By now, the story is an old one. Industry outsources labor to foreign countries. Industry stops supporting local manufacturing training programs. Trade schools eliminate manufacturing training programs. Manufacturing trades become unpopular with young workers.
And now, we have Chapter 2: Industry niches resurrect domestic production. Industry can’t find new trained labor. Industry struggles to replace and add employees.
This story is applicable to almost every manufacturing sector, but it’s a particularly challenging one for the jewelry industry, which is often perceived (incorrectly) as being far from the leading edge of modern technology.
Historically (we’re talking the Middle Ages here), jewelry trades were handed down from master jewelers to apprentices , often – but not always – within a family. For most of history, jewelers were born into their careers. University fine arts programs around the world have long taught jewelry, but primarily as an art form, with varying degrees of practical application.
As the U.S. jewelry industry became big business in the 20th Century, jewelry training programs were introduced in junior and community colleges, trade schools, and as affiliates of large manufacturing companies. By the height of the jewelry boom of the 1980s, in Providence, Rhode Island alone, over 900 jewelry firms employed 24,400 workers. But the jewelry boom brought more than epic sales volumes: It also attracted imports, and sent manufacturers scrambling for lower priced production. In less than 20 years, most jewelry manufacturing jobs were exported, and today, total national jewelry manufacturing employment figures are only slightly higher than the Providence employment figures in the 1980s.
The U.S. jewelry industry is experiencing a resurgence of domestic production, led by jewelry designers who prefer to produce close to home and manufacturing service providers ramping up to supplement offshore production or offer one-stop-shop manufacturing services. New technologies that make domestic production more efficient and effective than ever before are being put to excellent use. Suddenly, everyone wants to know, where will the next generation of jewelers come from?These businesses need employees.
The good news is that the United States is home to many excellent jewelry training programs. From the Texas Institute of Jewelry Technology at Paris Junior College in Paris, Texas to the renowned North Bennet Street School in Boston, Massachusetts, aspiring jewelers will find incredibly talented teachers and well-managed (if not well-funded) jewelry programs in every region of the U.S. The problem is that so few students are looking for them.
Three industry initiatives are working to change that.
The Manufacturing Jewelers and Suppliers of America (MJSA) has been around since 1903, when it was incorporated as the Manufacturing Jewelers and Silversmiths of America. Most of those 900 companies in Providence in the 1980s would have been members. For its first 100 years, the MJSA supported, educated, promoted, and lobbied for jewelry manufacturers. When nearly all U.S. jewelry manufacturing went offshore in the 1980s and 1990s, MJSA reinvented itself. Still a strong advocate for the remaining manufacturing sector, MJSA also began to serve what it refers to as the makers community, creating education programs and conferences, and writing extensively for them in their publication, the MJSA Journal.
Who are the makers? Studio jewelers, independent bench jewelers, jewelers running repair and contract shops, retail jewelers who offer custom jewelry and repair services, small contract manufacturing operations, jewelry designers – the jewelry-producing diaspora scattered across the country, often working in seclusion from other members of the industry. By 2015, executives at MJSA identified a steady drumbeat of concern coming from the membership: Where would the new jewelers come from? Where were the people needed to fill the jobs?
The initiative that came out of this awareness is called BEaJEWELER. The program is focused on educating the public about careers in jewelry production, and connecting them with jewelry training programs and mentors. The BEaJEWELER online database lists nearly 300 training institutions where prospective jewelers can receive professional training, and offers those educators free space to promote their programs on the BEaJEWELER website.
On the industry side, BEaJEWELER is creating a community of jewelers willing to train apprentices, and providing those jewelers with training and support materials for running apprenticeship programs. Because so much of the knowledge about how to train a jewelry apprentice has disappeared, MJSA even published a book, “A Jeweler’s Guide to Apprenticeships,” written by jewelry teacher and designer Nanz Aalund.
The Jewelry Career Initiative
Several years ago, Terry Chandler, CEO of the Diamond Council of America (DCA), realized that the jewelry industry was facing a skills-gap. With the help of his assistant – whose husband was the principal of a nearby high school – he put together a pilot program to see if jewelry coursework in gem identification and sales could be resonant with teenagers. The program was a hit. Since then, DCA has been working with education leaders across the country to introduce students to a career path in the jewelry industry.
“It is exciting to take our nationally recognized DCA courses and work with schools to create curriculum and internship opportunities for their students.” Says JCI Director, Rebecca Shukan. “We’re fortunate to work in such a dynamic industry that values and combines business skills and creativity — let alone has limitless opportunities.”
The program offers three of DCA’s jewelry training courses to high schools, community colleges and non-profit groups. Industry guest speakers are a big part of the program, introducing students to retail store owners, master bench jewelers, appraisers, and manufacturers. Students spend time at local jewelry companies, getting hands-on experience, which helps them imagine how a career in the jewelry industry might be.
According to nationally recognized speaker and author on the topic of career education, Mark Perna, “Students who participate in programs like this develop a strategic competitive advantage, whether it is in seeking immediate employment, further education such as college, or additional certifications to prepare them for a myriad of associated careers and occupations. In addition, they learn the critical professional skills necessary to succeed at any level.”
Jewelry Kids Camp
When the marketing team of the Atlanta Jewelry Show first brainstormed the idea of introducing the Jewelry Kids Camp, it was more of a personal touch than a strategic plan. Unlike most jewelry trade shows, which prohibit children under the age of 15 from attending, the Atlanta show promotes a family-friendly atmosphere. After all, jewelry businesses tend to be family businesses, and jewelers appreciate the opportunity to introduce their children to the industry at a young age.
Like most trade show promoters today, the Atlanta team is focused on reinventing the trade show experience. A multi-day camp during the show (the Atlanta Jewelry Show takes place two times each year, in early spring and late summer) seemed like a great idea to try. The camp, introduced in March of 2018, was an immediate success. At the camp, children learn to make jewelry, examine gemstones and diamonds, and tour the trade show, all guided by a childhood education expert and enthusiastic volunteers.
Libby Brown, Executive Director of The Atlanta Jewelry Show, has received so much interest in the Kids Camp that she is exploring ways to expand the experience. “The Jewelry Kids Camp is a wonderful way to introduce children to the idea of becoming jewelers while they are in grade school.” says Brown. “We can make a lasting impression on a lot of children, while giving them a fun experience that is educational and builds self-confidence. My team and our fantastic network of volunteers has worked so hard to put this together, and we are very excited about finding ways to expand the offering.”
From Interest to Education
One way to bolster the survival of quality trade education is to produce a steady stream of interested students. These three programs endeavor to create interest in a career path that – unless one is a member of a jewelry business family – may not otherwise come to mind for young people envisioning how they will make their living in the future.
Special thanks to Rebecca Shukan, Diamond Council of America; Amanda Gizzi, Jewelers of America; Rich Youmans, MJSA; Libby Brown, Atlanta Jewelry Show; and Ann Glynn, Southern Jewelers Guild for their contributions to this article.