A rolling mill from 1870 that still produces a perfect sheet of gold. A battered bench that generations of Tiffany & Co. jewelers once worked at. One of the country’s first chain-making machines. These are just a few of the treasures from the history of jewelry making in the United States housed at the Providence Jewelry Museum.
From its earliest years, this has been a nation of people who make things. By preserving some of the country’s oldest jewelry-making tools and weaving together the story of how pieces were made from the 1700s to the present day, the museum tells the story of American jewelry makers. It is a kind of ode to these makers and to the value they bring in a society that has gone digital. And it is a clarion call for preserving the legacy of an American culture of makers.
The museum’s curator and caretaker, Peter DiCristofaro, is a patient collector. Over the last 40 years he has slowly gathered together this story of American jewelry making from the shambles of jewelry factories that went out of business, from Etsy and eBay, from art and jewelry shows small and large across the country.
“It is phenomenal to be able to touch, especially in factories that were over 100 years old, to open someone’s drawer and see 100 years of work left here,” Peter says. “We have collections that are vast. And we’ve been able to protect it.”
A pharmacist by trade, Peter has been pulled by the jewelry industry his entire life. He apprenticed at his uncle’s jewelry factory during the summers when he was in school. And it was his uncle who encouraged him to start a museum.
“When factories started closing in the late ‘70s, he was angry and sad. ‘Who’s going to remember how to do all this stuff in the future?’ he asked me. So a few of my friends and I went down to Providence City Hall in the fall of 1977 and started the Providence Jeweler’s Museum.”
He also became a factory broker, participating in the buying and selling of jewelry factories all across the Eastern Seaboard.
“In each one of them I remembered my uncle’s words about form and motion,” he says. “I saved a piece or a part of over 120 factories, and that’s what the museum contains.”
For Peter, the beauty of the American jewelry industry lies not in the finished pieces that jewelers created, but in the ingenious methods they devised for making, in the tools, dies and objects they used to bring those pieces to life.
“Is the piece or the tool the brilliant thing?” he asks. “We think the piece is the most boring part of the show. What’s really brilliant is the way it’s made. The tools themselves are works of art. The holy grail for us is when we have the mold, we have the original sketch and we find the original piece out there, and we can put them all together.”
Peter’s belief in the maker and in the value of making things runs deep.
“The tactile qualities of understanding how to make are something our society needs now,” he says. “I’m a pharmacist, but I spent my life in the jewelry business. And I think I can teach a kid how to make 25 bucks an hour sizing rings for that jeweler in Cincinnati even though he hasn’t found his English major degree job yet. We see ourselves as being one of the most phenomenal resources in the world for a culture of making.”
The museum’s most recent exhibit was called the Tools of Treasures. The exhibit, like everything in the museum, was a tribute to the makers.
“We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting to show the members of the public that all these beautiful pieces of jewelry came from, not what they would consider a tool, but these big chunks of blocks of steel that aren’t pretty at all,'” he says. “We felt it would be the first time that jewelry was ever exhibited with the tools that made it. Especially the die struck jewelry, the period from 1890-1940 when steel was really being used to produce jewelry. We’re able to show you these little treasures next to these tools. And the tools aren’t pretty. And so the juxtaposition of the beauty and the beast to us made us come up with this exhibit.”
This swordfish die from 1935 was the genesis of the Tools of Treasures exhibit. Peter had owned the die for years when he saw the finished piece at a costume jewelry convention. He raced to the museum, found the die, raced back to the convention and couldn’t believe when the pin fit perfectly inside his die.Watch The Video
This bowling trophy was created by the French designer Antoine Heller for Gorham Manufacturing in 1893. It is an outstanding example of intaglio, or engraving in reverse. The talent and precision required to carve the original in reverse makes the die, for Peter, even more exciting and impressive than the finished trophy itself.Watch The Video
This snake bracelet was made in 1910 by Wade, Davis & Co., the early name of the famous Whiting & Davis jewelry company. The snake chain is made of a pronged wire that wraps into itself to create a flexible chain. The snake’s head is stamped and accented with teeth and a tongue. This bracelet is the precursor to the 1970s Whiting Davis Bracelet, which became an icon of fashion jewelry.
Tool & die makers were the brilliant high-tech creators of the Victorian age.Watch The Video
This cuff bracelet is part of Tiffany & Co.’s archive bracelet collection created in 2000. The collection consists of five bracelets featuring designs from 19th century Tiffany & Co. silverware. This bracelet is called Magnolia. The original dies for the silverware were cut in Providence.Watch The Video
This planishing hammer was among the first labor-saving devices in the jewelry making industry.Watch The Video
The Providence Jewelry Museum is currently housed in Cranston, Rhode Island in a donated space. For the last 40 years, Peter and his team of volunteers have been seeking a permanent location for the collection in Providence. They are currently asking for donations to help secure a home for the museum at the Palmer House, a historic building in the heart of the Providence Jewelry District. By supporting the work of the museum, you’ll become a part of securing the rich history of jewelry making in the United States. You can learn more about the museum and make a donation at http://providencemuseum.org/.
The Tools of Treasures exhibit ran from March 1 – April 30, 2017.Support the Providence Jewelry Museum