This blog is about the transformation from what I used to want to do in my jewelry making and design to new ideas about how I want to express myself through my work. This past December my jewelry manufacturing company launched a new website, mfg.hugokohl.com. It is a substantial departure from the old webpage and intended to express my ideas about making objects of love.
With the launching of the mfg.hugokohl.com site I transform from a wholesale manufacturer of 1920's-1930's pierced filigree pieces to a branded collection representing my ideas about what is good design. The designs from the old website are now relabeled hkmfg.com (Hugo Kohl Manufacturing) and are faithfully lifted from our hub vault and made affordable to the vintage fine jewelry trade. I think it will be interesting to write about my work as it pertains to manufacturing products faithful to a vintage jewelry market. There has turned out to be a wealth of knowledge to be found looking backward in time to where artisanal handcraft meets the industrial age. Being a hub cutter or tool and die maker working in the industrial age jewelry industry of Providence, RI would make you one of the most skilled artisans in history.
Copying, imitating, improving, and understanding the things they were doing with their stamping and fabricating of jewelry has been challenging. Just trying to duplicate what they were doing 100 years ago has been a rewarding piece of work but not entirely satisfying. I'm also interested in voicing some ideas of my own departing from that tried and true formula to do something more risky. Reproducing “safe” designs from old Waite-Thresher or Ostby & Barton drawings faithfully is technically challenging but involves no risky personal expression. Using these workstations, libraries of design and this factory as a vehicle to express my personal feelings about the world feels like a more significant goal. It also can be a bit edgy. What I've been doing these past couple of years expressing personal tastes feels more like taking all my clothes off and hoisting my carcass up the flagpole for everyone to criticize and possibly ridicule than it does like manufacturing.
I also want to write about the meaning of work and the virtue of the skilled craftsman. Even though we operate in a competitive market place and must be successful in it to do the work I love to do, it's not just the market in general or even the specific customer I do this for. I do this work for myself and for it's own sake. I do it for the craftsman next to me who I first show my work to because he's there and the only person knowledgeable enough to even see it with an appreciative eye.
Dan Wilson and Hugo Kohl working at the bench
I do it for someone I love, for whom I've thoughtfully gathered these tools and knowledge to craft a symbol that says a true, meaningful thing. I do it because of what it means to make, invent and articulate your imagination with your hands. I often compare the tasks we do in this workshop with working in the newspaper printing facility next door. Here we spend our days crafting beautiful designs and figuring out complicated, intricate processes with the intention of crafting someone's (or my own) personal expression of love. Everything is an intense concentration of long time skill sets lovingly groomed. I think it must be less enjoyable loading rolls of newsprint onto a carriage, then running around to the back of the press to watch the folded papers come flying out of the giant printing machine. The point being that I think all of us find engaged, interesting work that challenges our imagination and intellect more meaningful that being an attendant to a machine.
Handmade means handmade
I started formally apprenticing in the jewelry trade in 1987, working under the guidance of several very talented master goldsmiths and knowledgeable dealers who specialized in vintage and antique jewelry. Through mastering the art and science of restoring these antique pieces, I developed a great appreciation for the sophisticated designs and quality craftsmanship inherent in period pieces coming from first and second wave Industrial Age manufacturers of Providence, Rhode Island. I was regularly encountering sophisticated, solidly built, beautifully designed pieces of vintage filigree jewelry. and they set the standard for what I would regard as aspirational examples of the kind of work I wanted to do. Years later, I opened my own trade shop and, in 1993, visited Providence for the first time.
Providence revealed itself to me through a feature in the travel section of The Washington Post. Described as an important contributor to American culture, a foodie’s delight and extremely friendly to tourists, it became that year’s summer vacation destination. The article also mentioned the Providence Jewelry Museum and the Jewelry District, which, unbeknownst to me, were destined to influence everything.
Armed with a tourist map and an interest in exploring some of Providence’s historic Jewelry District, I ended up making a field trip to a dealer in factory-scale jewelry manufacturing machinery. I was rummaging around in this old warehouse complex when I noticed workers dumping broken boxes of steel parts into a dump truck to be sold for scrap metal. As they were loading, one of the boxes broke open and pieces spilled out on the ground. While I didn’t have a true understanding of what I was looking at, I knew intuitively that it contained very important jewelry designs. As the truck pulled away I quickly excused myself and hopped in my car to speed after the dump truck, finally flagging down the driver at a stoplight and convincing him to sell me some of the “scrap” on the back of the truck.
It took almost a year of researching and picking the brains of numerous folks in the jewelry industry before I started to fully understand what I had stumbled across and what it was used for: The pieces I had salvaged from the scrapyard were exquisitely crafted “hubs,” actual size, three-dimensional, hand-engraved carvings of a piece of jewelry executed in tool steel. Much of this work was created in the early 1800’s.
Hugo Kohl working a screw press
From this abrupt introduction to an unknown way of making came a series of ideas about how I could cobble together a sophisticated group of artisans in the perfect space with things I imagined were out there just waiting for me to find. Almost 30 years later, we’re still at it.
The collection started with a few hundred pieces off a dump truck headed to a scrap yard over 30 years ago and has grown to over 7,000 hubs, dies and rolls lovingly shelved in my “hub vault” at present. It’s the largest working collection of its kind in America.
Assortment of hubs from the HUGO KOHL hub vault
Contained within this collection of hand carved steel hubs are the master models for Filigree Rings, Signet Rings, Pins, Pendants, Lavaliers, Earrings, Bracelets, Baby Pins, Cufflinks, Militaria, Watch Cases, Lockets, Religious Medallions, Fantasy Figures and Wedding Bands. There are Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian, Art Nouveau, Art Deco & Retro Art Designs periods represented. The collection is in the form of engraved steel blocks and rolls that represent the art of dimensional hand engraving at it’s zenith. Along the way I started gathering the Industrial Age tools and machinery associated with the hubs. In some cases I was able to gather entire factories. Somewhere along the way I realized I had become a manufacturer myself. Also a designer. And a Museum Curator. There have been numerous manufacturing experiments. Many of them didn’t work, but many of them did. In any case a number of these designs have been put into production and a team of skilled artisans assembled. Hopefully lots more are to follow. It is a huge undertaking that involves combining older technologies with newer techniques as well as my version of how these pieces should be presented.
Selection of period pieces manufactured by Hugo Kohl
Back then, I couldn't help but think about how I needed to intervene in any number of truckloads carting “mini-Michaelangelos” to the scrapyard. I was hooked on the subject, fascinated by the workmanship and determined to find and collect every loved and unloved treasure I could. Looking for hubs led to the discovery of countless other artistic treasures used in the ornament and jewelry design industry. A few hundred hubs led to thousands more hubs, die sets and rolls. These treasures led to screw presses and drop hammers. These led to complete workstations and sometimes complete factories. For over 20 years, I’ve collected, catalogued and assembled whatever I could find that I felt would be useful in building a factory that could bring back into production not just great designs but the great quality of Providence’s die struck jewelry—especially the filigree pieces.
A view of the HUGO KOHL workshop