How in the world did the smallest state in the union become the largest manufacturer of costume jewelry in the world? I am sure that is what people wonder when they learn that Providence, Rhode Island had more costume jewelry manufacturers there than anywhere. How did itty, bitty Providence, Rhode Island become the largest manufacturer of costume jewelry in such a big sea?
From Spark to Sparkle in Costume Jewelry
By the time the 1940s rolled around, 80% of the Costume Jewelry manufactured in the world, had been manufactured in Providence, Rhode Island. It developed a jewelry district. The jewelry district of Providence had established itself as the king of bling, and the United States capital of sparkle.
The First Spark was Gold Plating
What became major sparkle, began with sparks. First the gold plating technique originated there in the 1700s. Gold plating was a process where a layer of gold could be applied to another metal. It made wearing gold jewelry, less costly.
Then Gorham Silverware made spoons and that helped silver flourish, as people didn’t have to drink a cup of soup, they could scoop it up, with a silver spoon. Silver spoons, and silver, became a huge industry in Providence, from the impact of Gorham silver.
There were a few jewelry manufacturers, who set up shop in Providence, but the sparks turned into sparkle, and then fireworks, during and after the massive immigration into Ellis Island in the late eighteen hundreds and early nineteen hundreds. That is when costume jewelry manufacturing in Rhode Island, had a full fireworks display with all of the “oohs” and “aahs”
The Immigrants in Costume Jewelry
Jewish merchants, and Italian worker bees, took the costume jewelry industry to an entirely new level. And the depression helped too. Yes, you read that right. While the depression of the 1930s decimated the high dollar jewelry business in New York City, the costume jewelry business actually flourished. It did pretty well.
The immigrants weren’t losing money in the stock market playing on margin. They were working in factories trying to feed families.
“Give me your tired, your humbled, your huddled masses yearning to be free.” Thousands of immigrants flocked into the New York Harbors with one burning desire, the desire to live free. America was the land of opportunity. The statute of liberty stood tall, with a light beaming with hope, welcoming weary travelers, from foreign lands.
They were immigrants of many backgrounds. The Jewish merchants, the Greeks, the Italians, the Polish… waves of people seeking to build a life in the United States of America. An amazing work force, of hardworking and hungry immigrants.
They arrived in Ellis Island in the harbors of New York City. The Jewish merchants established a diamond industry in New York City where they cut, polished, bought and sold diamonds.
Diamonds are a girls best friend if you are rich
Diamonds are expensive. Not everybody can afford to purchase brooches, and earrings, and necklaces, made of diamond. The commoner is usually limited to a wedding ring, and in the 1800s most people were just married once, so they had one wedding ring!
The everyday common person was not able to be a repeat customer for diamonds, sapphires or rubies.
The result was that New York City became the capital of fine jewelry for the wealthy. Tiffany department store, and jewelry packaged in blue boxes, were the trademarks for the rich.
The rest of the population would do without.
Providence Rhode Island and the Costume Jewelry District
Providence just a couple hours away from New York City by ship, had some costume jewelry merchants, as gold plating had originated there, and Gorham silver helped the silver industry flourish there. Providence Rhode Island had jobs. And there were new immigrants who needed jobs. And there were merchants who created jobs, and immigrants who wanted jobs and costume jewelry manufacturing grew.
The Legal industry Grew
There were so many costume jewelry manufacturers set up in Providence Rhode Island that patent and design disputes were daily occurrences. An entire street was established of manufacturing plants. The Providence Jewelry Manufacturing Historic District consisted of about 19 acres. According to Wikipedia, the area began as a residential neighborhood, and then changed into a manufacturing hub. Today the area holds some buildings owned by Brown University.
The costume jewelry industry created a boom for the legal profession, as designers sued each other daily. “That was my design first” “No it was mine”. It was a payday for lawyers.
And the manufacturers needed manufacturing representatives. They needed people to buy from the manufacturer and sell to the retailer. They needed the market makers; the middle men, who earned livings on commissions, and helped make the market work.
Coro was the largest Costume Jewelry Manufacturer in Providence
The largest jewelry manufacturer in Providence Rhode Island was Coro. Coro hired over 3500 people, and the costume jewelry ranged from fifty cents to 100.00 for a commissioned piece of costume jewelry. The majority of people could afford that price. Mass produced jewelry sold to department stores. Beautiful rhinestones set in sterling silver floral motifs and crafted into bracelets, rings, necklaces and earrings flooded jewelry stores.
The entertainment industry helped with the boom. Companies like Hobe Jewelers sold to stars. If Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner and Betty Davis wore costume jewelry; jewelry made of rhinestones that wasn’t made from real gemstones, wasn’t it good enough for you?
Providence Rhode Island a small little city in a teeny tiny little state, became king of the bling. Unfortunately today, the king of the bling has lost its sparkle, as these buildings once power houses for the costume jewelry industry have been replaced with educational and health care facilities.
As America chose to send our jobs over seas, and sell our products online, when you want to bring out bling, and add sparkle, you have to buy vintage, that is, if you want it to have been made in the USA. Somewhere along the way we decided China could make it better.
I disagree but who am I? I am just a little guy in a big sea, buying and selling rhinestone jewelry.