Udi Behr displaying one of his works: I am extremely grateful to have the opportunity to interpret my inspiration through jewelry.What do such prominent American celebrities as Sharon Stone, Paula Abdul, Candace Bushnell, Nora Ephron, Howard Stern, and Jay Leno …
These celebrities, and others, chose Behr’s tasteful neck, earring and wrist adornments as a way to fashionably express their support for lasting peace in the post-9/11, post-Iraq war era. The Love+Peace+Hope Collection combines diamonds, gems and beading with the 18K white and yellow gold signature designs, and gained widespread prominence at the 2003 Academy Awards, as a myriad of Hollywood stars chose embellish their wardrobe with the 43-year-old Israeli’s creations.
Behr was inspired to create the line after witnessing the nation’s outpouring of support from 9/11, while he was living in the shadows of its aftermath.
“It was such a great spirit,” Behr recalls. “I didn’t want to lose it. That’s my form of art – to try to capture that spirit. The collection inspires a myriad of emotions: feelings of promise, happiness, faith, motivation and harmony.”
Speaking to ISRAEL21c from his New York City home, Behr’s voice still resonates with emotion as he describes that cataclysmic day almost two years ago.
“I was working on a big project with an Italian company, and was in Italy about to sign this deal on September 11. When we heard the news, my mind quickly shifted from my jewelry collection to whether my family was alive. I live in in Tribeca, and my daughter went to school under the Twin Towers. It was the worst day of my life.I took the first plane back, and arrived in my neighborhood, which was devastated.
My neighborhood was a locked-up area, every time I went out or in, I had to show an ID,” says Behr.
But like many Israelis in an emergency situation, Behr was quick to jump to action.
“I’m an Israeli, and I used my experience to organize the neighborhood and do volunteer activities with the children. We had a huge party for the neighborhood kids. It was a very chaotic time, but I saw an unbelievable spirit and willingness. It’s a human behavior like the kind we see in Israel when there’s a war – something shines through in people when things get difficult,” he says.
One way in which Behr showed he was a man of action was founding Ground Hero Kids, a non-profit organization dedicated to making the lives of the children of downtown safe, smart, and spirited.
“We envision the Firehouse Community Space as an intergenerational, multicultural hub in which Ground Zero will be transformed into an epicenter of hope, human caring, and creativity,” says the organization’s website.
THE ROAD Behr took from an Israeli kid in Ramat Aviv to a top American jewelry designer has been one filled with turns and surprises. His Dutch-born father and British-born mother raised him in the Tel Aviv neighborhood, and in the late 1970s Behr began his military service in the Israel Defense Forces as a parachutist with an anti-terror unit.
“After I finished the army in 1981, I went to Amsterdam to cool off. I worked a little and took courses in art, but mostly I went there to relax and have fun. And I did. After 10 months of that, I flew to the U.S., took a car and drove from NY to LA and back again for three months,” says Behr.
Behr returned to Israel with the intention of studying either architecture or physical therapy in college, but a job offer to relocate to New York and work in the diamond business proved too tempting. He arrived in New York on Halloween night in 1983, and quickly absorbed the energy and spirit of New York.
“After a while, I realized I really didn’t like selling diamonds – it’s a very commodity-oriented business with little creativity. So I left after 6 months or so and went to work for a jewelry company. At this point, I had no long-range plan. I was a newlywed and told my father-in-law that we were going to be in the US for two years. But life takes you on different paths, you have children, and you have to develop as things change,” Behr explains.
“As I was selling jewelry and getting to know customers, I realized that some of their needs were different than what I had to offer them. I started to design specific items, and worked with retailers like Macy’s and Zales. From there my career shifted towards the creative process. I didn’t go to school for this but I did go to street school. I was very fortunate that I understood jewelry not only on a visual basis but also from the manufacturers and sales aspect. You can design something beautiful on paper, but you can’t always make it efficiently and cost effective. I learned how to do that from the inside,” says Behr.
Behr’s gold, silver and gem designs became bestsellers at retailers nationwide including Fortunoff and Macy’s, as well as many chic Soho boutiques. Critics praised his “Animal Instincts” and “Disco” collections for detail of his design work, his youthful flair and affordable price points. He soon became the youngest vice president of one of New York’s largest jewelry companies and eventually started his own company, U-N-US, in 1995.
The Love+Peace+Hope jewelry collection is a reflection of Behr’s desire to create innovative designs that make people think.
“I am extremely grateful to have the opportunity to interpret my inspiration through jewelry,” says Behr “since experiencing the terror of being separated from my family in a time of danger on September 11th, I now value every moment with them even more”.
Behr expresses satisfaction and surprise at the high-profile acclaim the collection has amassed thanks to its national exposure at the Academy Awards.
“I learned not to have expectations – when you mature you just believe it’s the right thing to do. I was flattered though by the attention it received at the Academy Awards. On the other hand, I feel that I can’t understand anybody wearing anything other than a message of life,” he says.
Behr dismisses criticism that the collection is somehow anti-war in its conception.
“People have a right to feel like they want – but just because somebody’s wearing a Magen David, does that he hates Christians? The collection wasn’t about the Iraq war. It was designed in October 2001, and I wasn’t thinking about war or Iraq,” he says.
Even though he hasn’t lived in Israel for long periods of time in 20 years, Behr is still emotionally tied to the country. In 2000, he co-founded Kesher, an organization that attempted to entice Israelis in North America to return to Israel to vote in the prime ministerial elections by offering greatly subsidized airfare. He says that everything he does and who he is comes from an Israeli orientation.
” I care about what’s happening there, and I worked very hard to get people to Israel to vote. How can I ever deny where I started and grew up? I feel that I am a New Yorker, but I also feel Jewish and Israeli. I was born in Israel and I’m proud to say it,” Behr says.
He pauses for a moment, then adds, “What I do is promote an idea that’s spiritual, and if people perceive it as coming from Israel, that’s great. Here is a guy who was a parachutist in the Israeli army and he believes in love, peace and hope. If I change one person’s mind, then it’s worth it.”