There's a commonly held misconception in Rhode Island that the jewelry industry is washed up, kaput, a victim of the ravaged manufacturing sector. But according to the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation, we have the highest concentration of jobs in the jewelry industry in the United States. This morning as we continue our 'Made in Rhode Island' series, Rhode Island Public Radio's Flo Jonic delves into the jewelry industry through the eyes of three of its players:
Even on the hottest, most humid day Patrick McMillan works in the cool comfort of his basement workshop in the India Point neighborhood of Providence. On this day he's sanding down bicycle chains which he turns into shiny silver, scalloped rings. More often, you'll find McMillan working on custom pieces, usually wedding and engagement rings.
"The custom pieces are the ones that generally take up most of my time,” McMillan explains. “I spend between two and six weeks working on a piece. So when I do the other work it's between those custom pieces."
McMillan could have worked anywhere after he earned his master's degree in jewelry making in England. He chose Providence because of its compact size, its ready access to jewelry making materials and its waterfront location. He's actually making a living at the trade without having to hold down another job.
"Since the start of 2011 I've been solely employed at home. So business is good? It's staying steady. I managed to grow the shop a little in the past two years. Better tools, a little more material to keep on hand. Yeah, it's been staying pretty well."
McMillan's one man shop is at the bottom rung of a thriving Rhode Island jewelry industry. According to the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation there are one thousand jewelry-related companies in the state, which includes firms that supply materials, make boxes and service equipment. Combined, they employ seven thousand people. That compares to a height of about 16,000 jewelry workers in the 1950's, according to research conducted by 'Historic New England.'
Several miles away from McMillan's basement workshop is Jewelry Concepts of Warwick, which competes with its foreign competitors by churning out tens of thousands of custom orders. On this day they’re making a golden necklace that spells out the name "Nancy."
Earl Feeney founded the company 29 years ago and employs 65 people.
"We're filling orders for the internet within two business days,” Feeney explains with pride. “So you can't do that over there. You know what I mean?"
In another area of the Jewelry Concepts plant, women working at brightly lit benches set birth stones into so-called mother's rings.
"So a customer might order a ring in sterling silver and then she'll want to put her three genuine birthstones in there for her children,” says Feeney. “Now they can't do that in China, you know? So you have to find niches that we can service."
Feeney says business has been steady throughout the recession.
"I think jewelry is largely recession proof; particularly popularly priced jewelry. You know a woman will go out and may pass on vacation or on a very expensive outfit but she'll still spruce herself up with some jewelry, you know? To make that same outfit, give it a little zing."
But surely no story about Rhode Island's jewelry industry would be complete without mention of Alex and Ani, which in the interest of full disclosure has been a supporter of Rhode Island Public Radio. The company became famous with its hugely popular charmed bangle bracelet. It has grown from $4 million in sales in 2010 to $160 million projected for this year. Giovanni Feroce is its CEO.
"Yeah, I think we still are the jewelry capital of America,” says Feroce, “but given where we were which was 75 percent of the world's costume jewelry compared to where we are today which I believe is roughly around 12 percent, we have a long way to go if we are ever to get back to where we were. Not that I think we need to get back there. I mean the world is global now but if we can double where we are today I mean it would have a very serious impact, positively on the local economy,"
Alex and Ani is branching out into room fragrances, body creams and candles. Everything's made in the U.S. The company employs about 800 people; 500 of them in Rhode Island. Feroce sees strong growth ahead.
"I believe Alex and Ani will be a very powerful lifestyle brand on the scale of Ralph Lauren and Michael Kors and those that are out there. You know there was room for a brand and that was the space we jumped on. So we're very rapidly looking at product extensions and filling out different categories and making sure Alex and Ani is what people are really concerned about in looking for a great quality, high standard brand."
So where is the jewelry industry headed in Rhode Island? I asked Marcel Valois, executive director of the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation.
"I'm not sure,” says Valois. “I'm not a jewelry expert. You know there's many segments of the Rhode Island economy and I'm not an expert in any particular one. What is the state doing, if anything, to grow this industry? There's no specific program to help grow the jewelry industry as a separate industry but there's a major initiative on manufacturing in general. We think Rhode Island still has a major play in the manufacturing sector."
Even with no real plan from the state supporting the jewelry industry, skilled jewelers and designers have job security in Rhode Island. Delia Machado, a designer at Jewelry Concepts in Warwick has been hop scotching from job to job for years.
“How many employers would you say you've worked for over the years, I asked. Oh boy. About six. Six, seven, yes, says Machado. And you've never had trouble finding a job? No. And you've always been a jewelry desiger? Yes."
So while Rhode Island's jewelry industry is nowhere near what it used to be, it is still a force to be reckoned with, accounting for 18 percent of the state's manufacturing base. And the manufacturers interviewed for this report agree it's an industry on the move.
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