Twist of Fate

June 1, 2016

When it comes to life, work and happiness, jewelry designer Karma El Khalil has had good luck just going with the flow.

Karma El Khalil and I haven’t met before our interview in a hotel cafe, but I suspect I’ll know her when I see her. The jeweler’s collections are the height of streamlined sophistication and wearable glamour, so I scan the room for their female equivalent. There isn’t a three-inch stiletto or slash of red lipstick in sight.

When Karma finally calls my name from a corner table, it elicits a double take. She’s stunning, but in jeans, tousled beach waves and not a scrap of makeup, far from the polished glamour girl I was expecting. She offers a heartfelt welcome, and we’re swapping childhood stories and contemplating the meaning of life before our coffee arrives.

Growing up in Nigeria and then France, Karma wanted to become a therapist. She interned in a psychiatric clinic in Paris after earning a BA in psychology at Tufts, but her plans were soon derailed. Due to an administrative mix-up, Karma’s verbal acceptance at a graduate psychology program in London turned inexplicably into a rejection letter as she was packing her bags for the UK. Devastation followed disbelief. “My mom turned to me and said, ‘Karma, what are you going to do?’” she explains. “I said, ‘You’re supposed to be telling me!’ But my whole life was falling apart and I had to believe it was for a reason.”

With nowhere else to be, her mother suggested they go on holiday. “I was so down, I just started drawing jewelry for fun, exploring the reflection of light and shadow on stones,” says Karma. She showed her drawings to a family friend who also happened to be a well-known Beirut jeweler; he was so impressed that he offered to carry the yet-unproduced collection in his boutique. In 2004, Karma’s mother hosted a party to celebrate its launch. “I had 140 pieces. I later learned that a collection is about 15,” she laughs.

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Naiveté did little to hinder Karma’s ascent. Her collection was picked up by one big department store and boutique after another, until stylist Rachel Zoe began pulling her pieces for clients. I ask Karma the person she’d most like to see in her collection. “Angelina Jolie,” she answers. Has it happened? She responds quietly, almost embarrassed by her good fortune. “Yes. She’s just so beautiful and so edgy. I love that dichotomy.”

Karma’s left hand, adorned in chunky silver tribal jewelry, lifts a porcelain coffee cup. Stacks of elegant gold and diamond rings define the fingers on her right hand as she gestures. She, too, is a study in contrasts. It’s that paradox – rounded angles, negative space, polished and matte metals – that makes her label a favorite of both Downtown New York it girls and the Hollywood elite.

As our conversation winds down, I throw a few last questions at Karma: What city feels most like home? New York. What would she be doing if her jewelry career hadn’t worked out? Interior design. What would we find if we opened her purse? Cash, an old-school checkbook, her phone and Lucas PaPaw lip balm.

And just when I think I’ve figured out Karma El Khalil, all palpable warmth and Zen cool, another question comes to mind. “If you had to choose a soundtrack to your life, what would it be?” I ask. Her face lights up at the thought. “It would definitely be Guns N' Roses,” she says. I should have expected nothing less.