japan, where she is a minor celebrity, and one on Madison Avenue in New York City.
I took the new factory tour with a friend, Beth, and her daughter Neshama, who, not coincidentally, was celebrating her eighth birthday. The factory, called “Michal Negrin’s World,” is a lime-green building with a blue and pink faux-storefront, impossible to miss, though we had some trouble finding parking.
The 45-minute tour begins in a small movie room decorated in teal and pink, with chandeliers, flowers and angels witnessing the eight-minute introductory film about Negrin’s “enchanting world of fantasy, joy, color and love.” Then, as our tour guide Nilit led us toward the studio workshops, she explained that while most of the factory’s tourists are adults, children get “extra special” treatment with cake and hot chocolate.
At our first stop, the jewelry studio, we saw dozens of women sitting over long white tables, painstakingly gluing Austrian jewels onto Israeli-made metal bases to match Negrin’s sample designs for pins, earrings and necklaces. Nilit explained how crystals refract light and showed us the templates on which workers can refer to Negrin’s 1,500 designs, which involve 300 different color combinations.
Next door, in the lace room, we saw how employees sew beads and crystals onto laces of different colors — apparently Israelis like honey and peach while Mexican orders are usually for bright colors — to create hair accessories. We then passed the repair room, where Negrin makes good on the lifetime guarantee of her designs, and the quality control room, where more patient workers confirmed that orders were accurate and that each crystal and bead is firmly secured.
Downstairs we peeked into the sewing and printing rooms. It was fascinating to watch a long swath of silk being pressed with images of flowers and lace, and then cut into the shape of a sheath dress; across the hall, three women were gluing glitter and more crystals onto similar fabric.
Like the home décor — mezuzot, menorahs, mirror frames, cigarette boxes — the Negrin clothing line started because Negrin wanted to wear the clothing herself. A remarkable aspect of Negrin’s aesthetic is that there is little distinction between herself, her home, and her factory; her entire suburban Tel Aviv apartment is outfitted in pink and champagne palettes; she wears her own designs on a day-to-day basis; a new line of Michal Negrin limited-edition dolls named She-Shy (who is “both daring and shy”) were designed by Negrin to add to her own doll collection.
And then there is the Gallery Café, where Negrin stores one-of-a-kind creations for which she no longer has room in her home: a plush bed with Negrin-esque sheets, blankets and pillows; a musical jewelry box with multiple drawers and dancing She-Shys; neo-Victorian tables and benches and lighting fixtures and picture frames. Neshama was in heaven. Beth and I were pretty impressed, too.
As promised, we received free cheesecake and hot drinks (the hot chocolate machine wasn’t working, so Neshama sipped on sweetened steamed milk while I had a cappuccino), while we lounged on Michal Negrin couches around a Michal Negrin coffee table. The café includes a section with jewelry for purchase at a discount. At one point Ms. Negrin herself walked through, and she kindly stopped to allow Neshama to pose with her for pictures.
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