Decorative artist Strongwater designs gems with jewels

Jay Strongwater’s new jungle collection

By Susan Fadem, Special to the Jewish Light

Young pals likely had no idea. But lanky Jay Feinberg was destined for international glory.

Still, try telling that to your grade-school teacher. “I remember getting in trouble because I would spend four or five hours making the cover of my book report, but only like 10 minutes writing it,” recalls Feinberg, now better known as designer Jay Strongwater.

From not-so-humble beginnings as a maker of statement jewelry, he is now lauded for his hand-enameled and hand-set, Swarovski crystal-studded collections, ranging from tiny boxes and pictures frames to a menorah, a mezuzah, figurines from a duckling to a mini-mouse, clocks, bookmarks, brooches and charms, plus such home accessories as a folding screen, vases and a wall mirror.

Though a no-show at reunions at his Montvale, N.J., high school where he still keeps in touch with “some wonderful art teachers,” he makes sure his namesake Jay Strongwater goods are ever-present at venues from Neiman Marcus to Harrods in London and stores in the Middle East.

One ongoing source of amusement, the affable Jewish designer admits, is that his professional name, Strongwater, continues to prompt questions about his American Indian heritage. In fact, the surname is the Americanization of what would have been his mother’s maiden name. As so often happened during immigration, his grandparents’ last name, “Starkwasser,” was translated and changed to “Strongwater” when they resettled here from Germany.

Jay Strongwater, who was born in 1960, was the offspring of Penny Feinberg, a glamorous housewife who periodically worked in fashion, and her husband, Marty, the head of the consumer products division of an international telecommunications company. With his older brother, Strongwater grew up in Highland Park, Ill., and New Jersey.

He had a fairly typical Jewish upbringing, he said. He went to Sunday school, had a bar mitzvah and eventually learned to understand some of the Yiddish his parents used so he wouldn’t understand. He also attended weekend art programs and an art-focused sleep-over camp as soon as his parents realized how fascinated he was working with his hands, painting, cutting out pieces of paper and making collages.

Majoring in fashion design at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design in Providence seemed a logical next step. But then came the summer of 1981, when Strongwater was shopping with his mom in New York City.

No need to buy the necklace she was trying on at Bonwit Teller, he told her. He would make her one instead.

“My mother was very striking, 5-foot-8 and wore 3-inch heels,” he says. Both of his parents are now deceased. His mother’s favorite designers were Yves St. Laurent, Sonia (Queen of Knits) Rykiel, whose dresses and sweaters were known for fitting like a second skin, and Giorgio Armani.

For his mom’s “Original Jay” necklace, he bought large wooden beads at a craft store, painted them black, added gold patterns, then strung the beads into several necklaces. He instructed her to wear them all at once.

Seeing the result, a boutique owner placed an order. By the end of the summer, so did Henri Bendel, Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue.

That fall, Strongwater returned to college, taking classes by day and painting and stringing beads, and filling orders at night. During Thanksgiving break, he had the thrill of seeing his jewelry in multiple New York stores. Saks even placed his necklaces in its Fifth Avenue windows, on mannequins wearing Oscar de la Renta.

In January 1982, Strongwater made a momentous decision. Even though his parents were “a little conflicted,” he says, he dropped out of school midway during his junior year and used the rest of his tuition money to start his own business, Jay Feinberg Fashion Jewelry.

The year 1983 brought editorial coverage of his jewelry in Vogue, Women’s Wear Daily and Harper’s Bazaar. In addition, his parents and his beloved aunt, Evelyn Katz (his father’s sister), came out of retirement to help him in the business.

Though Strongwater’s partnership with a financial investor would dissolve in 1988 and with it, the Jay Feinberg Ltd. company, Strongwater and his parents regrouped and reorganized. The one proviso was that the designer no longer use Jay Feinberg in his business name, since his former partner still owned it.

While Jay Feinberg remains the designer’s legal name, as Jay Strongwater he continued producing jewelry. Hungry for a challenge, in the mid-1990s he started manipulating jewelry components to make picture frames, initially with scrolls, paisleys and 1,600-plus crystals.

Today, with no necklaces but a total several hundred items, from critter pins to mini flower-edged clocks and birthstone boxes, in his various collections, he still pays tribute to his jewelry-making roots.

“How stones are set and working with enamels continue to influence what I design and the designers who work with me,” he says. “That’s sort of our heritage.”

Religiously, his heritage is likewise reflected in some of the items he considers adding to his line. Along with fabrics, he’s thinking about a kiddush cup and a seder plate.

Jay Strongwater

WHAT: The artist will showcase new in his jungle collection and sign new purchases.

WHEN: 1 to 4 p.m. Dec. 9

WHERE: Neiman Marcus at Plaza Frontenac


MORE INFO: 314-567-9811