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The Jewelry Archaeologist

The Jewelry Archaeologist

Published: October 10, 2017
Author: Alison Main
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Through years of painstaking, costly, and often fruitless detective work, Hugo Kohl has rescued an era of early American jewelry manufacturing technology that was on the brink of extinction. And he swears that the system in his shop, in Harrisonburg, Virginia, is the only way to do capitalism.

By ALISON MAIN

Fashion’s Bi-Polar Future | Craftsmanship Quarterly, Fall 2017

Hugo Kohl runs the only fully equipped, working jewelry museum in the U.S., in downtown Harrisonburg, Virginia. “This started haphazardly,” he says. “But when I look back from right now, I can see there was a natural progression from infancy that takes me to this very moment.” photo by Preston Slaughter

On a summer vacation in 1995, in Providence, Rhode Island, Hugo Kohl noticed an intriguing item on a local tourist map. A pictorial inset, blown up to highlight a piece of the city’s historic center, said “Providence Jewelry District.” Kohl happened to have been working in the jewelry business at the time, as a goldsmith back in Harrisonburg, Virginia. With his wife and daughter out shopping on the town, Kohl hopped in his car. Once he reached the Jewelry District, he discovered … nothing: just some dilapidated old factories and run-down warehouses. Something, he thought, is not adding up.

This was a decade before Google maps, so Kohl’s most immediate mode of assistance was a nearby telephone booth. Flipping through the Providence Yellow Pages, Kohl unearthed a few jewelry businesses still in existence and made some calls. One was a company that dealt with factory-scale jewelry manufacturing equipment, and he persuaded the owner to let him visit. After a quick tour, the factory owner left Kohl on his own to “snoop around.”

Fashion’s Bi-Polar Future | Craftsmanship Quarterly, Fall 2017

“Jewelry is self-expression through personal adornment,” Kohl says. “As humans, we make art, and we stick it on our bodies to say, ‘This is who I am. This is where I’m from. And these are my aspirational goals.’ This, to me, is the meaning of life.” photo courtesy of Hugo Kohl

“You’ve got some stuff on the back of your truck that I’d like to buy,” Kohl told the driver. He then laid ten $100 bills on the hood of his car, then grabbed the stack of cash and ripped the bills in half. He then put one half in the driver’s hand and said, “If you let me get something out of your truck, I’ll give you the other half.”

Kohl soon happened upon a team of warehouse workers with a forklift, who were heaving broken boxes of steel parts into a dump truck. While one load was going into the truck-bed, a small, rusted, antique metal cabinet fell apart, and a bunch of dirty metal trinkets spilled out. Some fell on the ground right at Kohl’s feet. As the workers were scooping up the spill and throwing the pieces into the dump truck, Kohl picked up a few, then stood there in awe. “Each one of these pieces was like a little mini Michelangelo,” Kohl recalls. “They were beautiful carvings. I knew nothing of what I had, but I did intimately know the jewelry connected to this art.”

For Kohl, this was an out-of-body moment—a combination of shock, surprise, amazement, and confusion. Why would anyone throw away such masterful tiny sculptures? “To factory owners, it was just stuff,” he says. “It was nothing. It was trash. The only value it held for them was what it could sell for scrap.”

As the truck drove away from the warehouse, Kohl panicked. “I ran, hopped in my car, and I followed the dump truck onto the highway. It was summer. My windows were down. I was speeding down Interstate 95. Cars were zooming all around me, and I pulled up alongside the truck, blasting my horn, trying to catch the driver’s attention. I waved him down, pointing to the back of his truck. He thought I was telling him something was wrong with his truck, that there was an emergency, so he pulled over.”

Fashion’s Bi-Polar Future | Craftsmanship Quarterly, Fall 2017

“What impresses me the most is the craftsmanship of these tools,” says Mark Rooker, Associate Professor of Metals and Jewelry at James Madison University. “And the idea that it was all so close to being lost.” photo courtesy of Hugo Kohl

Fashion’s Bi-Polar Future | Craftsmanship Quarterly, Fall 2017

Kohl often finds modern possibilities in these historical designs. “This used to be a bracelet link,” he says about an early 20th-century mold. “But I made it into a ring. These linked bracelets are hard to sell and expensive to make. It’s a lot of labor, materials, and time. So, I took a design that had no purpose, and I made it relevant.” The ring has become one of Kohl’s bestsellers. photo courtesy of Hugo Kohl

As soon as they both got out of their vehicles, Kohl made him an offer. “You’ve got some stuff on the back of your truck that I’d like to buy,” he said. Fortunately (or unfortunately for his wife) Kohl had a large portion of his family’s vacation fund in his pocket—about $1,500 in cash. In his eyes, however, this was a chance for a priceless deal, far more valuable than a handful of gourmet dinners. Kohl laid ten $100 bills on the hood of his car, methodically placing one bill on top of the other. He wanted the driver to see the money, to take it all in. Then Kohl grabbed the stack of cash, ripped the bills in half, placed one half in the driver’s hand, held the other half in his hand, and said, “If you let me get something from the back of your truck, I’ll give you the other half.”

Incredulous but curious, the driver agreed. For the next couple of hours, in the New England humid summer heat, Kohl hauled stuff off the dump truck in search of his hoped-for treasures. Once he gathered these little nuggets, he gave the driver the second half of the money, threw the loot in his truck, finished up his vacation (his wife was bemused, yet supportive of this whimsy), and went home to Harrisonburg to unearth his stash. “All this stuff was rusted,” Kohl said. “It was nasty, disgusting, gross. I cleaned it off, looked at these tiny pieces of steel, unsure what I just bought. I had no answers, but I knew I had something very special.” Eventually, Kohl figured it out. “What I stumbled into,” he now says, “was the very end of this industry coming undone. If I’d been a year later, none of this would be here. I ended up there at the exact right moment to intervene.”

THE SEARCH, STAGE ONE

Fashion’s Bi-Polar Future | Craftsmanship Quarterly, Fall 2017

There are plenty of stores where you can find jewelry in vintage styles, but none in the U.S. that still make the items the old-fashioned way, from beginning to end. To celebrate that distinction, Kohl displays his jewelry on top of the old steel hubs that he uses to produce these items. photo courtesy of Hugo Kohl

To put the puzzle together, Kohl embarked on an epic quest for information. He bought a digital camera, piles of blank CD-ROMs (the photo transfer technology of the day), and took photo after photo of his decaying booty. After burning them on the CDs and composing query letters, he spent months mailing it all to jewelry experts and academics. He called Sotheby’s, Christie’s, the Smithsonian. “I put hundreds of these CDs out there in the world,” Kohl recalls. They’re still out there. I sent them to every university that had a metals and jewelry department.” In his letters, Kohl asked, “What is this? How was it used?” The response: Zilch. No answers. No leads.

Kohl’s first phone conversation with Peter DiCristofaro of the Providence Jewelry Museum went exactly like this: “Hi. My name’s Hugo, I’ve got some hubs.” Click. Nothing but dial tone from DiCristofaro.

Exasperated, Kohl called the only lead he had—Tony Santoro, the man whose Providence factory led Kohl to his loot. “They’re hubs,” Santoro said. “They’re worthless.”

Hubs, Kohl soon learned, are actual size, three-dimensional renderings of how a finished piece of vintage jewelry would take shape. Given how important these little blocks of steel once were, Kohl would not accept Santoro’s answer. To placate Kohl, Santoro gave him a few names, but no one wanted to talk. Finally, on a subsequent trip to Providence, during a visit to Gold Machinery, the office manager said, “You could probably talk to Peter.” When Kohl asked for Peter’s phone number, the manager said, “I can’t. Peter will kill me if I give you his number.” By this point, the jewelry trail had been cold for far too long for Kohl to put up with another dead end. While the manager was out of the room, Kohl flipped through a giant rolodex on his desk, found a card for some guy named Peter, and with a magic marker, wrote his phone number on the palm of his hand.

Fashion’s Bi-Polar Future | Craftsmanship Quarterly, Fall 2017

“A lot of these tools have changed hands so many times, it’s hard to know the exact story behind them,” Kohl says. “None of this artwork was signed by the person who designed it or made it. A hub cutter never signed his work.” photo by Preston Slaughter

“Peter,” it turned out, was Peter DiCristofaro, President of the Providence Jewelry Museum in Rhode Island. Kohl’s first phone conversation with DiCristofaro went exactly like this: “Hi. My name’s Hugo, I’ve got some hubs.” Click. Nothing but dial tone from DiCristofaro.

“People always wonder why they bought a ring only two years ago, and it’s already worn out,” Kohl says. “And yet, they have a piece of jewelry passed down from their grandmother, and it looks brand new.”

If he couldn’t get DiCristofaro’s attention on the phone, Kohl decided to present himself in person. So he took another trip to Providence, to visit the museum. “At the time, it was at a beautiful atrium in the middle of downtown Providence. There was an exhibition. And people were lined up, out the door, down the street, around the block. These were wealthy people, a little bit older, and they were paying to interact with history and with Peter.” The exhibit, staged to be kinetic, featured a collection of old jewelry machines stamping out little pairs of earrings for those who paid admission. “I was outside, I had my face pasted to the glass, watching this. It was fascinating, and I was falling in love with this beautiful little museum, thinking Peter was the coolest guy in the world. And what a great business idea.”

THE EVOLUTION OF GOLD

In the late 18th century, the foundation of the American jewelry design and manufacturing industry was built in Providence, Rhode Island, through the work of two entrepreneurial men. Seril Dodge was the first jeweler to open a shop in Providence; his nephew, Nehemiah Dodge, developed the first process for rolling gold onto cheaper metal. From these humble beginnings, small shops sprang up around Providence, with partnerships developing between managers and journeymen, all within the apprenticeship tradition. A true economic microcosm, the jewelry industry stayed exclusively in Providence for nearly two centuries, from the 1790s to the mid-1970s. “If you have a piece of jewelry that was made in the United States before 1975,” Kohl says, “it’s almost impossible that it didn’t come from Providence.”

Fashion’s Bi-Polar Future | Craftsmanship Quarterly, Fall 2017

“Humans are purpose-built making machines,” Kohl says. “I keep telling people that, and they look at me like ‘What the hell are you talking about?’” photo courtesy of Hugo Kohl

Providence’s dominance, it turns out, stemmed from its role as a key shipping port. When captains arrived with boxes of gold and silver bars—one indistinguishable from the next—they tried to make buckles, flatware and other items with their booty, simply to mark the material as their property. The drive for creativity, such as it was, brought Providence a whole new culture of silversmiths and goldsmiths.

At this point, items of jewelry were still being hand-made one at a time—an arduous process of melting down metal, cutting, shaping, forging, and hours of filing. This of course made a jeweler’s products relatively costly—adornments for the elite only. When gold and silver arrived in Providence, however, the smiths found a trick that was developed in Italy centuries ago. During the Roman Empire, clever metalsmiths invented a way to make and reproduce coins with two metal parts, called a hub and a die. The parts are shaped to match, in a kind of male-female relationship, where the female (the die) serves as the mold, and the male (the hub) serves as the driver, compressing the metal into the mold. Once perfected, this system became the enabler of one of the 18th century’s first waves of mass production.

“If you just talk to me for a little bit, then I will leave you alone,” Kohl told DiCristofaro. “But if you don’t, I will hound you until you die.” DiCristofaro told Kohl to meet him in Providence, gave him a quick tour, then ushered him out the door with an inauspicious farewell: “Never come back.”

Fast forward to the late 20th century, when demand for lower prices decimated the Providence jewelry trade, and we get another change in manufacturing technology. This time, the priority is cutting costs even further, and that gives birth to wax casting—a quick and easy way to create a seemingly intricate design. Unfortunately, because wax casting doesn’t aggressively work metal the way the “die-struck” method does, the quality isn’t the same. “The strength of the die-struck method,” says Matthew Hollern, Professor of Jewelry & Metals at Cleveland Institute of Art, is in the “precision and compression of the metal, which gives it better density, finish, and durability.”

Therein lies the difference between Kohl’s jewelry and most other jewelry made today. As Kohl likes to say, “People always wonder why they bought a ring only two years ago, and it’s already worn out. And yet, they have a piece of jewelry passed down from their grandmother, and it looks brand new.” The old one was struck; the new one was cast.

Fashion’s Bi-Polar Future | Craftsmanship Quarterly, Fall 2017

Kohl maintains a massive library of jewelry-making tools and molds that span the Georgian period (1714-1830), the Victorian (1837-1901), the Edwardian (1901-1910), Art Nouveau (1880’s-1910), Art Deco (1910-1940) and Retro Art (1938-1948). These materials, Kohl argues, represent “the art of dimensional hand-engraving at its cultural and historical zenith.” photo by Preston Slaughter

CATCH ME IF YOU CAN

After his visit to the Providence museum, Kohl badgered DiCristofaro’s office for an appointment, which of course was not granted. So, Kohl did the next best thing. He faked an appointment. He walked into the museum and told the receptionist, “I’m Hugo Kohl. I’m here to see Peter. We have a 12:30.” DiCristofaro came out of his office and immediately threw Kohl out on the street. Kohl drove back to Harrisonburg, but refused to give up. In calls and emails “I said, ‘if you just talk to me for a little bit, then I will leave you alone. But if you don’t, I will hound you until you die. One of us will have to die for the hounding to stop.’ I finally just wore him down.”

Fashion’s Bi-Polar Future | Craftsmanship Quarterly, Fall 2017

“I have no cognitive memory of not making things,” Kohl says. “I have paintings in my house that I painted when I was four years old.” Nonetheless, Kohl admits, “I’m not what those original hub cutters were, even though I aspire to be.” photo by Preston Slaughter

After three years, DiCristofaro told Kohl to meet him in Providence back at the museum. Kohl got a quick, 30-minute tour from DiCristofaro, gleaned a few answers about his salvaged steel parts, and was subsequently ushered out the door, with an inauspicious farewell: “Never come back.”

If DiCristofaro had known Kohl a little better, he might have realized that he was dealing with someone who loves obstacles. Kohl grew up as a military brat, circling the globe with no singular place to call home. His mother was a successful artist, so the one constant space in his life was a studio. “When I’m not inside a studio, I’m still behaving like a person in a studio,” he says. “I’m fixing things, I’m making things. This is a natural way for me to behave—to engage with things with my hands.” And engage he did. With hot glass, wood-working, pottery, metal—every type of medium he could explore.

Kohl got around to college a little late, at the age of 26, landing at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia—mainly, he says, because “they accepted me.” (Kohl’s high school grades were abysmal and his SATs nonexistent, so he leaned instead on his eclectic background.) Wanting to move up in the world, he figured the corporate ladder would be the easiest to climb, so he started taking business classes. At one point, his girlfriend, who was a studio art major and had an assignment to make a teapot out of silver, was struggling. Kohl heroically stepped in, the girlfriend got a good grade, and Kohl got the message: if he filled his schedule with metal-working and jewelry classes, it would keep his GPA up. After graduating with a degree in Finance and Economics, Kohl donned a suit and tie, found a number-crunching position in finance, and almost immediately felt like his “soul was dying.” Mere months later, he quit for a bench job in a small Harrisonburg jewelry store.

Fashion’s Bi-Polar Future | Craftsmanship Quarterly, Fall 2017

Another box of hubs and dies arrives in Kohl’s shop. “I think he has a unique position in American jewelry,” says Matthew Hollern, Professor of Jewelry & Metals at Cleveland Institute of Art. “I don’t think there are too many companies that are doing this.” photo courtesy of Hugo Kohl

When Kohl wants something, he can be unrelenting. While working at the jewelry store, for instance, he stumbled on a master goldsmith named Ivan Holden and resolved to work for him. But Holden wouldn’t hire him, so Kohl hounded the goldsmith until he accepted Kohl’s proposition: “If you let me work in your studio for free, for one week,” Kohl said, “at the end of that week, you can either hire me or you can tell me to get lost.” Kohl did not get lost. Over the next year, Holden taught Kohl the art of gold-smithing and a variety of tricks at the bench. In the process, Kohl also got a chance to work with a local vintage jewelry dealer and one of the largest silver wholesalers on the East Coast. Finally, in 1991, Kohl opened his own operation—a tiny trade shop in downtown Harrisonburg, where he and a partner started out doing mostly jewelry repair, often through pick-up and delivery services.

“I PAY CASH FOR HUBS”

One day, Kohl got a card from DiCristofaro that read, “This is your lucky day. I will talk to you. I might even sell you something.” Kohl immediately flew to Providence with a suitcase full of $40,000 in cash. As soon as he walked through the jewelry museum’s door, DiCristofaro said, “I’ve changed my mind, get out of here.” Kohl opened his bag of money to make DiCristofaro regret his decision, then flew home.

Kohl obeyed DiCristofaro’s order not to visit him again, but that’s as far as he went. “I was writing him letters, emailing him, calling him. He was still hanging up on me.” In the meantime, Kohl kept building his collection by buying any vintage jewelry gear he could find. He even ran an ad in the Providence Journal that read as follows: “I pay cash for hubs. Call for an appointment.”

And people started calling. Back and forth to Providence Kohl went—several times a year, for several years. He visited every person who answered his advertisement, taking “huge wads of cash with me.” By this point, Kohl’s little jewelry shop was prospering enough to get a bank to support his obsession. “If I ran out of cash, they would wire me more.” His adventures yielded all manner of surprises. “Maybe I got a milk crate full of something. Maybe I got nothing. Maybe I just got a story. I never knew what I was going to get,” he recalls. “But, I was getting stuff.”

Word started getting out about this outsider Hugo Kohl, this “ridiculous fool” who was paying cash for scrap. Pretty soon a few hundred hubs became a thousand, with accessories, and machines, and more stories. He brought it all back to Harrisonburg, but he still had no idea how to use any of it to make jewelry. So he started experimenting. Through trial and error, he figured out a process successful enough to launch a little catalog with fifteen pieces, which were essentially new vintage items. It was now the late ‘90’s and the Internet was booming. Kohl began blogging, online selling, and emailing newsletters. Sales rose, and so did production. All the while, Kohl continued his treks to Providence, to acquire more goods, to learn more history, and to badger DiCristofaro.

Fashion’s Bi-Polar Future | Craftsmanship Quarterly, Fall 2017

“One of the reasons why this project succeeded so well in Harrisonburg,” Kohl says, “is because I’m far away from New York’s 47th Street, Philadelphia’s Sansom Street, and Chicago’s Wabash Avenue. If you’re in one of those jewelry industry centers, you’re surrounded by a bunch of elder statesmen, passing down what can and cannot be done. But, if you’re in Harrisonburg, there’s no one to dictate to you. So, you just jump.” photo courtesy of Hugo Kohl

Fashion’s Bi-Polar Future | Craftsmanship Quarterly, Fall 2017

One of many shelves holding molds for bracelets. “I love that he’s preserving the work of these master craftsmen,” says Rooker, the jewelry professor. “It’s a rapidly dying art to engrave, much less to do this type of sculptural engraving.” photo courtesy of Hugo Kohl

One day, Kohl received an envelope in the mail with a card from DiCristofaro that read, “This is your lucky day. I will talk to you. I might even sell you something.” DiCristofaro then gave Kohl a date to meet him. In both disbelief and exuberance, Kohl booked a plane ticket, taking a suitcase with $40,000 in cash. “I wanted Peter to sell me something. I didn’t care what it was.” As soon as Kohl walked through the jewelry museum’s door, DiCristofaro said, “I’ve changed my mind, get out of here.” Kohl opened his bag of money and showed it to DiCristofaro to make him regret his decision, then flew home.

“ONE MORE VULTURE”

By now, the cat and mouse game was on. After a few more days of appeals and rebuffs, DiCristofaro beckoned Kohl to Providence once more—this time with the promise of a sale. Kohl flew up yet again, with another stack of cash, and DiCristofaro finally (and somewhat begrudgingly) sold him something—technically, a lot of somethings. Kohl spent $40,000 in a mere thirty minutes, starting with a $2,500 set of dies and tools to make bracelet clasps. As it happened, Kohl had zero interest in these wares, but DiCristofaro was selling to him, and that’s what mattered. The purchase soon snowballed into more. Today, those first acquisitions rest proudly on Kohl’s shelves, displayed in labeled boxes, an homage to his well-deserved victory.

It turned out that DiCristofaro’s beef wasn’t so much with Kohl, but more with what he represented. “I was watching my city and an industry that I loved being absolutely destroyed. And I was the funeral director,” DiCristofaro told me during a recent phone interview. “There was a successful business in Providence for 200 years, and the owners were patriotic, wealthy, and arrogant.” And they didn’t embrace globalization. “They’d rather go out of business than sell to China,” DiCristofaro recalls. “The things that were developed in Providence weren’t developed anywhere else. It was sad and emotional.”

When the industry finally collapsed, he said, “People from China, Japan, Germany, Italy—they came to Providence and bought every single little nut and bolt.” Some of their haul was integrated into new production lines, but most of it held no perceived value beyond the price it could fetch as recycled metal. Most of it therefore was sold as scrap or simply thrown away.

An erstwhile commercial diver and former member of the Marine Corps, Kohl describes himself as an entrepreneurial capitalist and a “mad dog Marxist.”

For his part, Kohl started to understand DiCristofaro as well. “He had moved from being a maker and a manufacturer to a broker, buying these factories, breaking them up,” Kohl recalls. “He was dealing with every cutthroat person in the world. Peter saw me as just one more vulture.”

With their new-found understanding, Kohl and DiCristofaro moved into a new dynamic, one of mutual support and curiosity. DiCristofaro actually became personally invested in Kohl’s project, wondering if Kohl could make this idea work, out in Harrisonburg, Virginia, far removed from the industry, not knowing anything. “Now I love the man,” DiCristofaro says. “And I’m making sure he’s as successful as he wants to be.”

THE “MAD DOG MARXIST”

Fashion’s Bi-Polar Future | Craftsmanship Quarterly, Fall 2017

“What Hugo does is hard work,” says DiCristofaro. “You don’t just make those filigree rings in a back room. It’s really phenomenal, even though guys like me considered him a bum.” photo courtesy of Hugo Kohl

Situated in a historic converted ice house, and part of Harrisonburg’s burgeoning downtown renaissance, Kohl’s shop is one part retail store and one part museum. The shop lures passers-by with floor-to-ceiling windows, showcasing both curious machines and polished jewels. Stroll by anywhere outside, and you can see everywhere inside. Stand upstairs in the gallery, and your gaze instinctively peers downstairs into the work space. Kohl says everything about the design, layout, and location was intentional—from what he considers a proper capitalistic standpoint. “This is how you make a sale,” he says. “When people see things being made, they make a connection, they have an ownership in it, and they’re more prone to purchasing.”

DiCristofaro considers a jeweler’s hub “the only undiscovered form of American sculpture.” Eventually, he realized that Kohl “changed the vernacular for experts like me.” To Arthur Hash, Assistant Professor, Jewelry & Metalsmithing Department at the Rhode Island School of Design, “collections like this hold the secrets to our history.”

While Kohl is plenty approachable, his presence is formidable. An erstwhile commercial diver and former member of the Marine Corps, he is fit and solid. His hands bear the marks of constant metal-work: calloused palms, dirty nail beds, a blackened fingernail, scars healed over minor abrasions. He describes himself as an entrepreneurial capitalist and a “mad dog Marxist.” As crazy as that sounds, it has a certain logic given the structure of Kohl’s operation. “Here, I own the factory,” he says. “I own the means of production. I am the management. And I am the worker. It’s immoral that human beings serve the cause of capital. Capitalism should serve the causes of humans. For that to work, you must have places like this.”

As vague and idealistic as this may sound, Kohl is trying to get at what creates the foundation for a community. “The only time that capitalism works well,” he says, “is when it has a conscience. And that’s when the capitalist lives in the community where his capital is. The problem with the investor is he’s two thousand miles away.” When some idiosyncratic community need arises, Kohl says, “It’s not his problem.” Kohl’s iconoclastic approach has allowed his shop to carve out an unusual niche in the marketplace. “I only do things that cannot be copied,” he says. “Unless you have my rolls, you can’t make my bracelets. You can’t put a mold on it, you can’t CAD [computer-assisted design] it. You can’t knock me off. And if you want my rolls, you have to buy them from me for around $100 million.”

Bravura or not, Kohl can now boast of having the nation’s largest collection of vintage jewelry manufacturing equipment that is still in operation. (The collection in the Providence Museum is larger, but it’s not a working collection.) To build this business, which he named the American Museum of Jewelry Design & Manufacturing, Kohl has gathered an entire line of early 20th-century tools, machinery, and artifacts that are still turning out jewelry. These treasures include nine-foot tall drop hammers; a brocading device; a rotary slitter that cuts precious metals into ribbons; a 1940s machine that lays out gemstone patterns (one of only two ever made); and shelves full of dies, rolls, metal forcers, and, of course, thousands of hubs.

Fashion’s Bi-Polar Future | Craftsmanship Quarterly, Fall 2017

“People are getting tired of the cookie cutter mold,” says Josh Kraybill, a member of Kohl’s creative team. “The imperfection within what we make is one of the most beautiful things about our work. Every piece is slightly different from the next, because it’s being worked on by hand at the bench. It’s not like we have machines spinning out these perfect rings. Someone actually put their hands on it.” photo courtesy of Hugo Kohl

Fashion’s Bi-Polar Future | Craftsmanship Quarterly, Fall 2017

Rolling out one of those bracelets. “It’s always been easy for me to take a wrench, or a screw driver, fiddle around, and put everything back together,” Kohl says. “When I bought my first drop hammer, the top half of it was gone. It took me five seconds to figure out what needed to be there, and how it should work.” photo courtesy of Hugo Kohl

Making just one of those hubs in the old days was no small task. When they were first invented, electric lights didn’t exist, so a hub cutter would work standing in front of a south-facing window, holding tiny chisels in one hand, driving it with a hammer with the other. And, unlike with the rubber molds and lost wax casting predominantly used today, mistakes cannot be fixed. If a hub cutter made an error, no matter how slight, he’d have to grind the hub back down to a flat piece of metal and start over. That’s much of why Kohl lives in absolute awe of a hub cutter’s skill. “This is as far as a human being can go in artisanal craft,” he says. “You are out on the edge of what a human being can do. The nervous system, the ability to see, the ability to make a decision…”

Kohl often leans toward the hyperbolic, and these assessments of the old jewelry trade are no exception. In fairness, though, plenty of other jewelry experts believe hub cutting was indeed an act of high craft—wholly unappreciated until Kohl came along. DiCristofaro, for example, considers a jeweler’s hub “the only undiscovered form of American sculpture. People don’t even recognize that it existed. Hugo has changed the vernacular for experts like me. He’s really developed the whole concept of the hub as art.” Others go further. “It’s a rapidly dying art to engrave, much less to do this sculptural engraving,” says Mark Rooker, Associate Professor, Metals and Jewelry in the School of Art, Design and Art History at James Madison University (Kohl’s alma mater). “There was so much skill in creating those hubs and dies. And so much time invested.” To Arthur Hash, Assistant Professor, Jewelry & Metalsmithing Department, Rhode Island School of Design, “collections like this hold the secrets to our history.”

Fashion’s Bi-Polar Future | Craftsmanship Quarterly, Fall 2017

“My favorite piece of jewelry is the one I’m trying to make work now,” Kohl says. “Once I solve the problem, once it’s into production, I’ve almost completely lost interest.” photo courtesy of Hugo Kohl

THE FRUITS OF LOYALTY

A good number of the hubs in Kohl’s vault cost him more than their weight in gold. For some, he paid only $5 per pound; others cost as much as $1,000, just for a block of steel that might weigh only 11 ounces. From what Kohl could tell, the wide disparity in price had nothing to do with the hub’s material or historical value—they were all made from basic, industrial-age tool steel. “Word was getting out about what I was doing,” he says. “So people started jacking up their prices.”

Fashion’s Bi-Polar Future | Craftsmanship Quarterly, Fall 2017

Despite the gritty atmosphere in Kohl’s shop, his retail store in the next room suggests high class. “Google ‘antique jewelry store USA,’” Kohl says. “The top 100 are my clients.” photo by Preston Slaughter

Eventually, Kohl assembled a collection that includes the master models for all kinds of adornments: filigree rings, signet rings, pins, pendants, lavalieres, earrings, bracelets, baby pins, cufflinks, militaria, watch cases, lockets, religious medallions, fantasy figures, and wedding bands. Beyond his working collection, which concentrates on tools from the early 20th century, Kohl maintains a massive library going back even further. Its pieces span the Georgian period (1714-1830), the Victorian (1837-1901), the Edwardian (1901-1910), Art Nouveau (1880’s-1910), Art Deco (1910-1940) and Retro Art (1938-1948). These materials, Kohl argues, represent “the art of dimensional hand-engraving at its cultural and historical zenith.” 

In order to build this collection, Kohl secured complete workstations and sometimes entire factories. Kohl stores all this material in a basement underneath his studio and in a warehouse across town, with even more still sitting in Providence. “I compare Hugo to the Met in New York City,” DiCristofaro says. “They went to Egypt and bought half of a pyramid and moved it back to 5th Avenue. Hugo literally did the same thing.” Then, to turn it all into a business, Kohl recreated a team of old-fashioned artisans.

Fashion’s Bi-Polar Future | Craftsmanship Quarterly, Fall 2017

“I get knocked off a lot in the marketplace, so I’ve been forced to up my game,” Kohl says. “We now find strategic ways to incorporate my logo into the design. So if you’re going to knock me off, you’re also knocking off my name, and that’s illegal.” photo by Preston Slaughter

“It’s part nostalgia, part technologically amazing,” says Rooker. “Consider that these tools can still produce this object. They don’t decay. They don’t break down. There’s an interesting dialogue here with what defines obsolete. Yes, the manufacturing of jewelry moved. But there was no reason it couldn’t have gone on producing just as it had for decades. It just got cheaper to do it somewhere else.”

Fashion’s Bi-Polar Future | Craftsmanship Quarterly, Fall 2017

An early Christmas present: Kohl recieves a box of hubs and dies, in matched sets, to make tiny “puffed hearts.” photo courtesy of Hugo Kohl

Kohl’s feat of archaeology never got easy. “We’ve gone from people just laughing at me,” he says, “to questioning ‘what the hell is he doing because he keeps coming back and spending more money,’ to some sort of backhanded respect, and ultimately to interest.” The evolution amazed DiCristofaro. “He’s in the middle of nowhere, and yet he’s got 2,000 clients around the country,” DiCristofaro says. “He makes jewelry and ships from Harrisonburg, Virginia. It’s the chicken capital of the world, not the jewelry capital of the world.”

For his part, Kohl says he doesn’t give a hoot “whether you think I’m a freak or not.” His existential philosophy reminded me of a quote by graphic designer Saul Bass, “I want to make beautiful things, even if nobody cares.” Fortunately for Kohl, a lot of people seem to care.

“There’s more to his jewelry,” says Amy Block, a long-time jewelry aficionado. “I don’t feel like I’m wearing someone else’s rings, from someone else’s estate. This is my jewelry, made for me, but in a unique, old style. More than just beautiful, his pieces are significant and symbolic.” This, it seems, is what finally earned DiCristofaro’s respect. “He’s stayed loyal to that decade,” DiCristofaro says. “From that product family, Hugo is the biggest and baddest.”

THE QUESTION OF ORIGINALITY

Fashion’s Bi-Polar Future | Craftsmanship Quarterly, Fall 2017

After a few quick strikes with a drop hammer, voila: puffed copper hearts. photo courtesy of Hugo Kohl

DiCristofaro likes to call Kohl a “revivalist,” largely because he has dedicated his life to a single decade of American jewelry-making history, roughly 1923-1933. These were the peak years of the famous Art Deco period, and popular jewelry at the time was made in a filigree style—defined by its delicate, open lacework. While plenty of other jewelry designers still craft wearable baubles in a vintage filigree style, their work is essentially a reproduction. “He’s not just making something in that style,” says Rooker. “He’s making it from the actual dies and hubs. That ring and bracelet you see—that set of tools—they’re the same as what you would have seen a hundred years ago.”

As might be expected, some dealers in old jewelry styles haven’t appreciated how easily Kohl can make, and sell, vintage designs in sparkling form. “There are some antique dealers who say I’m screwing up the market because no one can tell the difference between a piece made in 1901, and something I made yesterday. But, that’s how I know I’m doing my thing correctly.” In the process, Kohl has turned the meaning of an original piece of jewelry, at least from this period, upside down. “There are no originals,” he says. “The only original is the hub. Everything made from it is a copy. It’s art by means of mechanical reproduction. If you want the original, buy the hub.”

Fashion’s Bi-Polar Future | Craftsmanship Quarterly, Fall 2017

“He’s very excited about his process,” says Terry Cary, one of Hugo Kohl’s customers. “And he has a treasure in the museum that he’s really proud to share.” photo courtesy of Hugo Kohl

Looked at another way, Kohl has created a different version of new old stock, or “NOS.” That descriptor is feverishly sought by serious collectors, who love tracking down vintage items that have never been used. Perhaps knowing this, some of Kohl’s competitors have tried to pirate his work when they find it in secondary markets. (A lot of Kohl’s jewelry is sold to other dealers, some of whom then sell his wares again to vintage jewelry stores.) When Kohl visits these stores, he sometimes finds some of his wares with his logo scratched off, and being presented as true antiques, selling for many times what he’d ask for these items.

Fashion’s Bi-Polar Future | Craftsmanship Quarterly, Fall 2017

Catering to more than just Golden-Age thinking, Kohl seems to be filling an anthropological need. He’s found an untapped market that connects our past to our present, a bridge between “then” and now” in the form of personal adornment. photo courtesy of Hugo Kohl

True to his art-for-the-masses philosophy, Kohl sells his jewelry at a wide range of prices, from $100 for a modest stack of engraved, silver ring bands to more than $25,000 for a platinum, filigree engagement ring with a two-carat diamond. Most of his pieces, however, even bracelets and earrings with intricate details, cost well under $1,000. Compare that to Tiffany’s, where a simple, patterned bracelet, in 14 karat gold, costs more than $4,000. And that’s for an item that was cast in wax, and thus less durable than Kohl’s die-struck collection.

TOMORROW’S VINTAGE JEWELRY

A few months ago, while I was in town, Kohl had just returned with a new haul from Providence. With everything of overt value already carted off or sold for scrap decades ago, Kohl’s current sources are limited to collectors’ basements, attics and vaults. By now, however, DiCristofaro frequently, and happily, sells Kohl treats from his own collection. While pawing through his new stash, Kohl reflects on the lengths he took to secure DiCristofaro’s support, and his James Bond speed chase to acquire his first set of hubs. “I always think about that day and wonder what else was on that truck, if only I had known better. But now, these things are finding their way to me.”

This latest treasure trove contained an incomplete set of early 19th century tools that make a pendant or locket in the shape of a puffed heart. Kohl sorted through the trinkets like a kid in a candy store. At one point, he matched a few pieces together, grabbed a sheet of silver, hopped on his drop hammer, and in less than five minutes he placed a perfect, silver puffed heart in my hands.

“I’ve never seen him reference a manual or catalog,” said Josh Kraybill, Kohl’s technology manager. “It’s all stored in his head. It would take a lifetime to learn all these things.” Sometimes, when the machinery that Kohl rescues is missing parts, he figures out how to make a new version—yet another disappearing skill.

Before leaving, I couldn’t help asking whether modern, digital technology has a place in his vision. “I’d rather stick my face in a blender,” he said. The next moment, Kohl the entrepreneur saw an opportunity. “I have probably the biggest library of jewelry design, except it’s trapped inside pieces of steel,” he said. “What if you could scan everything and turn it into a CAD file? You could extract all sorts of design elements and manipulate them. Now that’s a powerful economic thought.” Then, after another moment’s consideration, Kohl realized he was dreaming. “I’m never going to sit behind a computer and do that crap. But I can envision a point that people do it for me.”

In the meantime, Kohl can’t help thinking about all the artifacts from America’s jewelry manufacturing history still out there, in Providence and elsewhere. “I’d like to bring it all to Harrisonburg and expand,” he says. “I want to build a place that goes beyond me. Not for my legacy. But because it satisfies me to know people will continue this tradition of making. I’ll probably do this work until I drop dead on the factory floor. That’s the best possible outcome for me.”

Alison Main is a freelance writer, graphic designer, and creative director for integrated advertising campaigns. She is based in Virginia.

© 2017 Alison Main, all rights reserved. Under exclusive license to Craftsmanship, LLC. Unauthorized copying or republication of this article is prohibited by law.

Published: October 10, 2017

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