Jewelry for the Home
February 6, 2019
Old World meets new in a Rhode Island atelier for custom hardware.
Text by Debra Spark
For a different sort of man, the decision might have represented a step down. In the mid-1990s, Edgar Berebi closed down a jewelry business to transition into home decor. At the time, he had a staff of 200 and his work was in every major department store in the country. He’d been in business since 1979, but from now on, he would be making picture frames, stems for wine glasses, and (in 2004 when his wife needed some) cabinet knobs. The big irony? The new products looked even more like fine jewelry than his jewelry.
“When I am inspired, I don’t do anything in a small way,” Berebi says. Of all the new products, the hardware—which started with just a few cabinet knobs—took off the fastest. Today, he has 1,200 designs, and his website offers a dizzying array of cabinet pulls, knobs, and handles, as well as stemware, knife handles, collectible boxes, mezuzahs, and the occasional surprise item, like a cell phone tray. Intricate and precisely detailed, the pieces reflect a range of styles and periods. You want English manor? Federal style? Midcentury modern? Done, done, done. The face of a knob might have leaf and flower imagery with a mini classical cornice at the circumference. A handle might use abstract motifs, and a finial might look jewel-encrusted. That cell phone holder? Perhaps the world’s most elegant, made, as it is of Swarovski crystal, pearls, and museum plate gold.
In 1992, when he was still making jewelry, Berebi visited Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, and the Ukraine, both because he wanted to protect a dying craft and because he wasn’t finding engraving talent in the States. He took out newspaper ads that essentially said, “If you can produce Fabergé-quality items by engraving, I have a job for you.” Then, he waited for applicants to come to the lobby of his hotel. If they were indeed working at the level of that famous St. Petersburg firm, known for its lavish eggs but specializing in jewelry, he wanted them. He hired twelve master engravers. Four remain with him; others have been added, always from Europe. Then and now, the engravers make a mold of Berebi’s designs—sometimes taking up to two months to do so—then casters, machiners, finishers (including polishers and platers), and stone setters execute the work in a factory in Providence, Rhode Island.
The Old World–New World combination in the production process parallels the work’s range. You might expect to find some Berebi pieces in a castle, others in a more modern high-end home. The more contemporary pieces have a simpler design, but they remain meticulously detailed. Every aspect of a knob, for instance, will have a design from the finial to the face of the knob to the stem. A more modern knob will not have crystals or a leaf pattern from classic architecture, but might still, as in the case of the Winchester knob, have 2,800 dots in a circular pattern around the face of the knob.
Not surprisingly, Berebi’s clients tend to be quite wealthy. It’s a decided contrast to the young Berebi, an Egyptian Jew who came via Paris “to the holy city of Brooklyn,” as he says, as a refugee in 1962. He was just eleven, and his family had $1.33 in their pockets.
Today, Berebi distributes to the trade through licensed interior designers and architectural hardware stores. A 2010 addition to the business was a foundry, so the company now offers a line of bronze door hardware. Berebi jokes that he took this on because his wife, a former jewelry buyer and now partner in the business, thought he wasn’t working hard enough.
In fact, he is at loose ends when he isn’t working. He holds 10,800 copyrights, studied architecture and art as a younger man, and describes himself as having “the soul of an artist.” He means to produce museum-quality work and leave a legacy. “I am here every day at seven,” he says. “Come Sunday night, I don’t know what to do.”
His fantasy? Twenty or thirty years from now, someone might walk into a house that he has supplied and say, “Gut the house, but keep the hardware.”
Editor’s Note: To see more of Edgar Berebi’s work, visit edgarberebi.com.