“This is a piece of history,” says a gleeful teen shopper, sliding on one of Charles Elkaim’s crystal cocktail rings he sells at his shop, Charles’ Place. “This is my favorite store,” she gushes, eyeing racks of Elkaim’s handcrafted costume jewelry like candy. Elkaim avoids disappointing her with his recent news; due to a raise in rent, he’ll be closing up at the end of May. The 18-year-old fixture of Nolita is the latest casualty in the struggle of small-business owners against encroaching Pottery Barns and Banana Republics.
Walk down Mulberry and you might’ve been curious about this store, its window crammed with teeny-tiny figurines made into earrings and necklaces, bold cocktail rings, and carefully handwritten signs informing window-browsers that there’s a native French speaker on site. Elkaim, the son of a skilled seamstress mother but with no formal training himself, came to America 50 years ago from French Morocco. A quick study, he started his own business after a brief stint under whimsical shoemaker Steven Arpad. His crystal and bead embellishments on shoes and purses gained him the attention of Lord & Taylor and Saks, where he sold his wares that he created in his showroom on Fifth Avenue. The late ’50s and ’60s was one of the golden eras in costume jewelry, and Elkaim’s bold bracelets and rings of vintage Swarovski crystal and Bakelite regularly graced the iconic covers and spreads of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. His creations were the ideal accompaniment to everything from a classic ladies’ suit to Paco Rabanne’s risqué dress of see-through plastic paillettes. Jackie Kennedy was even a fan, occasionally stopping by his former shop on Bleecker.
Recently fashion magazines have featured both his large baubles (they go perfectly with today’s Roberto Cavalli, Baby Phat, or Heatherette) and the jewelry Elkaim crafts from little miniature animals and people. In his shop you’ll see singing mice and little pigs dangling from earring hooks, and milkmaids and mailmen glued inside gold hoop earrings. He sells them not as a set, but per earring. “I don’t want to impose on people to wear the same. It gives them the chance of showing their personality,” he says.
Elkaim has a charming answer to every question you ask him, and his move to selling itty-bitty collectibles goes like this: “I used to have a tiny store, so when I put big things in it, it filled up too quickly. So I said, ‘That’s it, I go to miniatures.’ ” These he crams into his store along with vintage Bakelite jewelry, his Swarovski costume pieces, dime-store stickers, and erasers; a “Love is Wonderful” rubber elephant receives just as much counter presence as his one-of-a-kind, crystal-encrusted peau de soie cuffs. “I don’t like one or two items. I like to fill it up. Then when people come, their eyes are like this,” he makes a goggle-eyed face, “and they say ‘It’s too much!’ ” For Elkaim, it’s these reactions he’ll miss the most: “I guess I can do it from the Internet, but I love so much to be in contact with the people. I like to see them come in here, with a big smile on their faces. It’s the best reward I can get from this business.”
photo: Corina Zappia
Mom’s credit card surrendered, the teenage girl models her new cocktail ring. “Will you sign it?” she elatedly asks Elkaim. The man whose work has graced a gazillion fashion spreads over 50 years is only too happy to oblige, beaming like this is his very first customer.