August 18, 2019

The Last Yemenite Silversmith

In a room in the back of the Yemenite Culture Museum in Jaffa’s Old City, a television plays songs on a loop by Yemenite-Israeli sister trio A-WA. The walls are filled with faded photographs of Yemenite Jews, including brides in girgush (intricate cone-shaped headpieces). 

The museum’s owner, an eighth-generation silversmith named Ben Zion David, sits at a workstation, his blackened hands hammering at a thin strand of silver thread. Twisted threads and tiny beads are the basis for the Yemenite silversmithing known as filigran. Silversmithing in Yemen has been dominated almost exclusively by Jews since the 17th century but is a dying trade today in Israel, where most Yemenite Jews came to escape persecution. Even though he works with both gold and silver, David said that in Yemen, Jews never smithed with gold because the biblical Golden Calf narrative meant it was associated with idolatry. 

David has more than 15 exhibitions a year all over the United States and Europe, and has made pieces for the late famed Yemenite-Israeli singer Ofra Haza, pop superstar Shakira and reggae singer Ziggy Marley. He even made a pair of candlesticks for Queen Elizabeth II. “I always joke that every Friday night, she lights my candles,” he said. 

Ben Zion David made a pair of candlesticks for Queen Elizabeth II. “I always joke that every Friday night, she lights my candles.”

Born in Kiryat Ekron in 1955, David’s parents emigrated from Yemen in 1950. After losing three babies in childbirth, David’s mother wasn’t hopeful about her chances of having another. But a venerable old Yemenite woman told David’s father that he would have a baby boy if he agreed not to touch the child’s hair for five years afterward. The following year, David was born via cesarean section. At 10, David began working with his father in his jewelry studio. As he entered adolescence, the craft boosted his confidence. “Girls would wait for me outside my classroom, begging me to make them jewelry,” he said. 

After serving in the Israeli army in the paratrooper unit, David spent two years in South America working for the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office (a euphemism connoting clandestine operations, including those by Mossad). 

After studying electrical engineering in Israel and at New York University’s polytechnic school, David returned to Israel and was recruited by Elta Systems, a leading defense electronics firm and a subsidiary of Israel Aerospace Industries. But while waiting for his security clearance, David realized his heart just wasn’t in it. He wanted to go back to silversmithing. “There was so much red tape involved in that [engineering] job and I’m not a person who conforms to rules,” he said. “It was an easy decision.” But his father was deeply disappointed that his son chose to shun a stable career. 

David opened his workshop in 1987, which today doubles as a museum and store. Within two years, he was exhibiting overseas and selling his wares in international chains, including Macy’s. The advent of the internet was a huge boon to business. “My father never got it. He didn’t understand how I could get money or merchandise over a computer,” David said. Still, his father was happy to visit the workshop.

These days, David uses modern technology for his designs, including computer software and 3D printing. Still, the basis of the craft remains the same and his pieces are entirely handmade. Over the time it took to conduct this interview, David fashioned a ring from scratch using four different threads. 

After three decades of doing the same thing, does it ever get old?  

“You have no idea how much fulfillment I have from doing this,” he said.