PAWTUCKET, R.I. — For Darlene Brien, who owns Sara Bella Jewelry, working in an environment with cachet is as essential to the creative process as having tactical skills.
It’s one reason why she recently relocated her product design, supply and sales company from a warehouse on Lark Industrial Parkway in Smithfield to the elegant Grand Manor in Pawtucket’s Quality Hill neighborhood on Walcott Street.
The company crafts specialty fashion and costume jewelry — necklaces, pins, earrings, bracelets, studded belts and such — for high-end women’s apparel retailers.
Her business strategy is simple: create a more positive work environment to attain better results. Brien hopes her design team will be more inspired while working inside Grand Manor, with its historic lore and ornate Victorian-era décor.
“I want them to feel so good when they come to work that the creativity comes from the heart,” she said.
Sara Bella, just a year old, has projected sales for 2017 ranging from $6.5 million to $8 million, according to Brien.
Going forward, the company will expand digitally, including an interactive website to help guide women with choosing styles and accessories.
Sara Bella’s in-house design and product development team has 11 workers, and another 9 workers handle overseas production, shipping and receiving, clerical support and book keeping.
There is an off-site public relations team based in New York City that includes workers designing the website that is expected to launch in July, Brien said.
She said she hopes to add four to six new jobs in Pawtucket by the end of the year.
For city officials, adding Sara Bella to the ranks of local businesses will help to upgrade the city’s gritty industrial image, said Mayor Donald Grebien.
As the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, Pawtucket has blue collar roots, but it has always been an artists’ community, too, he said.
Grebien has worked with the city’s Business Development Corporation to seek more arts businesses and craft beer breweries, among other things, he said.
“After meeting with Darlene, her background in the arts and her business model … it was a perfect match,” he said. “It brings a whole different level for small business and the artist craft community.”
According to city records, Brien closed on the vintage property in December. She purchased the 6,275-square-foot building and cottage house from Edith Marra for $500,000. Crews have spent the better part of the holiday season renovating the building and reworking the layout to be ready for business in January.
On a crisp and blustery December winter day, Brien gave a tour of the mansion, formally known as the Goff-Pitcher House.
Elias B. Pitcher, a local textile manufacturer built the house in 1840. Some years later, Lyman B. Goff, a local industrialist purchased the home. The local chapter of the American Red Cross began using it in 1922.
At one time the manor housed the Children’s Museum of Rhode Island. In recent years, it served as a reception hall but has been vacant for many more years.
Brien was excited to show off the splendid rooms, most of which still have the original moldings, antique furniture and décor. In these rooms, her team will work on a retailer’s seasonal apparel line to conceptualize, sketch, mold, and cast a design for hundreds of model styles.
“It’s magic. This is like pulling stuff out of the clear blue,” she said. ”When we come in at 9 in the morning, nothing exists. And by 5 p.m., you have a masterpiece.”
Once the designs are set, the master sample is sent overseas for manufacturing and afterward shipped back to the retailer.
Brien, 49, a Woonsocket native with a psychology degree from the University of Rhode Island, brings nearly 20 years retail experience to Sara Bella. She started in the jewelry business back in the early 1990s, when there were still a few factories around.
“I grew up in this business. I was a gofer,” she said. “I’ve always loved fashion. I’ve always loved the clothes.”
Over the years, Brien had worked with different sales professionals in the jewelry industry and for several clothing retailers, including as a store manager.
Eight years ago, she landed a gig as director of design at Kerissa Creations, a Smithfield-based company that began in 1982. It was a time when the jewelry manufacturing industry still had legs in the United States, but many companies were beginning to relocate the manufacturing process overseas to other countries, such as China.
In late 2015, when Brien purchased the portion of the business she managed — the accounts, customer base, the sales, the rights to the brand — to launch a new company, she also took on a manufacturing process that sourced overseas vendors.
Brien says she hopes to bring back some aspects of the manufacturing, including the process of how to develop resins and color components. She says it would be better if the company protected the process and not give it away.
“It’s what I inherited. It wasn’t a cost reason,” she said. “We give them the formula on how to make the jewelry. Once you give everyone the recipe, then it’s not special anymore.”
While Brien says her business has been mostly profitable so far, it’s not always about the money.
“What you should chase is the vision — and then the dollars will come,” she said.