Providence Jewelry Museum
“Tools of Treasures” through April 30
Open 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Fridays
1 Spectacle St., Cranston (far end of Technics Complex)
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The Providence Jewelry Museum is working to expand its role as a link between the local industry’s lustrous past and a population that knows less about it with each passing year.
One of the museum’s aims: span the gap between the 1970s, when jewelry manufacturing peaked in Rhode Island, and today, when many — even some working in the industry — don’t know about the days when Providence was the fashion and costume jewelry capital of the world.
“Anyone under the age of 45 has little or no perspective,” said Edward Lemire, president of ESP Global, a jewelry industry executive-search, mergers & acquisitions and licensing firm in Providence.
Lemire and other local industry leaders want to raise the profile of the Providence Jewelry Museum. They plan to rename it the National Jewelry Museum-Providence and move it from a small industrial space in Cranston to Providence’s Jewelry District.
The museum’s exhibits trace the history of Providence’s rise in the fashion jewelry industry from the 1790s, with the development of cladding, or plating, processes to apply precious metal coatings, such as gold or silver, over lesser metals, such as brass.
Mass production took off after the Civil War. By the 1970s, the industry included some large companies, such as Coro, Trifari and Monet, but mostly smaller “mom and pop” firms that specialized in some aspect of jewelry making, said Providence business broker Peter DiCristofaro.
Jewelry and related employment in Rhode Island peaked at 33,574 in 1978, according to the Labor Market Information Division at the state Department of Labor and Training. In that year, 1,374 companies were classified as making “jewelry, silverware and miscellaneous notions.”
Artistry was the heart of the industry, said DiCristofaro.
Once a design was sketched, “hub makers” used hand tools to carve designs into master molds for making pieces by machine.
“Hubs are an unrecognized form of sculpture,” he said. The process also made art accessible to many, he said.
DiCristofaro said everyone knows of the slave trade triangle: Newport rum was traded in West Africa for slaves, who were crowded aboard ships and sold in the Caribbean for sugar, in the form of molasses, which was shipped back north to be fermented and distilled into rum.
But DiCristofaro points to a loftier triangle that included Rhode Island: High-end jewelry designed in Paris, mass-produced in Providence and sold in New York.
“Providence produced something beautiful for every American because it was affordable, with many price points,” he said.
The jewelry industry in Rhode Island faded in the 1970s and 1980s, when many companies started moving manufacturing to Mexico or other countries. Other companies couldn’t compete with offshore manufacturers and headed for bankruptcy.
DiCristofaro said he liquidated the assets of many closed companies.
“You could say I was the undertaker for the demise of the jewelry industry,” he said.
Today, jewelry industry employment in Rhode Island stands at 3,298 workers in 142 companies.
Of the companies that remain in Rhode Island, many have their headquarters here, along with research and development and design and sales functions, but most products are made elsewhere.
One exception is Cranston-based Alex and Ani, which does most of its manufacturing in Rhode Island, said two of its product designers, Janelle Gray and Carrie King.
Gray and King are members of the Providence chapter of the Women’s Jewelry Association, and recently toured the museum. They said they appreciated seeing original machinery and dies that stamped out pieces, because history influences their company.
“Our CEO and founder, Carolyn Rafaelian, has a great appreciation for the old ways of jewelry making, the equipment such as foot presses,” said Gray.
The museum opened in 1983 with organizational support and other backing from the late Alfred M. Weisberg and his wife, Naida, of Technic, a Cranston-based maker of electroplating chemicals and equipment that provides the museum’s current space.
Some of the museum’s inventory came from the bankruptcies that DiCristofaro managed. As he sold off models and machinery, he tried to save at least one piece of equipment from each factory, he said.
Through the end of the month, the museum is exhibiting “Tools of Treasures,” which focuses on artistically designed jewelry and the processes employed in making it.
One display features a sketch and a bronze die used to make the brooch beside it.
“Here’s a ‘Holy Grail’ for any museum: the design, the mold and the finished piece,” DiCristofaro said.
Lemire and DiCristofaro conducted the recent tour of the museum for members of the WJA.
The group was established in New England in 1985 to help women advance in a male-dominated industry. It has grown to 19 chapters throughout the country. Kimberly Michalik, a Glocester manufacturing consultant, is president of the local WJA chapter.
Michalik says the museum has an important mission because it holds much of Rhode Island’s jewelry history.
“It has to be kept together or it will be lost,” she said.
As machinery evolves, it’s even more important for jewelry makers to understand its origins.
“The essential technology has not really changed,” Michalik said. “Plating is plating.”
Designers and production workers need to know how the old equipment was used to inform their work with newer manufacturing methods, she said. Robotics may have a future role in jewelry making, but there will be limits.
“It will be hard for robots to make jewelry from start to finish because each piece is still a work of art, even if it’s eventually mass-produced,” she said.
Kerilyn Rodi said visiting the museum made her reflect on how businesses have had to adapt as the industry changed. Rodi, director of customer service for Armbrust International of Providence, took in the exhibit with consultant Keri Campbell. Armbrust, established in 1920, began as a wholesale manufacturer of bulk precious metal and other chain.
“It used to sell strictly to companies like Trifari,” she said. As the industry shrank, it added its own chain lines and partnered with retailers and other clients to produce unique products, including fine jewelry, while continuing to produce domestically.
It’s possible that with the growing availability of three-dimensional printing, just-in-time production and other more efficient techniques, some jewelry manufacturing may return to Rhode Island, said Brent Cleaveland, executive director of the Fashion Jewelry & Accessories Trade Association, based in North Kingstown.
But other factors may thwart it. Millennials tend to spend less and to shop online, causing turbulence in bricks-and-mortar retailing. With the new administration in Washington, D.C., there’s talk of a 30-percent Border Adjustment Tax, which would put more economic pressure on jewelry companies with offshore production, Cleaveland said. He said his group represents about 250 brands, and about 92 percent of their products are imported.
DiCristofaro says he will serve as the design director and curator for the museum as it embarks on its move to Providence. Lemire is the new president of the museum’s board of directors. He said a national fundraising campaign will be launched to reach out to jewelry and retail companies. Local officials will also be consulted because the museum will not only preserve history for the industry and students at institutions such as the Rhode Island School of Design, it will also be a tourist attraction.
There are two options for a museum in Providence, Lemire said. The first is to raise about $700,000 to renovate the Palmer Mansion, at 33 Chestnut St., in the Jewelry District. Its owner, Beneficent Congregational Church, has offered a long-term lease. The second is to secure land, donated or purchased, for a building costing up to $12 million. A preliminary design shows a 6,000-square-foot structure that looks like a necklace on a quarter- or half-acre. It’s inspired by exhibits in Paris, which has 100 small museums.
“It’s jewelry, so it doesn’t have to be big,” Lemire said. “Exhibits will change, but the space doesn’t have to.”