Israeli Jewelry Finds Downtown Benchmark


Eli Halili gets what he wants. And he has a wooden bench with his name on it to prove it.

The 28-year-old Israeli was determined to rent out a storefront on Mott Street in NoLita, (the downtown Manhattan area north of Little Italy). Problem was, there were no stores available. So he chose a bench across the street from the Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral and hunkered down there every day for about a year. While sipping coffee, he took note of the number of customers heading in and out of the stores and analyzed their purchases. That’s how he determined that a handbag store he was watching wasn’t doing brisk business.

So he called up the landlord. “I know your tenant isn’t paying the rent,” he said, taking a gamble.

“How do you know that?” the landlord responded, taken aback. Halili told the landlord about the market research he conducted while seated on the wooden bench that happened to have the name “Eli” etched into it (he swears he didn’t do it). The landlord was impressed.

“Well, we’re in the process of getting rid of her,” the landlord replied, speaking of the tenant selling handbags. “Once she’s out, the store is yours.”

In September, Halili moved in. In the Mott Street space, he opened the first American storefront for Agas & Tamar, a high-end jewelry store based in Israel that specializes in semi-precious stones, ancient coins and one-of-a-kind gems, mostly in 22- and 24-karat gold.

“I love the area,” he says. “It reminds me of Tel Aviv, with its cafés.”

The small storefront is a gem unto itself, especially when it comes to décor. Halili put down stained mud-black floors and stripped the exposed brick wall of its shiny veneer. “I wanted to create a place that looks old yet timeless,” he says.

On the sea-foam green walls, he put up metal, laser-carved Hebrew lettering in Rashi script meaning, “I put a ring on your nose, earrings in your ears, and a beautiful crown upon your head.”

A 60-year-old scale sits on the rustic barn-wood counter. A wooden mirror that Halili bought from a homeowner in India (it had been the guy’s window) graces the wall. Refurbished medical supply cabinets feature the jewelry collection — with bracelets draped across tree branches and gold rings nestled in metal netting typically used for drains. “I don’t like black velvet,” he says. An empty leather trunk, a gift from Donna Karan, completes the rustic, ancient-looking décor.

Halili’s Agas & Tamar story begins two-and-a-half years ago, on a visit to family in Israel, when he came across a jewelry store named Agas & Tamar in the Neve Tzedek neighborhood of Tel Aviv. He bought his friend a pair of earrings and returned the next day to purchase a necklace for himself. “I loved every piece of jewelry in the store,” he said. “And that’s rare.”

At the time he was working for a big diamond company. But he was getting sick of the sparkling glitter of diamonds, preferring to work with more natural-looking stones. So he approached the owners, Einat Agassi and Tamar Harel Klein, about bringing Agas & Tamar to the U.S. He wasn’t the first to come up with the idea, but he was the most determined. You see, Eli Halili doesn’t take no for an answer.

In the following months, Halili worked with Agas & Tamar to modify the jewelry line to suit the American market. That meant longer earrings, bigger stones, and more pizzazz. Yet before opening a store and investing capital on rent, Halili worked on building buzz. Gradually, his jewelry line garnered mentions in the major fashion glossies — Vogue, Elle, Vanity Fair — as well as trade magazines and even the New York Times.

Then top fashion designer Donna Karan became a fan. In April, Halili got a call expressing interest in his jewelry line. He had a feeling the caller was associated with someone famous when bodyguards greeted him at the door and escorted him to the elevator. The doors opened and he was in Donna Karan’s office. “In just two to three minutes with her, I felt her energy,” he says. Donna Karan liked the collection so much, she chose to include the Agas & Tamar collection in her Urban Zen boutique, benefiting cancer patients.

Halili’s friendship with “Will & Grace” star Debra Messing developed from a chance encounter. He was at Vogue, showing off his new collection to the editors there, when Messing strolled by. She gave a quick glance at the jewelry on display and smiled at Halili. Then she rushed into the waiting elevator, her eyes still pasted to the jewelry.

In classic Halili style, he contacted Messing’s publicist the next day and offered to stop by to show her samples of the newest Agas & Tamar jewelry line. Messing loved the jewelry, calling the pieces “gorgeous … like a talisman.”

Now, Halili picks out jewelry for Messing and other celebrities to complement their dresses on the red carpet. Messing loves yellow gold and gravitates toward corals and sapphires, Halili says. “She’s a lovely person,” he says. “She’ll actually buy the jewelry. Most celebrities just rent it.”

Halili also picks out jewelry for the stars of TV shows, movies, and Oscar parties. He recently outfitted Sarah Jessica Parker and friends for the upcoming “Sex and the City” film.

He’s thinking about opening another store on the Upper East Side and then expanding the Agas & Tamar chain throughout Europe and Asia. Leave it to Halili to find a few more benches with his name etched onto them.

This is the second in an occasional series profiling Jewish entrepreneurs who are making their mark here in a variety of business ventures.