Mechanical Engineer and
International Jewellery Designer
PRESS RELEASE: RAFAEL, 2002
It’s said that true artists have a need to create that can inform and direct their whole lives. That truism is a common theme in the life of Rafael, who – in the sixth decade of an intensely prolific creative career – still wakes up each day with new ideas and an urgent need to realize them in his art.
As a boy in Belgrade, Rafael created toys out of Russian and American ammunition – materials that were freely available to a child in a country scarred by war. At 10, he was a local authority on pens and lighters, creating his own new “brands” from broken parts. Seeking a better career opportunity and life for his family, Rafael moved to Israel in 1960 and studied to be a mechanical engineer. In his spare time from his studies, he made sculptures, paintings and his first pieces of furniture.
In 1970, Rafael set his sights on Canada, where his professional artistic career had an unlikely start. He didn’t speak a word of English, and upon moving to Toronto he enrolled in a local language class at George Brown College to accelerate his assimilation into the culture of his newly adopted home. As a gesture of gratitude to his English teacher, Rafael made his very first necklace as a gift to her. It was a fateful move; within four months, Rafael the engineer became Rafael the artist, and quickly became one of the most successful jewelry designers in Canadian history. He opened a factory and his own chain of stores, and his popularity and reputation grew exponentially. His work became available in more than a thousand Canadian retail outlets, and his retail presence expanded to the United States, Europe, Australia, and Japan.
Rafael’s jewelry was boldly ahead of its time: with his training in engineering, he brought to his jewelry designs a fascination with moving parts and non-traditional materials like copper wire, brass sheeting, and Mosaic glass from Morano, Italy, which he made into thousands of shades of brightly-coloured glass stones. His irreverent and highly distinctive designs were as dramatic as Cleopatra’s crown jewels, but with a fresh modern twist. They were flamboyant, they were groovy, and they made Rafael a household name and a media darling.
Margaret Trudeau wore one of his necklaces to the opening of Parliament. Rafael designed a model antique car for her husband Pierre, the Prime Minister. He created jewelry for Lorne Green, Liberace, Muhammad Ali, Redd Foxx and Paul Anka. He was commissioned to create the crown for the 1973 Miss Canada beauty pageant. He worked closely with Marilyn Brooks, designing pieces to complement her clothing line and participating in her major fashion shows. He branched out into sculpture and home accessories, and he introduced silver and semi-precious stones into his repertoire. As a tribute to Bob Hope and Bing Crosby for appearing at a Canadian charity event, Rafael made each of them a massive maple leaf, using more than six pounds of 14-karat gold. By the late 1970s, Rafael had sold close to a million pieces of his trendy, fashion-forward jewelry. Today, many of those pieces are professionally collected and the market for vintage Rafael continues to grow.
Inevitably, the business peaked, and Rafael closed his active retail empire to move his life and his art to Austin, Texas. In the 1980s, his artistic focus became designing pieces in gold, diamonds and other precious stones, and for the next ten years, he enjoyed a life with his growing family in one of Austin’s wealthiest neighbourhoods. He won many international design competitions and continued to attract the attention of the media. Interestingly, Rafael’s two daughters inherited their father’s artistic gifts; today, both women are accomplished jewelry designers with successful businesses in New York and Bali.
By the late 1980s, Rafael had grown tired of the pace of his business and the rat race of the West. He decided to take a break, and that sabbatical took him to India, where he spent eight years on an ashram in the pursuit of meditation and peace. He met and married a Japanese woman named Eriko, and together they created a household in India that became a magnet and unofficial headquarters for an international artisan community.
In June 2000, Rafael was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, a rare form of blood cancer. Shortly after his diagnosis, he chose to return to Toronto with Eriko, and moved back into the Manulife Centre, which he remembered fondly from his days holding court in a swinging bachelor pad at the height of his ‘70s celebrity. And – after years of absence from his jewelry-making tools – Rafael once again began to create with his hands, turning this time to clocks.
Rafael’s fascination with time, moving mechanisms and pendulums had led him to make many clocks in his life. Wherever he lived he had been surrounded by clocks, most of them of his own creation – and most of them more appropriately described as sculptures that also happen to tell the time.
In the early summer of 2002 he and his co-creator Eriko made their very first clock together. Rafael was delighted – he considers it the best and most beautiful clock he’s ever made. Friends and neighbours of the couple loved it, and Rafael discovered that his new artistic passion helped his physical strength, as did having a gifted partner like Eriko to do the more strenuous work and collaborate with him. In just a few short months, Rafael and Eriko have created more than 45 clocks in an array of stunning designs, and their output grows daily. Despite his advancing illness, Rafael is thrilled with his latest and last artistic project. It’s an exciting new chapter in the story of an artist who has lived a large and fearless life of love, risk and reward – and the clocks themselves exemplify a man at the peak of his artistry.
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