Spinning silver into Yemenite filigree — in Silicon Valley

In a corner of his Palo Alto garage, Yehuda Tassa turns threads of silver into intricate Yemenite filigree jewelry and Judaica. He fashions layered flower petals that form a pendant or the base of a chanukiah, necklaces replete with Yemenite Jewish symbols, drop earrings with stones or colorful beads, pendants set with fusion glass, stones or enamel.

He works with two kinds of torches, soldering or creating layered designs with a fusion technique he developed himself. He also uses a crock pot for creating pickled finishes, and a rolling mill for flattening beadlike granules of silver into a wire frame. The delicate designs must be flattened on a surface of soft, charred wood, which provides cushioning.

“Yemenite filigree is a very unique style,” says Tassa, who learned the craft as a child in Jerusalem from his Yemen-born father. He says it’s far more precise and detailed than the work done by other cultural traditions. Unfortunately, most of the Yemenite Jewish artisans have passed on, and their children have adopted other professions. Tassa’s lapidary teacher calls it a lost art.

But Tassa, 70, who worked for 40 years as an aerospace engineer and professor before returning to the craft of his ancestors, has gone several steps further. Using his knowledge of chemistry and physics, he augments a past tradition with new designs, formulas and techniques.

He adds leaves to the side of a spice box to enhance the floral design. A Shabbat candlestick composed of layers of filigree flowers has a hidden rod inside that supports the structure.

“This is way beyond my father,” he says. “He didn’t have the engineering background.” His father knew what worked, Tassa knows why. “I try to teach students the physics behind it.”

Tassa will bring the lost art of Yemenite filigree to the public at the To Life festival. His pieces, sold through his Web site, www.sabrajewelrydesign.com, at workshops and at exhibitions, are priced between $100 and $1,000.

But his wife, Etti, who teaches Hebrew at the South Peninsula Hebrew Day School in Sunnyvale, says her husband’s work is greatly underpriced. A multilayered chanukiah that took between 10 and 12 days to craft sells for about $850. That’s hardly Silicon Valley scale.

“I’m more of an artist, less of a businessman,” he admits.

Jewelry was the family business. At the age of 6, Tassa, along with his brothers, began helping his father, a Yemen-born jeweler and chazzan. He graduated from twisting wires to firing to soldering. Sadly, his father died when he was 9, and Tassa had to drop out of high school after one year to help support his younger siblings.

Recognizing that filigree work wasn’t providing a good enough income, at age 23 Tassa began studying for the critical Israeli matriculation examination, teaching himself in the evening and preparing for university admission. He landed a place at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology and became an engineer, completing a doctorate at Case Western Reserve in the United States. He worked for NASA and later, Lockheed Martin, which brought him to Silicon Valley.

But after retiring, he returned to his passion. He signed up for a lapidary class at Gems Galore in Mountain View. His teacher, Bob Rush, was so overwhelmed by the Yemenite filigree pendant Tassa created that the teacher and student switched roles.

Since then, Tassa has been teaching classes and workshops throughout Northern California in filigree, soldering and other techniques. He has also put together a DVD demonstrating and explaining the ancient art of the Jews of Yemen. His goal is to keep the craft alive.

Some jewelry making, he says, can be learned in a couple of months. But not this.

“Yemenite filigree takes two or three years, easily. There is no shortcut. To make flowers, people struggle. It [only] looks easy.”

Yemenite silver filigree, he explains, is a Jewish craft, perhaps going back 3,000 years to the time of King Solomon, who wooed the Queen of Sheba (now Yemen). Muslims, he adds, did not learn the craft, perhaps because the Koran forbids working with precious metals. But they considered it a blessing to buy the works made by “foreigners.”

Among Yemenite Jews, each design and shape has particular meaning, he says, pointing to a bridal necklace hung with silver balls, symbolizing fertility.

Tassa says he is constantly exploring new media, including enamel work and fused glass. Etti does the beading and lends her opinion on designs and marketing. “I have to get her to price my stuff,” Tassa admits

But it’s not really a business, he adds. It’s more of an avocation. “It wouldn’t be interesting to me to do the same piece 100 times … then I’d build up stress. I don’t want stress.”

“The best thing is he’s a great grandfather,” Etti interjects, noting that her husband babysat for their grandchildren three days a week until they were 2, while their daughter worked in computer science. Now he is also teaching the boys math.

The Tassas have two children, two grandsons and “a princessa,” who live in the area and come for Shabbat dinner every week.

“That’s what counts,” says Etti, “not being a jeweler but being a great grandfather and a wonderful father.”

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent is a retired former senior editor at J. She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at ghentwriter@gmail.com.