Karma El Khalil didn’t intend to become a jewelry designer, but once she did, she infused the craft with a singular artistry.
All it takes is one quick look at her jewelry to see that it is elegant and edgy, twinkling with diamonds and semiprecious stones. You might think these are just the type of sexy, sparkly gems that show up on the red carpet. And indeed, they do. A-listers Charlize Theron, Emma Stone and Scarlett Johansson have flaunted El Khalil’s covetable creations at press events and premieres, and style icons Angelina Jolie, Miley Cyrus and Kim Kardashian have her pieces in their personal collections. The jewels are beautiful and wearable, because El Khalil puts as much thought into her designs and how they are made as a sculptor does into a statue. They reflect her peripatetic life, her experience and her ideas.
Born in Washington, D.C., and now based in Brooklyn, El Khalil was named Karma by her father. “He felt I had an extremely peaceful look on my face and that I was an old soul when I was born,” she explains. “As a student of Zen philosophy, he thought the name suited me.” She spent her early childhood in Nigeria, where her family operated its business, then lived in Paris from age 12 to 19. After graduating from Tufts University, in Massachusetts, El Khalil planned to pursue a master’s degree in psychology in London. Despite a verbal confirmation of her acceptance in the program, however, the classes were overbooked and she couldn’t attend. Crestfallen, she went to live with her family in Lebanon for the summer and consoled herself with art. “I started drawing a lot because I was confused and lost,” she says. “Drawing was my way of expressing my feelings.”
Jewelry entered her work life after she received a diamond weighing around 1.5 carats from her mother for her 23rd birthday, in 2003. “I thought, ‘I have never drawn a diamond,’ and I started drawing designs to wear it as belly ring,” remembers El Khalil. She went with her mother to the family jeweler, Tabbah, which manufactured the piece. The jeweler complimented her on her talent and added that if she manufactured the pieces with him, he would sell them at his store. Her parents gave her some seed money, and her career as a designer was launched. “My mother threw a big party. There was a DJ, and I gave a speech about how piercing was like body art,” says El Khalil.
The budding designer knew she was on the right path when she went to a jewelry fair in the Middle East in 2004. “I felt like I had met the love of my life,” recalls El Khalil. She moved to New York City to attend the Gemological Institute of America, where she studied technical design and gemology. At this time, she also learned about jewelry manufacturing. “I was enchanted by gems,” she says. “After class, I was excited to go home and study.”
Her jewelry career lost momentum, however, when her mother was diagnosed with cancer. El Khalil went to Geneva to spend time with her in the hospital. “I designed the first collection next to her in the hospital bed,” El Khalil says. “She saw the first drawings but didn’t live to see the jewels.”
El Khalil got back on track in 2007 when a friend invited her to create a collection of jewelry for a charity event in Los Angeles. “She knew I needed to get busy with jewelry,” says El Khalil, who officially launched her brand that year.
Over time, her work has remained remarkably consistent in appearance and approach. “The contrast between matter and the absence of matter is very powerful to me,” El Khalil says. “Growing up in Paris, I loved looking at the architecture, the pyramid at the Louvre and obelisk in the Place de la Concorde.” Negative spaces and strong sculptural shapes characterize El Khalil’s Line and Tiger cuffs and Trilogy ring. Her Spike and Hedgehog jewels display various pyramidal forms.
A couple of her pieces have very specific inspirations. El Khalil created her Floating Triangle ring after seeing the cross cut out of the concrete wall at Tadao Ando’s Church of Light, in Japan. One of her most dramatic jewels, the diamond Sunrise ear cuff, reflects the elaborate sun motifs, symbolizing the Sun King, Louis XIV, seen around Paris and at Versailles.
The vast majority of stones in El Khalil’s pieces are large and pastel hued, including blue chalcedony, jade, moonstone and rose quartz. The palette is intentionally romantic. “I love creating contrasts,” she says. “The colors of the gems infuse the softer side of my character into the edginess of the goldwork.”
El Khalil also closely oversees the manufacturing of her pieces, working with master craftsmen in Beirut and Los Angeles. “Jewelry should be comfortable and easy to wear,” she says. “My mother instilled those lessons in me when she taught me practical things, like how pavé-set diamonds should be smooth to the touch and not snag if you run them over your stockings.”
The women who love El Khalil’s jewelry may not be aware of all that goes into its creation, but they probably sense it in the joy they get from wearing and owning the pieces. For El Khalil, the process is as important as the end result. “I am as attached to the artistry,” she says, “as to the air that I breathe.”