Drawn by infrastructure and history, artisans fashioning new chapter for Rhody jewelry - PBN (Providence Business News)
Drawn by infrastructure and history, artisans fashioning new chapter for Rhody jewelry - PBN (Providence Business News)
By Mary MacDonald -June 30, 2017
JEWELRY DESTINATION: Hannah Garrison, owner, Wear Your Music LLC, talks with her husband, Christopher Garrison. Hannah moved to Providence from New York about 10 years ago in search of people with the skills to complete and package her jewelry designs. / PBN PHOTO/RUPERT WHITELEY
Hannah Garrison, a jeweler, moved to Providence about 10 years ago, looking for skilled labor to help her business produce a line that she eventually sold in a small shop, before taking it online.
By design, she tapped into a history of jewelry making in Rhode Island that predated her by more than a century.
Although greatly reduced in economic impact since its peak, the jewelry industry is still a significant employer in the Ocean State. Without much fanfare, artisans are moving here to gain access to the varied jewelry infrastructure that remains. And well-established manufacturing companies are repositioning themselves, to align with consumer tastes.
Garrison, the owner of Wear Your Music LLC, came from New York to Rhode Island, seeking people with the skills to complete and package her designs.
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“People who could solder. People who could set stones,” Garrison said. “People with the basic jewelry-making skills, who I wouldn’t have to train.”
Providence was once the nation’s largest manufacturer of costume jewelry and its reputation remains intact as a jewelry-making destination. Although many companies remain from the heyday, the production process has become decentralized, according to artisans and executives.
From design to packaging and distribution, the manufacturing process has become divided among multiple players.
A jeweler might shop for components from numerous countries, or source them nationally. Designs that use casting, or molds, can rely on any number of companies based in Rhode Island. Another company could plate the design in gold or silver, and send it back to the original company for finer embellishments. Garrison, whose company has a line of fine jewelry, sources the insertion of stones to one shop, and the packaging to another.
The industry moved out of the Jewelry District of Providence long ago, but remains centered around metro Providence and southeastern Massachusetts.
“It’s still happening,” Garrison said of the industry. “It’s become much more, almost decentralized. The companies are no longer creating the piece from start to finish. There are [approximately] 30 plating companies. There are companies that do different kinds of assembly. You’ll go to one person to cast stuff, and another person to plate stuff. But there are still casters here and platers here, and they’ve been here for [many] years.”
PERSONAL TOUCH: Patrick McMillan, owner of McMillan Metals, designs unique engagement rings, wedding bands and one-off pieces. He says his clients enjoy getting to meet and work with him, knowing their input plays a role in the process. / PBN PHOTO/MICHAEL SALERNO
The jewelry industry was the fourth-largest employer in Rhode Island and the largest in Providence at the dawn of the 20th century, according to an article published in 2010 by the Rhode Island Historical Society. By 1909, the employment of workers reached 10,000 in Providence alone, at more than 290 firms.
That number likely underestimated the impact of the industry, as it included only firms that manufactured jewelry, and not associated companies that focused on tool making, plating and refining, according to the Rhode Island Historical Society article.
At the time, Rhode Island produced nearly one-fourth of all jewelry manufactured in the United States.
The peak for jewelry manufacturing came in 1978, when jewelry and silverware companies employed 40,098 people, according to the R.I. Department of Labor and Training. In that year, the industry accounted for one out of every four manufacturing jobs and one out of 10 private-sector jobs in the state, according to Donna Murray, assistant director of labor-market data for the department.
The industry never reached the levels of employment provided by the textile industry, which peaked at 76,455 in 1940, according to the state’s data, recorded for private employment since 1936.
But by the late 1960s, jewelry had overtaken textiles in employment numbers in Rhode Island.
Then, it quickly started to collapse. By 1988, jewelry manufacturing had fallen to less than 30,000, according to the state figures, and it has declined consistently since.
Last year, 142 jewelry and silverware manufacturers employed 3,299, accounting for 8 percent of the manufacturing sector and less than 1 percent of private-sector jobs in the state.
In terms of manufacturing share, jewelry and silverware is the second-largest in Rhode Island, after shipbuilding, which employed 4,357 in 2016.
The relatively quick fall of the jewelry industry is attributed to economic pressure on manufacturers to outsource production to China and other countries where manufacturing is less expensive.
But Rhode Island retains its reputation as a jewelry-making center, headlined by several prominent companies with a significant presence in the state.
These include Tiffany & Co., a New York-based luxury jeweler that operates a manufacturing facility in Cumberland and employs 450 people locally.
The global brand Swarovski is headquartered in Austria but has its North American operations based in Cranston.
And Alex and Ani LLC, also based in Cranston, is a lifestyle brand founded in 2003 that employs nearly 1,300 people in Rhode Island.
But the era of mass employment has ended, said Edward Lemire, president of the National Jewelry Museum in Cranston. It collapsed over the span of a little more than a decade, he said, and by the early 1990s, only a few companies were still designing, manufacturing and packaging their products in-state.
Now, with the exception of Alex and Ani, he said, the industry has become a constellation of design-based companies.
“Now, if you’re still in the jewelry business in Rhode Island, you’re mostly a creative house. You research the marketplace. You study trends. You design it here, you have it made in China,” he said. “You bring it back to your building here. You package it up and ship it out.”
The National Jewelry Museum, formerly the Providence Jewelry Museum, is a nonprofit that hopes to relocate to a permanent space in Providence, and establish a setting to display the productivity and tell the story of the industry.
In a state as small as Rhode Island, it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t have a personal connection to the industry, Lemire said.
At its peak, more than 1,000 companies in the state were involved in jewelry production. Many of the jobs were table or bench work. Many of the workers were women. For many, it was a temporary occupation.
“Almost everybody I ever talk to can remember someone,” Lemire said. “My mother worked in this industry in the 1940s. She hand-painted backgrounds … on brooches and pins.”
The Jewelers Board of Trade, a marketing and credit-rating organization for the industry, has tracked current employment by a definition that includes retailers and distributors and other related companies. The board reported that 227 jewelry companies in Rhode Island this year employ 12,371 workers.
The accounting does not include several related businesses that help supply jewelry-industry jobs. These include enameling and metal-plating companies, and their employees.
The infrastructure in Rhode Island of jewelry-industry trades and the respected educational programs at Rhode Island College and Rhode Island School of Design have resulted in a wave of alumni-based firms in recent years.
SPACE AVAILABLE: Patrick McMillan, co-owner of The Bench, a new shared workspace for jewelers, in Pawtucket. He opened in March with his wife, Stephanie Castilla, and has a few tenants but also a few open spaces, as he gets the word out to schools and jewelers looking for rentable space. / PBN PHOTO/MICHAEL SALERNO
Other recent transplants include Patrick McMillan, who specializes in custom jewelry and metalwork. Originally from Texas, McMillan had been living in London and was attracted to Providence eight years ago by friends attending graduate school at RISD. He established his business, McMillan Metals, in Providence.
“I knew there was a jewelry-industry here, and I was curious,” he said. He views the industry as a constellation of businesses, but also a community. “While there still exists the big giants that do the large-scale production work, jewelry companies in general, [such as] Tiffany, they have a reputation that assists them in people valuing that line of jewelry. People have just grown to understand. But now also there is this faith in artisans, people who know their craft. I think that’s why I get clients.”
Patrick McMillan works on a piece of jewelry. / PBN PHOTO/MICHAEL SALERNO
Earlier this year, with his wife, Stephanie Castilla, a web designer, McMillan opened The Bench, a shared workspace for independent jewelers in Pawtucket. Located in a sprawling textile mill on Mineral Spring Avenue, the studio offers daily, weekly and monthly rental arrangements for shared amenities, including access to a clean design area, polishing and soldering equipment and a variety of tools.
“The idea is you could come in with your tool kit,” he said. “You could come here and work for the day.”
The communal tools hang on an organizer in the shared design area, relics of another era that are continuously used. They include clamps, jewelers’ saws, compass dividers for measuring circles and calipers for measuring the thickness of metal.
Sourcing larger equipment from online ads and now-retired tradespeople, McMillan said he sees the studio as providing cost-effective solutions for independent artists. Already, he has attracted two jewelers to the six-bench, private workspace.
The artisan jewelers have their own focus. McMillan no longer does as much production work as he previously did, instead focusing on managing the shared space and working on his own designs. His portfolio includes several sets of unique wedding rings and bands.
For one client, he forged a set of wedding bands from gold rings contributed from both sides of the family.
“Whether it’s engagement rings or wedding bands or just one-off pieces that they’ve always wanted to make for a long time, people are enjoying the experience of actually coming to me and designing with me, and discussing what they want,” McMillan said. “It’s not just getting the piece. It’s actually having the experience of meeting the artist and knowing your input is actually guiding the process.”
PREPARING ORDERS: Former Alex and Ani employee Anita Koljian goes over the order processing for new lines shipping out from the company’s Cranston factory in 2012. / PBN FILE PHOTO/NATALJA KENT
Occupying an unusual space in the industry is Alex and Ani, which was founded in Cranston within the last 14 years and which continues to source and manufacture its bracelets and other products in the U.S.
President Cindy DiPietrantonio had a 30-year career in the apparel, footwear and accessories industry, eventually becoming chief operating officer of the Jones Group, before joining Alex and Ani in 2016.
She was an operations executive at the Jones Group when it purchased a family-owned jewelry company in Rhode Island that designed and manufactured jewelry for the Napier brand, and jeweled cosmetic cases for the Estee Lauder brand. It later outsourced the jobs to China, a decision that she didn’t make but did carry out.
“I remember looking at these people and it was a point in time when I believe Rhode Island had the second-highest unemployment rate in the country, second to Detroit,” DiPietrantonio said. “And I remember looking at these people and they were going to lose their jobs. And there truly was an art to it. For us, it was cheaper to put it over to Asia and I remember looking at these people and thinking it was heartbreaking.”
Although labor costs are more expensive in the U.S., other large costs play a role in manufacturing that shouldn’t be discounted, she said. Alex and Ani benefits not only from the talent in Rhode Island, but also a shorter, faster supply chain that allows the company to respond quickly, she said.
“At the time when a lot of people moved over to China, labor costs were very different. Labor costs continued to climb. Petrol prices were going up. It was all of those components,” she said. “It was a very long lag in the supply chain. Do I think it’s difficult? It’s here in Rhode Island. We can move and we can be nimble because it’s here. We can be quicker. We have a faster supply chain. Think of how far out in advance you have to make product to have it made in China. I know that supply chain. I lived it at one time.”
‘I STAND ALONE’
Established companies in the constellation have found that resilience is needed. Their products have changed as the market has evolved, or as consumer purchasing changed.
John Medeiros, owner of the East Providence-based Tahoe Jewelry Inc., laments the loss of companies in Rhode Island and nearby Massachusetts that used to manufacture components for jewelry lines, such as clasps and closures or hinges.
“To manufacture here, it’s getting harder and harder,” he said. “The support industry, it’s all gone. You can’t make everything. Other companies make different components, [such as] closures or hinges. All of those companies went out of business or they went to China.”
He refused to do the same. The quality is not the same, he said. He wouldn’t move his production overseas and won’t source from China. “I said no. If I can’t control it here, how can I control it 10,000 miles away?”
In recent years, Medeiros has moved his collections to online sales and specialty retailers. His jewelry, which includes seacoast-inspired designs, has found a market. But he said he often feels alone.
“I stand alone, especially in the jewelry industry,” he said. “Not many are doing anything anymore.”
Another company, also based in East Providence, has adapted consistently over the decades to changing demands and consumer trends.
ROLLING WITH CHANGES: LDC Inc. President Edward DeCristofaro, left, has guided the East Providence jewelry-design and manufacturing company through a number of changes as it adapts to an evolving industry, from manufacturing jewelry components in the 1980s to launching a design jewelry brand sold to consumers online. Here, he talks with colleagues Jennifer Brousseau, center, executive vice president of sales, and Alexys Garrepy, director of sales. / PBN PHOTO/MICHAEL SALERNO
LDC Inc. started in 1985 as a manufacturer of tools for the jewelry industry. It soon morphed into shop work, using the tools they had manufactured to perform tasks needed by jewelry manufacturers, including ticketing and carding – putting the finished item in a card for display – soldering elements together, and other metalwork.
President and CEO Edward DeCristofaro, whose father founded the company, started working at the family business at 17.
By the mid-1980s, LDC had started making tubing and wire products, primarily for hoop earrings. What was known as costume jewelry in the heyday of the industry had become fashion jewelry by the 1990s, and it was quickly becoming an import business, DeCristofaro said.
To compete, the company adapted once again, adding finished goods to its existing repertoire of products. It started providing finished jewelry to retailers, from mom-and-pops to big boxes. This merchandise is always sold under the retailer’s name, following their design standards.
CONSTANTLY EVOLVING: Originally a manufacturer of jewelry components located in East Providence, LDC Inc. later shifted to making costume jewelry for retail stores, and is now launching a design jewelry brand to be sold to consumers directly over the web. From left, Sandra Poycillo, jewelry worker, and Jennifer Brousseau, executive vice president of sales. / PBN PHOTO/MICHAEL SALERNO
“You have to have relevance,” DeCristofaro said. “If you’re going to be in the business and think you’re just going to turn product from China, and not add any value to it? I don’t think you have a bright future.”
From design to production, LDC employs about 30 people. On a recent afternoon, several designers in a large room assemble beads on cascading necklaces, using a color palette for inspiration. In another room, a woman uses a machine to cut metal coils into tiny pieces, called jump rings, that serve as fasteners for a necklace.
Over the past two years, the retail landscape has shifted again. Jewelry purchases are moving online. Boutiques are seen as the retailer of choice for people who want the experience of shopping, without the hassle of a big store.
Into this new reality, LDC has launched its own brand, alexys ryan, which is being sold online and in specialty stores.
The fashion brand is an inspirational line, designed to fit the trends that are popular, but with high-quality elements – the addition of a Swarovski crystal to the necklaces, or a magnet closure on a bracelet, that set each piece apart, according to Jennifer Brousseau, an executive vice president at LDC.
“A small design detail to make it unique,” she said.
The company keeps control of the product by having in-house design, in-house marketing and in-house assembly. “We can react very quickly to fashion trends, because we have everything under one group,” Brousseau said.
Garrison and other modern entrepreneurs have taken an alternate approach.
There is no need to create a one-stop shop, when companies already exist locally that can perform that manufacturing, she explained. Many of the largest jewelry companies are outsourcing production, although they do not advertise that to consumers.
Her company, which grossed $400,000 in sales last year, has three employees. Work they can’t do is farmed out to different companies.
One company sets the stones in her high-end line. Another packages them.
But the employment count, in that regard, is misleading. She is employing people through her outsourcing at other firms, all part of an ecosystem.
“It used to be it was fabricated from start to finish in one mill, one space. Now it’s very different. Why would you build your own factory?” Garrison said.