Aaron Basha, also known as the godfather of charms, started his training early. His mother was a jeweller to kings and queens and between the ages of nine and 12, Aaron routinely accompanied her to private meetings in a bevy of royal harems.
A century on and Aaron Basha's royal clients range from the King of Morocco to a South East Asian princess, who commissioned a life size version of a baby shoe pendant and had it encrusted with fancy yellow diamonds. The shoe took two months to hand make and the price was in excess of £1 million.
The House of Basha, started by Aaron Basha's own mother in the early twentieth century, opened the doors to its original London headquarters in Berkeley Square in the early 1980s, before moving to Manhattan where it has been based since 1990. When Aaron Basha produced a toy car, naturally inspired by one of the company's charms, in the form of a Chrysler Mustang covered in pavé diamonds, the chairman of Chrysler Lee Iacocca congratulated the jeweller on producing better cars than him.
In the light of this illustrious heritage, I am somewhat surprised to find Aaron Basha's suave-looking son and president Sasson Basha (pictured), arrive at our meeting wearing jeans and a rucksack - even if he does complement his boyish outfit with an elegant Chaumet Dandy wristwatch.
We are in the lobby of the Plaza Hotel in Basel. It is late March, exactly 24 hours before the opening of BaselWorld – the most bustling day of the most dynamic trade event in the global jewellery calendar – and Sasson is as relaxed and upbeat as can be. He has arrived from two days of meetings in London and is looking forward to a week of meetings in Russian, Japanese, Arabic and English.
"We are seeing incredible growth," he enthuses. "We've been in Harrods five years now and thanks to the success of our Evil Eye collection, sales are 50% up. Our brand has a very strong spiritual message and we believe this magic shines even brighter during difficult times," says the man who was instrumental in introducing Aaron Basha to international markets eight years ago.
If ever there was a jewellery brand devoted to engendering a feel good factor wherever it goes, this is it. Aaron Basha's whimsical charms are an acknowledged favourite of yummy mummies everywhere – from Madonna, to Celine Dion, Angelina Jolie, Catherine Zeta Jones, Heidi Klum and Princess Caroline of Monaco. They range from Aliens and Monsters designed to disarm childhood bogeymen, to racing cars, starfish, friendly frogs, fighting ninjas, London bobbies, bouquets of posies and the newest collections of footballs, basketballs and golf balls.
Among the most popular are the 18 carat gold and diamond baby shoe charms, originally launched to celebrate the birth of founder Aaron Basha's first grandchild. Many customers buy one each time another child in their family arrives in the world. Meanwhile, hip hop mogul P Diddy is a devotee of Aaron Basha's cufflinks.
At Harrods, Evil Eye charm bracelets have been proving a hit with brides and grooms. The superstition of the evil eye is thought to be a curse which comes about when a person is jealous of someone's beauty, wealth or happiness. Mostly, the person doesn't realise they have the power to cause harm to another and it is the result of praising or looking enviously at a person. The evil eye amulet is worn as protection from the evil eye.
Aaron Basha's jewellery has found loyal audiences throughout the world, from Tokyo to Dubai, from Athens to London, and from New York to Mexico City. Sasson puts it down to the design, the artistic quality, the humour they convey, and, naturally, the emotion that is behind them. "They are not only beautiful, but they also symbolize emotions that are important to everyone, no matter where they live. That's why our charms appeal to people all over the globe," he says.
Jewellers are known for being paradigms of discretion and Sasson Basha is no different. If he is in the least bit concerned about how the recession is making a dent on the global market for luxury goods, he certainly doesn't let on. Instead, he says, he is focussing on what Aaron Basha does best, "creating unique and special jewellery that people around the world already adore".
He does concede though that his favourite ways to escape talk of doom and gloom are relaxing in his house in the Hamptons and surfing. "I can easily unplug there and relax to the tune of the ocean. There is no better healing effect than the serenity of being by the sea."
The idea for charms came about when Aaron Basha took to creating jewellery with briolette diamonds in the 1990s. A briolette is a pear-shaped gem whose entire surface is cut with triangular facets. The charm jewellery was a natural evolution from the playfulness of these swinging stones.
Aaron Basha is also well known for his passion for working with enamel in the most exuberant of colours – from his lucky lady bugs, to tantalizing tigers and pavé diamond pandas. When it comes to cufflinks and shirt studs for men, options range from sable enamel race cars encrusted with white pavé diamonds, antique aeroplanes in a seemingly infinite array of hues and companion Frog Princess and Princess links.
Today, Sasson and his three sisters are all involved in generating new designs and ideas for the company. Unusually for a Madison Avenue retailer, the entire family is based at the store including Sasson's mother Margaret and his father, founder Aaron Basha, who can often be found greeting customers personally.
On one occasion, a couple came into the shop and introduced themselves to Aaron Basha himself. One was named Aaron, the other was called Basha. Needless to say, they didn't leave the boutique empty-handed.
While Sasson heads up the marketing, distribution and development, his sister Tally, who trained at London's Central St Martin's School of Art and Design as a couture glove and handbag designer, now styles the company's advertising and marketing campaigns. Regine runs the online retail, public relations and communications side of the business, and Osi is in charge of product development and consumer relations. "Our father Aaron is the conductor – he makes sure we're all playing the music together," says Sasson.
Available at Aaron Basha's flagship stores on Madison Avenue, the Tokyo Midtown Galleria in Roppongi and now in Kiev, the jewellery is also found at 150 outlets in 12 countries including Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Harrods, Selfridges and Harvey Nichols, with prices ranging from $500 to $18,000. All the jewellery is handmade in Italy. The collections include pendants, necklaces, earrings, bracelets, brooches, cufflinks, shirtstuds and rings, and any charm can be made in life size to special order.
Sasson Basha is a romantic who believes his company's jewellery has touched people's hearts. His proof comes in the form of the excitement he sees in the eyes of the collectors he meets round the world. Many of the charms are limited edition pieces and all can be engraved with personal messages. In addition, Aaron Basha has made collecting and mixing and matching charms easy by inventing a unique mechanism with locks for each charm hidden on the links of the bracelet, avoiding the need for a tool to switch charms.
Sasson now plans to continue implementing his vision of global expansion, with increased distribution and additional Aaron Basha boutiques around the world. He is hoping to build partnerships with luxury retailers in Russia, Japan, Hong Kong, the Middle East, Europe and the Caribbean Islands.
"The company is stepping into the future. We built this business for the long term and will continue to establish ourselves in new markets, and most importantly, in new hearts," he says.
Aaron Basha is also continuing its philanthropic initiatives. In the past, these have included enabling UNICEF to immunise 6250 women from neonatal tetanus for Mother's Day 2005 and supporting St Jude's Children's Research Hospital and Breast Cancer Awareness Month amongst others.
When asked whether customers ever come into the store asking to trade in their charms or sell them back, Sasson immediately shakes his head. "Nobody sells their children," he smiles.
One lady wrote a beautiful letter to the Basha family some time after her son died in a tragic accident expressing the comfort she found in the symbolism of her baby shoe charm. Another bought a girl's baby shoe for herself as a way of telling her husband she was pregnant with a girl. Sometimes, customers request new incarnations of existing charms or brand new designs and Sasson is only too happy to incorporate their ideas. Demi Moore came by and asked for a teddy bear charm to give to her husband. It ended up inspiring an entire collection.
"Seeing people smile as they walk past our shop window gives me great satisfaction," says Sasson. "We have a charm or a cufflink for every happy occasion in a person's life. We take fun very seriously."