Transforming ancient, biblical fruit into custom tallit clips and pendants for Sukkot.
Pinecones and walnut shells have long been used to craft natural pendants. Yet this ancient trend of transforming items from the earth into beautiful, wearable jewelry and accessories is getting a brand-new look — and a Jewish twist from a local family.
Father and son duo Eric and Mordechai Kornbleuth of Oak Park are repurposing etrogs, or Israeli yellow citrus fruits used during the week-long holiday of Sukkot, into custom tallit clips, necklaces, bracelets and even rose-shaped earrings made from the peels.
In the Kornbleuths’ basement exists a multi-room operation where they cut, shape and dip etrogs into resin, making them timeless and timeproof for customers to wear.
First, the Kornbleuths followed the standard tradition of making accessories out of pinecones, but after realizing they had a collection of 20-year-old petrified etrogs that weren’t being used, they began experimenting with the famous Jewish citrus fruit.
“When I saw Mordechai working on the pinecones with a bandsaw, I thought, ‘I wonder if that will go through the etrog and create a pendant the same way,’” Eric Kornbleuth, 53, recalls. After a tremendous amount of trial and error, the Kornbleuths realized the process could be replicated — and that etrogs yielded unusual, one-of-a-kind designs.
No Two Etrogs are the Same
Eric says each etrog is naturally different from the others. “When you cut them, each cut is its own shape,” he says.
The end result is an ancient-looking “stone” made entirely from the etrog fruit, which Moredchai explains takes on a hardened appearance after it goes through a natural petrification process.
Yet even the natural petrification process is unusual.
“Etrogs never fall off trees by themselves,” Eric says. “If not picked by a farmer, they will continue to grow in weight, until the branch itself breaks off from the tree.”
Once detached from the tree, etrogs don’t rot. Instead, they solidify internally and create a hard outer shell that will preserve the fruit for decades, making them perfect for jewelry and accessory-making.
While all etrogs offer a slightly different shape and color, many become a natural, beige-white once work on them is finished. Pendants, for example, are suspended by a cream-colored rope, which Eric says is a throwback to old pocket watches that would hang in the middle of a suit — adding to the etrog’s timeless look and appeal.
Yet unlike working with pinecones or walnut shells, etrogs required a much more delicate and careful approach.
“When working with a bandsaw, something as brittle and hard as the etrog makes it really easy for pieces to shatter and break off,” Mordechai, 25, says.
After carefully cutting the etrog into a shape he likes, his father will then drill and sand the fruit to refine the shape. Once the desired shape is achieved, Mordechai will dip the etrog into several layers of resin that each take 24 hours to dry. Lastly, the etrog is handed back to his father to add design work like beading, ropes and magnets.
The Challenges of the Etrog
Overall, it’s a multi-day process to make just one piece of jewelry or set of tallit clips. Since etrogs can take a long time to naturally petrify, the Kornbleuths will often get etrogs straight from etrog farms and speed up the petrification process with an oven or a dehydrator. This, in itself, Eric explains, is a “very labor-intensive process.”
Still, the Kornbleuths didn’t always have their current set-up that makes the etrog-creation process so efficient. Mordechai began by dipping etrogs in small resin cups he kept in his bedroom, which over time didn’t provide enough space for the project. Next, he moved the operation into a second bedroom, eventually needing to take over the basement space as a full-fledged etrog-making workshop.
Finding a process that worked didn’t come without challenges, however. After spending more than 100 hours on a batch of etrogs, for example, the Kornbleuths realized that the fruits had developed mold. “It was very upsetting to see, and we had to learn why this batch was different than the batch before,” Eric explains. “We found out it had to do with temperature and the amount of moisture that was in the air.”
To solve the issue, the Kornbleuths now store etrogs on their basement floor, which provides a cool foundation that keeps heat away from the fruits. “It’s an etrog silo,” Eric laughs. “They’re laid out in every available room.”
A Sustainable Process
In addition to their beautiful and unique look, etrog jewelry and tallit clips offer a completely sustainable accessory that lets no part of the etrog fruit go to waste.
“We save every single part,” Kornbleuth says. “We even save the seeds. Everything is useful to fix up a broken pendant. In some cases, we can change it and switch out the seeds.”
They also only purchase etrogs deemed not kosher for use on Sukkot, which offers relief for the small etrog farming market and prevents products from going to the landfill.
Yet despite working with etrogs on a regular basis since beginning the project in 2020, the Kornbleuths continue to learn new facts about the ancient, biblical fruit that leave them amazed.
“What we found to be very fascinating is that behind every single seed of an etrog is a ruby red layer,” Eric says. Found three layers into the fruit, the ruby red interior can completely change up the look of the etrog, making it a piece of art.
“Most people don’t know that there’s this crazy ruby red inside the etrog,” he adds.
Currently, the Kornbleuths sell and take orders for etrog accessories through their Facebook page, www.facebook.com/Esrog-Simcha-Pendants-111579831428180. They can also be reached through email@example.com. Eventually, the Kornbleuths plan to develop a website and sell their family-made etrog products through small business platforms like Etsy.
Still, while etrogs are stunning and unusual, it’s their ancient, timeless feel that makes them so special to the Jewish community and beyond.
“The etrog is one of the only items mentioned in the Old Testament that can be mass-produced,” Eric says. “Technological advances have now made that possible.”