Designer Isaac Manevitz of Ben-Amun was kind enough to tour me around his garment-district studio and vast range of work. We also talked a little about Egyptian royalty, Memphis furniture, and sitting next to Andy Warhol at a Calvin Klein show in the eighties.
Are you originally from NYC?
No, I was born in Egypt. My father was a jeweler to Egyptian royalty. They used to bring him to court to fix the crowns.
Wow! Do you still have any of the royal jewels he made?
Not really. We left after the Revolution, and so we also left everything we had. We came here as immigrants. But sometimes, once in a while, I’ll go to a flea market and find a piece that my father made. I suppose a tourist brought it over. But I definitely recognize his work.
When did you move to the U.S.?
I was twenty so I remember Egyptian culture very well. Even today, it influences my designs. I love the Arabesque architecture. My father also dealt in antiques, so I learned a lot about pharaonic and Greek-Roman coins.
Did you learn to make jewelry from your father?
I learned with him while I was young, sitting next to him. He worked with diamonds and gold and other precious stones. Then I moved here and began studying sculpture.
Would you say your style is like his?
When I came to the States I couldn’t work with diamonds, so instead I made everything bigger and fun to wear. I mixed metal with plastic, wood, leather, straw; I didn’t consider much off limits.
How would you describe your aesthetic?
It could really be anything, I’m more concerned with proportion and color and quality of craftsmanship. I try to do the opposite of what’s normal.
Fashion jewelry is a pretty familiar concept now, but can you speak to its beginnings?
When I started in the early eighties there were two categories of jewelry: fine and custom, custom being an imitation of the fine. Then, myself and other artists started making what we call fashion jewelry today: big, bold pieces made with interesting, less-precious materials.
How did this change things?
We started designing collections that worked into runway shows for a wider variety of fashion labels. It used to be that only couture houses like Christian Dior or Yves St. Laurent had jewelry designed for their shows. Also, the couture pieces were inaccessible to the majority of women. Our pieces were something women could actually wear.
Who did you design for?
Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren. Calvin Klein always showed a lot of evening dresses. Mermaid cuts, in satin. I remember people getting so excited about the jewelry that they started looking at the dresses less. So, he stopped showing with big jewelry and went very minimal for a while. That was a tough time in the fashion jewelry world. The early nineties…
Can we see some of this early stuff?
Hmm, yeah, we have an archive. I can show you some more sculptural stuff, too. Actually, have you heard of Memphis Design? Furniture? That was a huge influence early on. It’s very unusual, geometric, colorful – like pop art. I came across it while looking for materials in Italy and began collecting. I have one of the largest collections in the States!
What else do you collect?
Oh everything. Antique toys. Arabic furniture. Paintings. Roosevelt pottery. You name it, I collect it.
Do you still create sculpture?
Yes, for myself, when I have the time. Collages mainly. I like working with wood: the feeling, the grain. Or, I’ll work with found objects from the street.
Who are your favorite sculptors?
Louise Nevelson and Henry Moore. It’s funny, they are sort of opposites.
Someone told me you designed your wife [and business partner] Regina a piece of jewelry for your wedding. Can you describe it?
I have a box of jewelry that I made when I was younger, working with my father. When we were young, the jewelry we children made was usually given to our mothers, but I always said mine were for my future wife. When we got engaged, I gave her one of the pieces I made when I was twelve. It was romantic…
Oh! I almost forgot, why Ben-Amun?
That’s easy. Ben is my oldest son’s name. And Amun comes from the last syllables of ‘Tutankhamun’. The King of Egypt.