Jewelry with a twist: museum showcases old ways, new creations

Gwen Woolf

While biking is a popular activity in Harrisonburg, Va., jewelry makes the world go around for other visitors. A downtown company that blends jewelry manufacturing and a museum opened recently in a 1940s ice storage facility at 217 South Liberty St. near Harrisonburg’s farmers market. You can even try your own hand at making jewelry.

The Museum of American Jewelry Design & Manufacturing specializes in creating vintage jewelry using old-style technologies with modern updates.

Owner Hugo Kohl explains that, unlike antique jewelry, which is more than 100 years old, vintage jewelry represents various past eras, such as Edwardian and Art Deco.

“The museum is definitely a true gem, which we’re thrilled to have in Harrisonburg,” says Brenda Black, who promotes the area.

While Kohl, a goldsmith, has been in the wholesale jewelry business for 30 years, he became interested in the manufacturing side while in Providence, R.I., the nation’s jewelry-making capital. The idea literally fell out in front of him near a building cleanup site when a dump truck headed for the scrapyard spilled some hubs, which are small steel blocks hand-engraved with 3-D designs. Hubs used to be the building blocks of jewelry.

Surmising their importance, Kohl chased down the truck and bought its contents on the spot, thus starting a collection of hubs dating from the early 1800s that grew from 300 to more than 7,000 — the largest collection of its kind in the U.S. Then, he doggedly set about acquiring antique tools, dies, and rolls that became obsolete when commercial jewelry making changed to a casting process in the 1940s.

Kohl cultivated a prominent figure in the jewelry-manufacturing world, Peter DiCristofaro, of Providence, as his mentor.

“I don’t think there’s a facility that exists in this country that combines jewelry manufacturing with a history museum,” DiCristofaro says. “It’s a truly unique situation.”

He calls Kohl a “revivalist” who fills a niche with this genre because original pieces are getting harder to find.

 

Watching the process

At the Harrisonburg facility, a glass window affords a view into the workshop/museum. It’s not the usual museum with wall displays, but a working plant where you can watch seven artisans at work and see, hear, and smell the machines as they press and shape the metal into jewelry. There are shelves of hubs in a hub vault, old sketches and catalogs of designs, and special dies for things such as baby rattles and tea strainers.

Kohl, who gives tours of the museum — Wednesdays and Saturdays are best — is passionate about preserving this art form, and wants people to understand the importance of making things with their own hands.

“People go their whole lives without picking up a tool,” he says.

Customers can purchase a metal and, guided by artisans, make a piece of jewelry they can take home with pride.

“Your hands are going to be dirty,” Kohl promises.

In the front room, rings, pendants, bracelets, earrings, and other jewelry made on site are available for sale. With intricate designs or precious stones, they range in price from $56 to $8,000. Wedding bands are especially popular. Kohl adds innovative touches, reinterprets old styles, and is starting to put his name on the jewelry.

Most people would have a difficult time telling the difference between a newly manufactured vintage piece and an original, according to Kohl, who has a growing national reputation in the jewelry business. From a small Virginia city, Kohl “runs a national wholesale business with customers around the country,” says DiCristofaro. “Now he has an opportunity to become ‘Hugo Kohl, the Brand.’”

Kohl hopes his museum will become a regional tourism draw. “We’re not trying to rock Harrisonburg. We’re trying to rock the world,” he says. (hugokohl.com)

 

Art of the quilt

The Virginia Quilt Museum at 301 S. Main St. in Harrisonburg is celebrating its 20th anniversary at this location. The permanent historic collection has quilts with Virginia connections, and rotating exhibitions feature antique and contemporary quilts.

Upcoming events include a quilt seminar July 24–25, “Civil War Quilts: What the Women Left Behind,” and three new exhibitions, including “Botanicals of the Valley,” July 14–Oct. 3.

The quilts are displayed on three floors of an 1854 house used as a Civil War hospital. You can study the quilts’ varied colors, designs, and stitchery up close and read wall labels that explain each piece.

“Every quilt has a story,” says the museum’s Barbara Roadcap. (vaquiltmuseum.org)

 

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