THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


The Ugly Rocking Bird Pendant

by Sarah Weiss

published April 10, 2015


Seller, blackcatjewelz, shouts: BEAUTIFUL RARE ANTIQUE OSTBY BARTON 10K STERLING ETCHED WHITE TOPAZ RING  SZ 7 on eBay, as if the Internet will be more enticed by the use of all caps. The stone is set into an intricate pattern of metal peaks and troths, BEAUTIFUL DETAIL, and the whole thing rests on a bed of blue velvet, which gives the white topaz an ultramarine tint in one picture.

 

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Mr. Engelhart Cornelius Ostby was from Norway. His jewelry education and apprenticeship were in Oslo, where his large family also lived. In 1866, his brother and parents immigrated to America. He followed soon after, making his way from Oslo to New York City to Providence. For almost a decade he worked in the Providence jewelry industry as a designer and engraver until starting his own business with another jeweler named Nathan B. Barton. They would become the world’s biggest manufacturer of gold rings. After growing out of their initial building, the business moved to an old Ladd Watch Case Company space, on the corner of Richmond St. and Clifford St., and their operation doubled in size. Having arrived in Providence just over a decade prior, Ostby fulfilled the American Dream. He had his own factory, his own livelihood, and his own family.

Ostby was a jewelry enthusiast, traveling often to Europe to shop overseas markets, and survey new craft-related inventions. He pursued all of it—machines, designs, and artists—something to bring back to his kingdom of rings. Every time he and his wife, Helene, visited Norway, Ostby brought back Norwegian Goats cheese: a tradition. He made his last trip in 1912, this time on vacation. Helene and he traveled across Southern Europe, stopping in Egypt, before getting wind of a boat named the Titanic that would be making a voyage back home, which Ostby promptly secured tickets for. He never made it back. Helene did.

 

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Peter DiCristofaro, owner and director of the Providence Jewelry Museum (which currently displays a small selection of its collection in Cranston), is frustrated because “there is not one thing in The Jewelry District that says this great industry was there!” No walking trail, no commemorative stones, just a few green signs with arrows pointing pedestrians to where the area roughly sits. He collects all of it—machines, designs, and the relics left behind by artists—hoping to some day, soon, showcase in a larger space and with more items.

Locals and out-of-towners, alike, struggle to find The Jewelry District. Virginia jeweler, Hugo Kohl, once drove 9.5 hours to get to the city’s jewelry hub, only to find that there was little to nothing left of it. It is un-identifiable and understated, the leftover infrastructure of a lost industry. Instead of The Jewelry District, Hugo found Peter, whose preservation campaign he has been on board with ever since.

Google “providence jewelry district” today, and you will get a red polygon that hugs I-195 at its bottom, meets the river at its east and jogs along Ship and Friendship Streets to the north and west. To its south, beyond the highway, is Rhode Island Hospital. Zoom in and you will find restaurants with names like “Fatt Squirrel” and bars like “Mirabar,” a tattoo studio, a yoga studio, an animal hospital, a children’s museum, and a couple cafes. Walk the narrow streets and you’ll notice walls of brick buildings with impossible quantities of windows.

At the turn of the 20th century, the corner of Elm and Eddy was home to a jewelry shop with a vacant first floor. Blocks away, was another jeweler, situated on Chestnut and Point—its first floor leased to laundry and machine enterprises, surrounded by foundries and lumber mills, set into an enclave of American industry.

Two decades later, in 1920, the shop at Chestnut and Point, which hosted various jewelry manufacturers, was joined by two more jewelers on Richmond and Personage. A new jeweler opened on the corner of Point and Richmond.

Just before the construction of the I-195 highway in 1956, jewelers crowded the neighborhood’s slim streets. One was on Hospital, another four on Elm, three on Personage, two on Point, and two on South. There was another on Plain and yet another on South and a full-blown factory on Hospital that was built in 1955. One more sat at Point and Personage. They were impossible to miss.

 

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Jewelers lie somewhere in between sentimentalists and industrialists—wrapping gold around fingers and draping silver on necks. Rings denote marriage and brooches mark wealth, cold and hard. Metallic adornments make personal statements, resting on bodies as declarations of love, accomplishment, or memory.

But for many, jewelry-making was just a job. Peter reminds, “Here we are being all touchy feely in 2015 talking about the glory of the jewelry industry, but it was just a job. That’s why there’s no pictures. They would have laughed at you: photograph what? Nobody photographed their factory, it was just a place where people worked.”

 

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To Peter, and jewelry makers at-large, a die is a stamp. By stamping a strip of metal, of any kind, jewelers are able to form complex, curvilinear, three-dimensional pieces. Each die is a metal block. To be utilized, it is fixed into the vice of a progressive stamping machine, a type of press designed to give jewelers enough leverage to easily shape strip metal. By cranking the press, the jeweler forcefully lowers the die down onto the metal, imprinting the flat surface with peaks, troths and, dimension. There are hoards of dice in Peter’s warehouse. They lie in boxes, on shelves, in drawers, populating the collection space with possibility. “I’m just the bone collector; I’m just the archeologist,” he asserts.

In each die is the mark of a jeweler’s hand, each a signature of his or her artisanship. Different stamps match different rings, pressed into silver or plated gold. Once a die is designed and fixed into a press, the stamping process is completely mechanical.

4 Edwards St., Providence, Rhode Island is the collection warehouse for the Providence Jewelry Museum. Heavy, paint-chipped machines clutter the cavernous space. Some still have dice stuck in their vices—bloated with their last job before being put out of work. They are utilitarian antiques: still functional, tarnished with decades of inertia. Metal finds its way into every corner of the space, which is a series of smaller and smaller rooms. Peter’s office is in the loft, towards the back. He works among relics.

 

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The Providence jewelry industry was comprised of a constellation of specialists—many hands touching the same tiny piece of metal before they were worn on necks, fingers and wrists. Manufacturers, who sold to brands like Tiffany, had outside vendors: polishers who shined, solderers who welded, engravers who made marks, linkers who made links, and enamellers who coated some of it in colorful, shiny enamel. Providence was a network of production—each craftsman was within a couple blocks of the next, and jewelry was the city’s principal cultural capital. Other cities couldn’t compete; Providence’s jewelry industry was America’s jewelry industry. 

Since the 1980s, things have changed, and the jewelry industry has been reduced to The Jewelry District, which isn’t much. Research conducted by ‘Historic New England’ suggests that, at its peak during the 1950s, the jewelry industry employed 16,000 workers. Since then, “We didn’t go out of business,” Peter pauses, “the business evaporated. We’re talking about 1,000 factories down to…150. Mass extermination. But it was their own damn fault. They didn’t embrace globalization.” Quickly, almost all jewelry production moved overseas, leaving Providence unable to compete with cheaper links, bezels, and bands manufactured for cents rather than dollars. Peter points to his wife for contrast: “My wife was commuting to Hong Kong. I said, ‘you see my wife? She goes over there every six weeks.’” His wife is a fashion designer specializing in denim.

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A job in jewelry was often a first job for recently immigrated individuals who arrived in Providence. The process of learning how to handle metal was relatively quick, cheap, and un-fettered by a language barrier. Someone could show you how to make jewelry; they didn’t need to tell you.

It was as if every nationality had its own corner of the manufacturing process. Peter tells it like this: the Italians did the grunt work—stamping, polishing, and sawing—manipulating metal. The Armenians were the enamellers, dressing monochromatic pieces in vibrant glossy color. The Jews were the merchants. They sold the product to retail companies. Everybody coexisted, stayed out of one another’s way; everybody kept up their corner of town. 

Jewelry-making was accessible. Starting up took little support or outside investment. Peter cites famous designer, Steven Lagos, as an example: “[he] came here years ago and he said two weeks ago I was a short order cook, now I’m a jewelry designer. It’s got the lowest point of entry of anything on earth. Don’t get me wrong, he’s talented. But you can go to a catalogue, buy yourself a bench, buy yourself a torch, buy yourself a little file and you haven’t spent $500 and you’re doing it.”

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Electroplated jewelry is the kind that rubs off on your skin. It’s the stuff that makes thumbs blue and necks grey. It’s cheap. Providence came to rise with an answer to this shortcoming. Seeing a desire for affordable jewelry with integrity, Providence jewelers invested in gold cladding, which encases a cheaper metal (like sterling silver or brass) within a solid gold shell. Unlike electroplated jewelry, it is impervious to sweat.

 

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Peter hopes to one day reconstruct the landscape of the Providence Jewelry industry in a museum—space to be determined. His goal is to be able to fill rectangles on maps with what used to be inside them, to immerse the viewer in what each manufacturer used to look like. For instance, “So if we were to go to 86 Clifford St., this guy George Dover was in there. And not only was he an artist, he was a brilliant die maker. The jewelry he made, they’re treasures. Just going through his catalogue and seeing the kind of metal that he did. It’s beyond understanding how they could all do that in those little shops. I love the fact that I know this guy, I know his name and address. And a portion of him…I can fill that building. And I have some of his machines, some of his books, some of his stuff. And I tell all of these jewelry antique people—I have his smells! I can smell his smells.”

And then there’s Engelhart Cornelius Ostby of Ostby and Barton. “Another big ring jewelry company. He put his daughter on a lifeboat and went down with the Titanic. He was over there buying. And this was the largest ring house. They made the Tiffany engagement ring in this place. Tiffany, years ago when I worked for them, they wanted to make their engagement ring again. The original dies were here in our Ostby and Barton. So I brought it back to Tiffany 116 years later. I brought them back the original models and patterns. But this guy went down in the Titanic.”

 

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Peter pulls out a silver pendant. It’s shiny and delicate, swinging from its clasp. It’s so bright against his rough palms, even in the darkness of the warehouse. Within its miniature sterling cage there is a little blue bird, which makes a rattling sound when he picks it up. He takes out another box, this one with two metal blocks. Holding one in each hand, he examines them—one has a shape that juts out like a bump, laden with little grooves, and the other has a small depression, with its own convexities that correspond with the first block. He presses them together. 

“I’ve had this set of die for thirty years and for thirty years I was saying, ‘someone invested money in this.’ Will I ever see the product? will I ever know what it does? So for thirty years I’ve been staring at this stuff,” Peter laments. “And six months ago, on eBay, I found what it was. And it’s got a bird rocking inside of it. A bird! Rocking. And someone says ‘oh that’s ugly.’ Well, no it’s not. It’s the most beautiful thing in the world.”

SARAH WEISS B’15 works among relics.