There are certain constants when it comes to jewelry designer Eddie Borgo. He invariably opts for designs that are graphic and geometric. Aside from the occasional black-tie event—the CFDA Awards this past June, for instance, when he nabbed the Swarovski Award for Accessory Design—Borgo almost always wears a black felt fedora, as he does now, in the pre-dawn hours at Penn Station. And given the opportunity, he will deliver his impassioned pitch—to anyone who’ll listen—about Providence, R.I. Which is exactly why we’re here, waiting for Amtrak 190 to barrel into the station. Our destination: the onetime costume jewelry capital of the world and home to a number of Borgo’s factories. “It was really a flourishing artisan jewelry community,” he explains. “You have these trades that have been passed down from generation to generation.”
Settled into a window seat, coffee cup in hand, Borgo delves into a lengthy narrative of the place, name-checking the brands that have had a history with the city—Sarah Coventry, Coro, Joseff of Hollywood and others. The CliffsNotes version: Providence, one of the first industrialized cities in the U.S., was a major player in the jewelry industry dating back to the late 18th century. During the Depression, when the city’s other core industries, such as textiles, took a hit, costume jewelry exploded. By the Eighties, the state produced 80 percent of the costume jewelry made in America. Basically, Providence was to bijoux what Detroit was to the automobile.
As with other industries, things took a nosedive once firms began outsourcing overseas. According to the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training, there were 14,175 costume jewelry jobs in the state in 1984, then 9,574 a decade later. In 2010, the number dropped to 1,850. Providence’s once prosperous Jewelry District is in the process of being renamed the Knowledge District to spotlight its growing health care, education and technology interests. “The most disheartening part to me,” says Borgo, “is to see a lot of [the jewelry community] dying. It’s similar to what happened to the Garment Center. These are American companies who have a tradition, heritage and knowledge that could and very well may disappear. They say it out loud to me all the time: ‘When are you going to give us more work?’ It’s a constant conversation I’m having with them.”
Which brings us to the day’s mission. Borgo is here to begin work on his upcoming spring collection, inspired by a curious cocktail of Robert Mapplethorpe, filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, cages, stars, hearts and lace. Today is Day One, when he’ll run his ideas by a few of his manufacturers to get feedback on what is possible and what is simply a pipe dream. Once our train arrives, we head over to the nearest Avis and procure our ride (a white Chevrolet Malibu LTZ) for the day, with Borgo in the driver’s seat. We’re off.
“Alfredo is a true metalsmith in every sense of the word,” says Borgo, en route to our first stop with modelmaker Alfredo DeLucia of A.D. Designs. “I work with him on things that are the most complex in my collection.” DeLucia collaborated on many of the runway pieces Borgo has done with designers such as Joseph Altuzarra and Phillip Lim. A Rhode Island School of Design alum who apprenticed with master metalsmith John Prip, DeLucia was also the hand behind one of Borgo’s earliest designs: bracelets and rings crafted to look like bent nails.
With this sort of introduction, one might expect an ivory-tower artiste in a studio full of the wonderfully bizarre and bizarrely wonderful. DeLucia cuts a very different figure, with his paunch, faded pink polo, cargo shorts and sneakers. He’s the kind of guy you picture slugging back a few beers on a lazy summer day, not whipping up fantastical molds for Borgo. His workshop is a miscellany of machines, hand tools (rotary files, sanding sticks) and snowlike piles of metal shaving—plus a single Crock-Pot, within which sits a cloudy pickle mixture used for silver soldering. The two men begin to review Borgo’s spring designs—pendants with thin tails of horse hair and wide sculptural cuffs that wrap around the wrist like a lotus flower. “Eddie will come up with some new thing and it’s a challenge,” DeLucia remarks, “but we always figure it out.”
Back in the car, Borgo notes that when he first met the craftsman, “he wanted nothing to do with me. He thought I was some brat from New York. It’s about trust here.”
The next stop is ChemArt, which brings to mind Dunder Mifflin from The Office—it’s decidedly corporate, but the walls are painted in candy colors and bulletin boards are covered with celebratory banners, listings of employee birthdays and anniversaries and a “Let’s go Red Sox!” poster. The 35-year-old company, which specializes in acid etching, has been responsible for some of Borgo’s private label work (of which he’s barred contractually from revealing) as well as the designer’s presentation box for last year’s CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award.
“What ChemArt does is a completely different methodology in metal-making,” says Borgo, clarifying that instead of sculpted, voluminous works, things start out as a flat piece of metal. They are then etched chemically, taken apart and pieced together to create 3-D designs. It’s a long process, one with, by our count, no less than 18 steps spread over three separate buildings. As we walk from the chemical warehouse to the assembly center, vice president of operations Larry Lefebvre tells us to take a good whiff of the air. It’s a mix of ferric chloride and the sweet smell of bread, from the century-old Calise Bakery across the street.
ChemArt, which started out doing jewelry finding, i.e. hardware odds and ends like clasps and earring backs, has survived and even prospered because the firm was quick to go beyond bauble-making and embraced everything from dog tags and signage to metal components for tech companies and the government. The company’s surprising bread-and-butter? Holiday ornaments. ChemArt is the official producer of The White House Christmas Ornament Collection. “We’ve been able to survive because we have some very large accounts, like the White House,” explains Lefebvre, “and a lot of very small accounts, like garden clubs and nonprofit groups.” It would behoove neither group, he adds, if it suddenly went overseas. The latter because of the minimums and the former, well, imagine how a Made in China ornament will go over at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
A similar strategy has kept casting manufacturer Roger V. Scungio of RVS & Co., stop number three, afloat since launching in 1976. What began as a pure costume jewelry business is now 90 percent giftware. “It started getting really hard in the early Nineties,” says Scungio, a Kris Kringle of a man, wearing wire-thin spectacles and wide suspenders. “That’s when I decided that giftware was difficult to produce overseas. They don’t want to handle small runs and larger items are difficult to ship.”
Similar to A.D. Designs, Scungio’s workshop is a little rough around the edges, charmingly so, but you can see the toll outsourcing has taken on his company. “When we started, it was really dense,” says longtime RVS general manager Melodie Betters. “We were the jewelry capital of the world—of the world! There used to be a metal caster on almost every single corner of the city.” She’s beaming, but the past-tense talk is heartbreaking.
Borgo, meanwhile, has just discovered the molds for the stained glasslike jewelry he did for Lim’s spring 2009 runway. He’s off on the side, stacking them like a kid at play, before the trio eventually settles down to go over the spring lineup. When we leave, stepping past a “God Bless America” sign and the numerous posters of the Three Stooges, Betters delivers this parting remark: “We’re not a fancy business, but at least we’re in business.”
The fourth and last stop is Universal Plating Inc., a small warehouse packed with white plastic bins of chemicals and solutions. You can’t escape the stinging smell—made all the more pungent in the torrid summer heat—or the grotesquely beautiful crystalline residue growing on containers like jewel-tone barnacles. The company has been around since 1933; co-owners Edward and Kevin Johnson are third-generation platers and the firm still uses some of their grandfather’s early plating formulas. It’s here that the brothers and Borgo concocted the designer’s signature shade of rose gold. Edward takes us through the steps, from one copper wash to the next, while Rod Stewart waxes on about his sexy body through the speakers. As we reach the last station, Edward gestures towards a clear plastic bottle sitting on a shelf that contains a gold and cyanide mixture used in gold plating. With the rising gold prices, what looks like an innocuous bottle of water is actually more than $1,500 a pop.
Like the others, Universal Plating has turned to clients for whom Made in America is a plus, including Herff Jones and Jostens (makers of class rings) and the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives (the Johnsons are platers for its pins and cuff links).
“Is this what you were expecting?” asks Borgo as the day ends and we head toward the Providence train station. Not exactly, but that’s a good thing. What started out as an amusing road trip with costume jewelry’s hottest emerging designer turned into a revealing look at the people and circumstances of this market, and how it has been crippled with the rise of overseas manufacturing. But its story is not finished—yet. As China continues to grow, inflating its prices and pushing from a manufacturing-based economy to an innovation society, the pendulum is beginning to swing back.
“China’s getting richer and manufacturers are realizing that it’s going to be the same price to produce here,” DeLucia says brightly, echoing a sentiment shared by the others. “We’re starting to get some business back.”