The Local Jewelry Spectrum
Amanda Harpine can still describe the first necklace she ever made with sharp detail.
“It was round moonstone … with black stars in between — a simple pattern but, to me, that was like the best thing ever,” she said last week while pounding away at more difficult jewelry patterns, no doubt, at Dayton’s Silver Lake Mill, where some of her work is currently on display.
Harpine, a 21-year-old senior at Bridgewater College who grew up and still lives in Broadway, began designing jewelry when she was 11.
“At my family reunions, my great-aunt would always bring stuff to do for the ladies, and she just brought jewelry one time,” she explained. “I just sat down and was hooked.”
Last year, Harpine won the Waynesboro Innovative Student Entrepreneur competition, which provides a $5,000 grant to an area student who presents a promising business idea, $4,000 of which is designated for website development and the rest for marketing.
“Hopefully, I can start bringing in some profits with online sales … and consignment and craft shows,” she said. “Hopefully, in a couple years, [I’ll] build up enough capital to open up an official bead store.”
When Harpine was younger, her dream stopped at simply owning her own bead store.
“Since that dream is becoming closer and closer every day, my new goal or dream now is to become the biggest bead supplier in the state of Virginia,” she said.
She would be in good company. As a major player in the national or international jewelry industry, Harpine would be one of a select few who already hold that title in the area.
“Out in the middle of nowhere is this fairly interesting phenomenon,” says Hugo Kohl, owner of an internationally-renowned jewelry manufacturing business located right in the Friendly City. “I’m a person who has absolutely no recognition inside the city of Harrisonburg, but in the jewelry world, I have brand-name recognition.”
And it’s not just him, Kohl says. Rocky’s Gold and Silver in Weyers Cave was the biggest sterling silver seller in the country in 2008 and is likely still in the top 10, and that’s compared with big box stores, according to owner Rocky Simonetti.
Last year alone, the store bought from 18,000 people and made roughly $15 million.
“A dealer came last week and bought $49,000 worth of jewelry,” Simonetti said.
“He actually has an impact on a national market,” Kohl explained, before switching his sights to James McHone Jewelry — a store that he called “very well recognized” — and Tim Messerley’s Coin and Gift Shop at 1855 E. Market St. in Harrisonburg.
“The jewelry business has certainly grown, but our overall numbers are just incredible from where we started,” said Messerley, who has owned and operated the shop for about 20 years.
Gross business is 20 times the amount it was when the business started, Messerley continued.
Most of Messerley’s profit comes from his specialty coin shop, but his retail sales in jewelry have at least doubled in the past year, he said.
As for James McHone Jewelry, the store that’s been a staple at 75 Court Square in downtown Harrisonburg for more than 30 years has been continually growing, according to Hunter Woodard, business development manager.
“We’ve enjoyed very faithful clients and meeting new clients who then spread the word with their friends and family,” he said, adding that the store has sold jewelry to four generations of some families.
So, Harrisonburg area residents don’t necessarily recognize it, but right under their noses are important players in the international jewelry scene, Kohl says.
Soon, he hopes to transform a jumble of old machines into “a living, breathing museum of the period,” Kohl says, or “at least of this industry for that period.”
Throughout the past two decades, Kohl has acquired dozens of machines that create objects, including jewelry, not to mention his more than 6,000 reclaimed steel parts used to create intricate designs. He’s moving his shop, currently located in a small building with a purple door at 311 S. Federal St., to the soon-to-open, so-called “Ice House.” In a roughly 7,000-square-foot space there, he will manufacture jewelry and other precious metals pieces before the public’s eye, then sell those pieces in a showroom.
“In one place, you might see somebody spinning a goblet, and next to them, you might see somebody cutting a hub, and next to that, you might see somebody setting diamonds, and over there, you might see enamelists doing their work,” he said, standing at one end of his future store, where customers will be able to look down into the display from behind glass.
“This is the biggest sort of repository of this that exists anywhere, and these things really almost shouldn’t be in my hands; they should be in the Smithsonian,” Kohl said, now from the vantage point of his current shop, staring at his thousands of hubs — small pieces of steel hand-carved with intricate engravings that are used to make jewelry. “They have a cultural importance.”
Every Friday, Kohl’s shop ships anywhere between 50 and 100 pieces of jewelry made with those hubs throughout the nation, he said.
Even much smaller scale jewelry makers have seen a surge of people partaking in the craft.
“In the 60s, we … kind of noticed a graying of people participating,” said Sarah Lock, a 64-year-old silversmith in Harrisonburg who graduated from James Madison University with a metal-smithing degree almost 30 years ago. “The last few years, [I’ve] now noticed a lot of younger people. … It’s getting to be a better mix than there was a few years ago.”
Lock is one of about eight jeweler members of OASIS Fine Art & Craft, the downtown Harrisonburg artist cooperative. She encouraged other jewelers to consider joining.
“I sell better if there are several other good jewelers in a gallery with me,” she said. “I don’t discourage competition.”
Barbara Polin, owner of SoLace Studios Fine Handcrafts in Elkton, who sells work from about a dozen jewelers in her 14-year-old store, has also observed the trend.
“I have noticed an increase of [jewelry] artists who would like their work represented at SoLace,” she said.
For one young local jeweler, the industry provides a creative outlet through which she hopes she can also earn a living.
“I love being able to create something with my own hands and seeing people love it, people enjoy it, people wanting to buy more,” said Harpine, whose business operates under the moniker “Amanda’s Jewelry Box. “People always tell me, ‘Do what you love, make your dream job what you love,’ so I took that to heart.”
Contact Candace Sipos at 574-6275 or firstname.lastname@example.org.