November 30, 2010
Putting the Jew back in her jewelry
Jewelry designer Liza Shtromberg started out selling jewelry at age 17, as a street vendor on Melrose.
“We were really strapped for money, and I always saw Israeli vendors selling jewelry in the street, so I said, ‘OK, I’ll just do
that,’ ” Shtromberg said in an interview at a café next door to her jewelry boutique/studio on Hillhurst Avenue in Los Feliz. Shtromberg is a walking advertisement for her pieces. She wears the same jewelry daily — four necklaces, three bracelets and seven rings — not to show off, but because each piece holds personal meaning for her.
Born in Russia in 1970, Shtromberg got her entrepreneurial spirit and flair for jewelry design from her father. In Communist Russia, he played violin with the Moscow Philharmonic by day and carved gemstones by night. He set up a workshop on their kitchen window ledge, secretly selling his pieces to the Russian people, including his conductor. Because there were no banks, he hid cash in a banjo.
Shtromberg’s family made aliyah in 1979. Her father opened a gallery in Jaffa, where she worked in the summers. But when her father got an offer to open a jewelry shop in Hollywood, he took it, seeing America as a land of greater opportunity.
Two years later, the 18-year-old Shtromberg was already suing a client in small claims court for defaulting on an invoice for her own jewelry. (She won.) Finding she could support herself through her jewelry-making, Shtromberg decided to forgo the path common to Israeli teens: enlistment in the Israel Defense Forces.
Shtromberg is an American success story, but anyone who casually walks into her boutique might not sense that right away. With its old-fashioned checkered floor and wooden shelves and vitrines, it has the feel of a mom-and-pop shop. But, by contrast, the necklaces, bracelets and earrings — set with diamonds, red coral, Peruvian opals, labradorite, rubies, emeralds and lapis lazuli — look like they could have been snatched out of the jewelry box of some ancient Near Eastern princess.
Today’s royalty — the Hollywood starlet sort — have recognized the exotic beauty of Shtromberg’s designs. Pictures of Naomi Watts and Sandra Bullock hang on the wall amid a row of simple frames showcasing Shtromberg’s celebrity clients. “Entourage” heartthrob and Los Feliz resident Adrian Grenier and “Gossip Girl” star Blake Lively come into the boutique regularly.
But Shtromberg doesn’t actively solicit celebrity patronage; they find her. She doesn’t pay celebrities to don her jewels on the red carpet like some designers do. Lately, she’s finding herself star-struck by fellow Jews as she celebrates her reconnection to Jewish spirituality with a new collection of Judaica.
Currently a resident of Glendale, Shtromberg describes herself as a cultural Jew who has generally remained on the sidelines of Jewish communal life. A stay in Israel with her husband and daughter, starting in 2007 with her participation in a one-year joint Arab-Israeli program at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in the Negev, reignited her passion for Israel and her need for Jewish self-expression.
“It was a big turning point in my life,” said Shtromberg. “For once I was completely immersed in everything I was about — peace, environmental issues, idealism, being hopeful and being in a group of people who were like me.”
She would have liked to stay in Israel longer, but her businesses, including a green-living store in Silver Lake, couldn’t survive without her. (The Silver Lake store closed last year.) Her husband of 13 years, an atheist Japanese American landscaper, wasn’t ready to make aliyah. The informal and blunt Israeli mentality was a sharp contrast to the reserved and courteous Japanese culture in which he grew up.
“When I started the Hebrew collection, it was a way of coping with my separation anxiety in Israel, and it gave me a tool to connect with Jewish people locally, synagogues and the Jewish community.”
Launched last spring, her Hebrew collection started with inscriptions of Hebrew names on existing designs. Her first wholesale client was the Skirball Cultural Center. Eventually, people started requesting inscriptions of Jewish and biblical proverbs.
“It became a journey into Jewish culture and finding out different meaningful things,” Shtromberg said.
Last summer, she took her 9-year-old daughter on a self-made mini-Birthright trip to Israel. While there, she took a mold of one of her most precious stones — the Western Wall — and refashioned the imprint into bands and pendants.
For now, Shtromberg keeps Zion close to her heart — literally. She recently added a new piece to her walking collection: a necklace with a Western Wall pendant inscribed with “Shema Yisrael.”
“Every visit I have to Israel, I just feel like I want to move back. I want to be there. I feel comfortable there. I know things are annoying, but I guess I just love it, and I feel like I don’t have to logically explain it anymore.”
Liza Shtromberg Jewelry, 2120 Hillhurst Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 913-1444; lizashtromberg.com.