Jewelry Making: The Gilded Heart of Providence

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Arguably, the centuries long reign of Providence, RI as the jewelry capital of the country began with two men: Seril and Nehemiah Dodge. In 1784, Seril Dodge opened a jewelry store on North Main Street, selling handmade watches, clocks and gold and silver jewelry. His business flourished, and within a few years, others followed his lead hoping to make a place for themselves in the highly profitable industry.

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In 1794, around the time Seril retired, his brother Nehemiah Dodge became involved in Providence’s jewelry production and created a new process of rolling gold. This method of rolling gold onto a cheaper metal, such as copper, allowed jewelers to provide gold jewelry at a more affordable price to a much broader market. Nehemiah’s rolled gold was an industry game changer, in Providence and around the World.

The jewelry industry in Providence grew consistently from that point; from twenty-seven firms employing around 280 workers in 1830 to fifty-seven firms employing 590 workers in 1850. By 1890, there were more than 200 firms, close to 7,000 employees, and Providence accounted for more than one quarter of national jewelry production. The success of the industry drew craftsmen from other states and from abroad. In addition to the revolutionary rolled gold technique, a new process of gold plating found its success in Providence. Thomas Lowe, of Birmingham, England, immigrated to Providence, bringing with him a highly efficient process of gold plating, involving the sweating of gold onto a lower cost base metal which eliminated the need for a sterling silver soldering. The fact that Lowe would choose Providence as his destination of immigration speaks volumes about the widespread recognition of Providence as a jewelry capital.

The innovation continued with Levi Burdon’s invention of the seamless-filled wire for necklace chains in 1877. This invention is important as it represents a major segment of Providence’s jewelry market that bolstered its success considerably in the late 19th century. The manufacturing of findings — such as clasps, pins, chains, and bails — became popular specializations of many Providence firms.

The specialization of firms continued into the early 20th century, pushing some firms into new levels of success. The jewelry district, an area bound by four streets – Eddy, Clifford, Chestnut and Pine Streets – was a bustling segment of the city and soon began to stretch its borders to accommodate multi-story manufacturing facilities, built by the more successful, large jewelry makers. The Champlin Building, built on Chestnut Street in 1901, was a five story building housing the manufacturing of the S.B. Champlin company, which specialized in gold filled chains and rings. Six years later in 1907, the James Doran and Sons company, who manufactured findings, built a seven story building further down on Chestnut, although they rented out the majority of the space to other manufacturers.

The influx of immigrants from Europe over the next half-century supported the success of Providence’s jewelry market. Both skilled and unskilled migrant workers found jobs in jewelry manufacturing, from soldering, polishing, stone setting and engraving, to low skill work of stringing beads or sweeping gold and silver remnants from work stations for refining. By 1960, Providence had coined a name for itself as “the jewelry capital of the world,” with much of the work centering on inexpensive costume jewelry, as opposed to the high quality gold and silver that founded the industry. This notoriety continued into the 1980s, following decades of demand for disco jewelry of the 70s and chunky statement pieces of 80s.

There were pitfalls, however, under the surface of Providence’s success in the 1980s jewelry market. Foreign companies had the advantage of cheap labor and manufacturing costs, and US companies outsourced production to keep a competitive edge in the market. The demand for inexpensive costume jewelry continued to grow through the 1990s and 2000s, the jewelry markets in Providence suffered and many manufacturers closed their doors before the end of the 20th century. Despite these setbacks, there is still a lively artisan community flourishing in Providence. Small jewelry makers take advantage of remaining findings manufacturers that still exist from an era before. Furthermore, the highly skilled jewelry makers that have weathered the blows of outsourcing are the trusted source of high quality production for name brand fine jewelry retailers around the country. We’re incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to work with some of these talented manufacturers for our ShineOn jewelry!

Continuing the centuries of jewelry making and innovation that have helped define Providence is a major part of who we are as a company. In a way, your ShineOn jewelry is a product of hundreds of years of jewelry making, transformed by modern technology without any compromise in quality. Pretty special, huh?

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