When talking about the modern day jewelry industry in Rhode Island, the elephant in the room is Alex and Ani. In a few short years, the company has gone from local upstart to national phenomenon to multifaceted, rapidly expanding lifestyle brand – all fueled by the seemingly endless desire for its stackable ban gles and collectible charms. Since 2009, its number of employees has skyrocketed from about 23 in Rhode Island to over 650 worldwide – and it proudly maintains its world headquarters in Cranston, hometown of founder Carolyn Rafaelian.
Although from the outside Rafaelian looks like an overnight success, she was actually born and raised in the jewelry business. Her family’s business, Cinerama, dates back to the golden age of manufacturing in Rhode Island, at one point boasting a factory in downtown Providence where it made its signature American flag pins. Though it’s no longer downtown, Cinerama is still alive and well in Cranston, where it manufactures – what else? – Alex and Ani products. But Rafaelian still remembers those days, and she witnessed the long, slow decline of the legacy brands – the Coros, the Trifaris, the Monets. She marvels at what was lost. “The other day I was walking by an old Coro building,” she recounts, “and it was amazing to stop and think that that huge building used to be all one company. Now it’s a lot of different tenants, but it used to be one company.”
She entered the family business at a time of great turmoil. As she recalls it, the sequence of events went something like this: “The world was basically manufacturing – there were no importers. Everybody was a manufacturer. The manufacturers sold to the wholesalers who had the relationships with the retailers. Years later the wholesalers were not as important – the retailers were bigger and stronger and had more buying power and wanted to deal directly with the factories. That was the big change when I started. The wholesalers died off. The manufacturers, if they weren’t dealing directly with the retailer, they were going under and instead becoming importers. Not many companies survived that period. That’s when it was a decline. There weren’t as many platers and stone houses – and even if there were, nobody was using them.”
Cinerama managed to survive, in Rafaelian’s estimation, because of shrewd moves her father made in advance of the decline. For years he had been buying out stone companies, chain companies and the like, leaving him with surplus inventory that later sustained Cinerama through private label work. “That’s kind of where I jumped in, because I was able to create using that stuff – and the quality was always superior to China,” she recalls. “That was why my private label clients kept me.”
Eventually, Rafaelian started designing pieces in her father’s shop – the kind of pieces that excited her. “There was no expectation except that I just wanted to go into the factory and make things for myself. It was a creative outlet for me,” she remembers. “And as things started manifesting it turned into a really solid business based on passion.” Thus, Alex and Ani was born and became a fast-moving success.
That success doesn’t happen in a vacuum either – a thriving jewelry business has ripple effects that spread well beyond Alex and Ani. “There are so many facets to what we do – everything from packaging to display cases. All of these companies, we’ve become their number one client,” says Rafaelian. “And they’re local – all made in America. People we’re dealing with had to add shifts and extend their buildings.”
This shared success up and down the supply chain is a common theme. Spelkoman claims that Accent Accessories “keeps three or four carding companies in business. We have shipping departments, casters, gluers, drivers.” Libby Hodgkins of Bernardo Manufacturing adds, “Getting what we design to the customer involves about 30 people.” This is why Alex and Ani CEO Giovanni Feroce disagrees with the Department of Labor and Training’s projections of a shrinking industry. “I can’t imagine that’s the case,” he counters. “When you look at the vertical, and how it works, it would only make sense that all of these organizations within the supply chain are going to increase.”
There is constant conversation about economic development in Rhode Island, and plenty of institutions and organizations are trying to contribute in their own ways – whether it’s the City of Providence and the State trying to spur investment by “meds and eds” in the former 195 land, the EDC betting it all on a video game company, Betaspring mentoring and nurturing tech startups, or countless other initiatives, small and large, aimed at revitalizing our economy. Why isn’t anyone talking about the jewelry industry on that level? It’s a sector in which Rhode Island is uniquely suited to be a leader and has an institutional legacy to draw on. It’s attracting and retaining young college graduates. It’s keeping a network of ancillary businesses active. Yet where are the investments, the tax credits, the efforts to recruit talent, the marketing of our assets?
Alex and Ani’s Feroce speculates that perhaps the jewelry companies themselves are at least partially to blame for holding their own industry back – their secretive nature and cost-driven approach to selling prevents them from really trumpeting what they do well. “Those that manufacture here need to tell the world what they do,” he advises. “Directly approach the major brands again, but instead of approaching it via price point, approach it via process and why that’s important – it’s made in America.”
The Accessories Council’s Karen Giberson agrees that Rhode Island is not doing enough to market its own expertise and capabilities. “Rhode Island still has some great manufacturing options,” she says. “We wish we had a guidebook to the factories – what their core competencies are and contact information. In fact, I welcome those calls and will be happy to direct our curious designers and brands their way.”
Perhaps with a concerted effort to focus on what we have to offer – and maybe a little reminder that Rhode Island has a tradition of being the best at this kind of work – the jewelry industry can rally back even stronger. Feroce is certainly optimistic about the prospects: “The bottom line is people should have confidence in the industry not only being revitalized, but once again stamping the Greater Providence area as the jewelry capital of not only America, but the world.”