An Interview with Israeli Jewelry Designer Sara Shahak

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Israeli jewelry designer Sara Shahak maintains meaningful relationships in Canada eight years after CIJA brought her to Toronto for the first time

In 2008, CIJA reached out to Sara Shahak, a jewelry designer and artist from Petah Tikva, offering to sponsor a trip to Toronto to attend the prestigious TOAE – Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition. Eight years later, Shahak continues to return to North America to work with the contacts she made on that CIJA trip.

As an Israel and Jewish advocacy organization, helping bring Shahak and her work to Canada was the perfect vehicle to demonstrate to Canadians the depth of what Israelis have to offer – a beneficial, concrete way to promote Israel beyond the conflict. Art, and jewelry in particular, is a universal method of self-expression. Ethnicity, nationality, and political inclination aside, Shahak’s craft knows no boundaries. Her jewelry, an impeccable balance of delicate metalwork, elaborate detail and stand-out statement pieces, is carefully crafted to encourage the everywoman to step out of her comfort zone. Through her work, those around the world adventurous enough to don her pieces can truly channel the quintessential Israeli ethos of fearlessness, daring, and the unconventional.

We spoke with Shahak over the phone from her hotel room in Manhattan where she was making a quick stop after her most recent trip to the Toronto exhibition – the same show CIJA helped her attend for the first time eight years ago. Just before our conversation, Shahak had a meeting with the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City where she heard they intend to buy one of her biggest collections.

Z: What was it like when CIJA reached out to you eight years ago?

S: The wife of the mayor of Tel Aviv saw my work at the Israel Museum store in Ramat Aviv. She was excited about it. She asked for my phone number, told me that they wanted to sponsor me to go to the outdoor art show in Toronto, and connected me with Judy (at CIJA). The exhibition was a great success. I made connections with the Petroff Gallery. They met me at the exhibition and started working with me to sell my jewelry, an arrangement that lasted until a year ago. This year, I decided to come back to Toronto for the exhibition, and they accepted my application immediately.

Z: How did the show this year compare to your first?

S: My jewelry is different from what Toronto women are used to. I even met some old customers, who, by chance, saw my booth, and were already wearing my jewelry! They didn’t even know I was there because I had not publicized that I would come. For eight years, some of these ladies have been wearing my jewelry almost every day. It was amazing.

Z: How would you describe your work?

S: I work with metal. Metal is my love. My collection I just sold (to Cooper Hewitt) is mainly gold-plated, bronze, silver, powder-coated gold. From the first link to the clasp, everything is handmade in my studio. I love investigating old necklaces from the Hellenistic period and the Etruscan period and give them new form.

Z: How do you want people to feel when they wear your art?

S: First, I want them to feel different, because my jewelry is different. I want them to feel daring. Every day I exhibited in Toronto, I wore a new necklace – I chose the biggest, longest ones. Every day, I sold the necklace that I wore. It felt so good because, in Canada, the fashion is conservative. I want those women to dare, to choose different kinds of jewelry.

Z: How does being Israeli influence your work?

S: Oh, a lot. Every exhibition, in New York, in Canada, in Palm Beach, in Boston…they see my work, and they say “You are Israeli?” Even before they hear my accent, they know. There’s something in Israeli design…we dare to design something different. At every exhibition, when there are artists from all over the world, it’s easy to see that the Israelis are daring. I can’t put my finger on the exact difference, but they recognize it.

For many, Shahak’s work is their first exposure to Israeli art. When it comes to most people’s conceptions of Israelis, tunnel vision is typical. Though the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is constantly covered by the media, the average Canadian has little understanding of Israelis beyond the select graphic clips shown on the 10 o’clock news. For Shahak, being the artist whose art serves as the conversation-starter initiating proactive, meaningful dialogue is not a role she takes lightly. While she understands the profound connection Jews around world have with her work, she also recognizes the importance of being a real-life example of the deeply-rooted, rich culture that Israel has to offer.

S: Honestly, I feel very proud. My husband and I have a lot of conversations with Jewish people and non-Jewish people about the situation in Israel. Many of them are surprised to see how different my jewelry and my art is. For Jewish people, it’s very touching. To meet us, to see us, to talk with us…and for us also. What else can I say? After eight years of the exhibition, this year I was the only Israeli. I felt unique and so proud – really. I thank you for it, because the opportunity came from you.

See more of Sara Shahak’s work at:

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