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Rhode Island Jewelry: One Company's Story Of 21st Century Survival

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Some of LDC's products on display at their East Providence headquarters
Edgar B. Herwick III/WGBH News
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There nothing from the outside of the unremarkable, industrial building in East Providence that houses LDC, Inc., that even hints at the sprawling, gilded, controlled-chaos inside. There are more chains, beads and pendants that you can imagine. Designers sit at artfully cluttered desks, sketching with pencil on paper. Hundreds of metal baubles stew in metal vats, being cleaned and polished. And George Cantara sits at one of a few dozen hulking orange and green machines with a tweezers, plucking and placing delicate steel hoops.

Cantara presses two buttons, and with a huge thump, a metal die strikes down on the hoop, leaving it looking a little more decorative.  

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George Cantera die strikes hoop earrings
Edgar B. Herwick III/WGBH News

"It’s a steel hoop that we’re embossing a pattern in the bottom of," explained Ed DeCristofaro, who now runs this company that his father started more than 30 years ago. "Back in the late 80s and early 90s we made all these different dies with different patterns if you look on the shelf behind you."

These made-in-the-USA hoop earrings are considered fashion jewelry — or costume jewelry. They are the inexpensive-to-medium priced bracelets, bangles or necklaces you might buy at a mall kiosk — or from a retailer, like J. Crew or Anne Taylor. For much of the 20th century, if you were you were buying these kinds of adornments, chances are they were made in Rhode Island.

"Providence was once the jewelry capital of the world," said DeCristofaro. "Between Providence and Attleboro, absolutely the jewelry capital of the world — fashion jewelry capital of the world."

In the mid-1980s, America’s smallest state boasted some 25,000 jewelry workers at 900 companies pumping out a million pieces of jewelry a week — about 80 percent of all fashion jewelry manufactured in the country, 

"It’s a very, very hard-working industry," said DeCristofaro. "No one in this industry makes money without working hard and nobody survives without working hard."

Hearing DeCristofaro talk about the industry he’s been in since the age of 15 — and its history here in Rhode Island — is a bit listening to a Bruce Springsteen song.

"Model makers were third and fourth generation," he explained. "Their great-grandfather, their grandfather, their fathers were model makers. What were they gonna be? A model maker. It was already predetermined for them. And it provided them good livings."

And true to the Springsteen form, the hard times came: the post-NAFTA exodus, and the rise of cheap manufacturing overseas that devastated the industry.

"The industry changed," said DeCristofaro. "They worked as hard as they could, and it still changed on them. Some of these guys they were older and they kept looking at it like, 'It’s leaving, it’s leaving, it’s leaving.'”

But DeCristofaro was still young and determined that LDC could survive. And that meant changing, too.

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Some of LDC's products on display at their East Providence headquarters
Edgar B. Herwick III/WGBH News

"It was a constant evolution," he said. "We started making tools and dies for people, and [when] that was changing we started making component parts and pieces and selling those to other manufacturers."

Today, a nimble company of 40 employees, they do it all. Their chief business is the design and manufacture of finished jewelry products for name-brand retailers. 

"Most women out there probably own many, many pairs of LDC hoops — they just don’t know it," said Executive Vice President Jennifer Brousseau. "They’ve been wearing it under another brand name."

LDC is able to compete with cheaper overseas companies in part because some customers still want products made in the USA.

And some of their customers simply want flexibility and fast turnaround, which Alexys Garrepy, director of sales for LCD, says is the company's specialty. 

"A lot of other places I worked before, you worked with a lot of overseas vendors, you weren’t able to be quick with things," she said. "LDC is very quick. It’s a huge, huge selling point for us." 

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A 3D printout and the finished product of an Alexys Ryan pendant
Edgar B. Herwick III/WGBH News

But retail is also transforming. And so LDC’s newest evolution is their own line created by Broussard and Garrepy, called Alexys Ryan. It's sold direct to consumers, primarily online.

“It’s a simple line with clean, recognizable for icons for pendants, and the comfort was really important to us,” said Brousseau.

“And affordable,” added Garrepy. “We wanted to make sure we were affordable.”

And to help keep it affordable, much of their Alexis Ryan line is made in China.

Such is the picture of 21st century manufacturing in America. Drill presses from the early 1900s and 3D printers are both used to make a bracelet. Products manufactured in China help keep a small company afloat, so they can make other products right here in the U.S.

As for whether jewelry’s future in Rhode Island looks as bright as its "glory days?" Maybe not. Still, DeCristofaro says this is the place to be.

"There’s new energy in it but you gotta go find the new energy. It’s not gonna come to you," he said. "You really need those core competencies, and they are here. The finishers are here, the platers are here, some of the stone suppliers, they’re still here. So you need to be here."       

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