I’m always game to know more about jewelers I’ve never heard of, and when I learned that Latvia-born Rafka Koblence was a former Olympic wrestler—a distinction he earned in Israel, soon after his family immigrated there in 1966—I was instantly drawn in. My first cousin once removed (who is more like a nephew) Richard Fedalen is a rising star on the international junior wrestling circuit, and I asked him if he’d heard of Koblence. He had not. But as my nephew is a history buff (as well as a world-class athlete), I think he has almost certainly heard of the massacre at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. The vicious terror attack claimed the lives of several members of Israel’s Olympic wrestling team, all Koblence’s former teammates. His beloved coach was also among the slain.
It’s an event that haunts Koblence to this day—because it’s only by chance that he wasn’t at the Olympics that year. “I was on the national team until 1972, when I had a falling out with the head Israeli referee and decided to visit my family in the U.S. in order to avoid competing for the team at the Munich Olympic Games,” Koblence tells JCK. When the tragedy struck, “I often blamed myself, thinking had I been there I might have died, but with one extra man things could have been different. I was tormented and sad for many years.”
In America, he sought solace in a new career path, that of a dealer of vintage and estate jewelry in Boston. When growing up in Riga, Latvia, long before his wrestling career intervened, he’d come across a book featuring jewelry collections by Peter Carl Fabergé exclusively designed for the Russian royal court. The intricacy of the jewels made a lasting impression on the young Koblence—and the desire to someday design jewels of his own creation lingered in the back of his subconscious, propelling him in the direction of the jewelry industry when he found himself in need of a new professional goal.
In 1979, he moved his office to New York’s 47th Street, where he worked with a partner as a buyer, seller, and polisher of diamonds. “At the time, I was raising a family with three kids and could not afford yet to pursue my passion of making one-of-a-kind jewelry,” he says. But working in New York’s jewelry trade got him closer and closer to his dream of one day launching an eponymous workshop, and afforded him the opportunity to teach himself the art of designing and handcrafting jewelry.
Rafka & Co. opened its doors in 1996, and Koblence has quietly been designing bespoke jewelry for private clients ever since.
Now a master jeweler, he is passionate about visual and structural details and old-world craftsmanship techniques. “I draw a lot of inspiration from classic and unusual shapes, ones that may be hard to make into jewelry,” he says. “I also love to look at quality stones and materials and imagine all the unusual shapes and designs I can create with them.”
When he reflects on the Munich tragedy, it’s clear it has had a profound effect on his evolution as a designer. “The only time I found peace in my mind was when I started creating jewelry of my dreams. In being true to myself and honoring the memory of my fallen friends and teachers, I was finally able to turn the page and move on,” he says.
Does the designer see any parallels between wrestling and making jewelry?
“Innovation,” says Koblence. “Whether it is creating opportunities to make my opponent fly or ruminating over complex designs and pieces, innovation, dedication, and focus are central.” [According to my nephew, to make your opponent “fly” is to literally throw them in the air during a match—a classic Greco-Roman wrestling takedown that only happens at the highest level.]
Koblence has been working on a new collection titled Dreamcatcher, a range inspired by traditional Native American dream catchers.
Each Dreamcatcher design is marked with delicately entangled wire that has abstract starting and end points.
“It began as an epiphany one night several years ago after suffering for weeks of restlessness,” says Koblence. “I envisioned a dream catcher, with all its entangled wires and complexity swooping down to take my dreams away. The enthralling aspect of the dream catcher is the complex network of entangled wires.
“Through the chaos, one can’t find where the wire begins or ends, and yet it creates a beautiful pattern.”
It’s an idea best understood in the jewels themselves, highlighted below.
And as for the athletes who lost their lives in Munich that day, may their memory be a blessing.
Top: Dreamcatcher ring in 18k yellow gold with emeralds and diamonds, price on request
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