In 2018, Kevin and Vincent Potter travelled to Providence, RI in search of antique jewelry dies, and found the Cranston Fancy Wire Company. The company was with its second owner, who had to close the business. The Potters arrived at the perfect time to purchase the company. It had been running patterned wire and sheet in gold, silver and other base metals since 1867.
To keep the antique patterns in circulation, Potter USA bought the company and the Cranston Fancy Wire Co. is now ongoing. The company offers patterned wire and metal sheets in copper, brass and silver, run through the original 1800s rolling mill that came with the company. The company is managed, and the patterns are milled and tended to by Vincent Potter, the son of Potter USA founder Kevin Potter.
--Written by Amber Soland
If the history of American jewelry making rests upon anyone’s shoulders, it is Peter DiCristofaro’s.
As curator and caretaker of the Providence Jewelry Museum in Rhode Island, the first museum in the country to chronicle the history of American jewelry, DiCristofaro is responsible for the largest archive of jewelry and jewelry making tools in the world.
DiCristofaro has fifty years of experience in the business. His experience includes, apprenticing under his uncle Andrea Salvadore, helping Tiffany & Co. find massive success in Providence, and building the Providence Jewelry Museum from his own collection.
“We have the authenticity of what was truly the beginning of the American jewelry making industry,” DiCristofaro said.
True American jewelry
For DiCristofaro, the heart of the American jewelry industry lies in Providence.
“The jewelers of New York defined jewelry for the rich,” he said, “but Providence defined American jewelry.”
According to DiCristofaro, for the first 25 years of his career, he suffered through the stigma that Providence was where to find the “cheap stuff.”
“Now, you realize that this stuff was so well made, so well manufactured. There was not a jeweler in the world that could compete, because other jewelers could make a million-dollar necklace because they could afford the stones that go in that necklace,” DiCristofaro said.
The advent of die striking in jewelry making allowed for the average, middle-class folk to buy jewelry. And not the basic Tiffany’s piece with diamond and jewels worth millions, but intricate and artistic brooches and rings that could be mass-manufactured from a single blueprint.
“A beautiful set of dies might have made ten thousand pieces that people like my grandmother—women with no money, but who had aspirations—could buy something beautiful. That’s the definition of what jewelry manufacturing was,” DiCristofaro said.
American jewelry began in Providence because, DiCristofaro said, that was where the everyday American people could experience the beauty of jewelry. He explained that he does not marvel at the shining diamond necklaces of Tiffany & Co. because“that was simply wealth, and as boring as boring could be.”
The spoons that started it all
To begin the history of American jewelry, DiCristofaro explained that die striking really began long before the invention of the drop hammer, with spoons in Providence.
To make a spoon, after shaping the spoon, a bowl shape was needed for the ladle. This was done with a small spherical, anvil punch.
“That’s the precursor to die striking,” DiCristofaro said. “If you look in history, many civilizations made coins by making a coin die, putting the gold or silver on top of it and hitting it with a hammer because they did not have a drop. That kind of bowling, or ‘spooning’ as I call it, was part of the ancient process of forging.”
Spoons were the catalyst for the advent of the drop hammer in America by John Gorham, the heir to what is now known as the Gorham Manufacturing Company, DiCristofaro explained.
Founded in Providence in 1831 by Jabez Gorham, the company, then called Gorham Silver, was a lead manufacturer of silver spoons.
“What took place in Providence, this guy John Gorham fabricated the first drop hammers because the spoon business, by the 1800s, was a gigantic business because everybody wanted a spoon—they didn’t want to eat with their hands anymore, they didn’t want to slurp out of a bowl.”
According to DiCristofaro, these drop hammers were the first to come into Providence, and in 1882, Gorham traveled to England and returned to the city with a steam drop hammer.
“The little drop hammers he made were just strong enough to make bowls, but the steam drop hammer was able to raise a three-dimensional ornament. Looking at these art pieces, you need tonnage to bring them up. That began what I will call ‘the drop hammer era’ in Providence because the local foundries started building bigger and bigger hammers.”
Later, as Gorham invested in steam generators to substitute for horsepower to move the hammers’ pulleys, the spoon business boomed. Alongside it came the forging of gun parts, buckles and saddle pieces for the Civil War. And building up steam were the jewelers who also had access to these drop hammers.
The DNA of jewelry
More jewelry and dies have passed through DiCristioaro’s hands than any other. In his career, he bought and sold over 130 jewelry factories.
“I saved something from every single one of them and that was the basis for the museum,” DisCristifaro said. “We certainly have the largest collection of jewelry making artifacts in the world.”
According to DiCristofaro, the museum was originally his uncle’s idea. DiCristofaro began to apprentice at Andrea Salvadore’s jewelry and die shop in 1970. Salvadore was taught by his uncle, an Italian blacksmith, and Salvadore taught DiCristofaro the trade in turn.
“He used to tell me, ‘you’ve got to remember shapes and lines motions, how you bend this, how you fold that, how do you make an oval. Anybody can make something round, you've got to remember shapes and motions.’ He said, ‘somebody is going to want to know this someday,’” DiCristofaro said. “He said, ‘you really have to start a museum.’”
In 1977, DiCristofaro founded the Providence Jeweler’s Museum.
One of the museum’s biggest boons was a hidden treasure—unsigned jewelry, not officially belonging to a name or company.
Through the study of dies, and the help of eBay, DiCristofaro found many unsigned pieces and the dies which made them. According to him, they were valued incredibly low because they had no brand name, but through his work, he leant credence to these unsigned pieces.
DiCristofaro lived through what he likes to call a “boom to bust” era of American jewelry making.
DiCristofaro explained that at the beginning of the jewelry industry, “all ring making is local. It requires a customer, a capability and a guy to do it.”
The 1900s saw the great boom of the American jewelry industry, but the industry was slowly disassembled after that. Factories were liquidated and after some time, die making grew into a lost art and every other jewelry maker on the block was a mom-and-pop shop. History went around and around until it became a communal experience again.
“Now, jewelry making is local again. It’s actually a very beautiful thing,” DiCristofaro said. “I’m very sad for my city of Providence, but it’s still very beautiful.”
DiCristofaro sees the Providence Jewelry Museum and other people in the trade, like Kevin Potter of Potter USA, as the means through which the trade is preserved and taught.
“[Kevin Potter] is actually the custodian of generations of die makers right now. He is, in a most perplexing way that I could ever imagine, providing legions of craftspeople all over the place with tools and dies to make pieces of jewelry from hubs that could be 150 years old. In essence, he’s passing on DNA.”
--Written by Amber Soland
Only a spare few metalworking companies survived the epic decline of the industry between the late 20th century to early 21st century.
The epitome of historic American toolmaking giants, the Frank Morrow Company, stood the test of time. Known for its impressively ornate decorative metals, the Frank Morrow Company was the last operation in the U.S. to offer patterned banding in massive quantities. It thrived in the tumultuous 20th century, survived through the more recent sways of the metals industry and the shifting whims of the Providence Jewelry District, and stood its ground nearly 30 years after their market disappeared.
Between 1929 and 2019, the company witnessed the rise and fall of the metalworking industry, the advent of Peter DiCristofaro’s true “American Jewelry,” the Great Depression, the destructive New England hurricane of 1938, the second world war and survived the dawn of the new millenium.
The history of the Frank Morrow Company is a lesson in perseverance.
The founder and namesake of the company, Frank Morrow (1901-1965), was a first generation American, the son of Polish immigrants—he anglicized his surname, changing it from Morowski to Morrow.
Frank Morrow got an early start in the metals industry in North Attleboro, MA, the heart and soul of American jewelry at the time. The city was “even ahead of Providence,” according to Frank Morrow’s son, Robert Morrow.
At the age of 12, Frank Morrow was working the foot press at a jewelry company in North Attleboro, MA 60 hours each week. At just 14 or 15 years old, he was given an apprenticeship as a tool and roll maker. This was his calling, his son said.
According to Robert Morrow, his father jumped around several different tool and jewelry companies throughout his late teens and early twenties, including a stint at the acclaimed Bates & Klinke, Inc. His yearn to learn made him adventurous. He could never sit in one place doing one job for too long.
“I never wanted to make the same repetitious type of tooling and I wanted to learn as many aspects about the trade as I could,” Robert Morrow remembers his father saying.
The seeds of the Frank Morrow Company were planted in 1928 when Frank Morrow and his brother made decorative channel for purses out of a garage. Production ceased after noise complaints, but he mused starting his own metalworking company.
In February of 1929, Frank Morrow rented a space on lower Eddy Street in the Providence Jewelry District and the Frank Morrow Company was born.
The company started with a skeleton crew of only six employees—all Italian American—and a number of tools: two drop presses, several power presses and foot presses, a rolling mill and tool room equipment, according to the Frank Morrow Company’s website, which is now unavailable.
The company was generous to its employees, Robert Morrow said. Getting its start during the Great Depression, Frank Morrow did everything in his power to keep his workers afloat, his son explained. This included remarkably high salaries.
“[The employees] were really loyal. You know, during the Depression, it was very difficult,” Robert Morrow said. “I remember the old timers saying, ‘Bob, your father was so fantastic, you know. He would get a $25 check from a customer for some order, he would break up that check and cash it and give each of us $3 and sometimes he would keep $2.’ We always had that family thing, which I think I carried on.”
Robert Morrow explained that in his father’s later years, he was paying his employees between $14 and $26 per hour, depending on their years and expertise, prior to 1965.
In the early days, Frank Morrow developed a line of decorated perforated metal pattern rolls. His father’s technique became the standard for the Cranston Fancy Wire Company, now owned and operated by Potter USA, through the expertise of company founder Al Barrette. Frank Morrow taught Barrette everything he needed to know about rolling patterned wire. Frank Morrow’s influence could even be found on the West Coast, Robert Morrow said, where his god-uncle Alowiscous Cyr—related to the strongest man alive Louis Cyr—took his learned techniques and became the king of roll-making.
The next evolution of the Frank Morrow Company was swept along by the Great New England Hurricane of 1938. The storm flooded the lower Eddy Street location with 10 to 11 feet of water. Robert Morrow recounted cleaning sea salt from miles of brass coils of that year. He described half a dozen men hauling so many loads of 200 foot long brass coils in an old truck to a farm path in Johnston, RI to unspool, clean and re-roll them by hand. His father cooked steaks in the woods for everyone while they worked.
The flooding of the Eddy Street building heartened Frank Morrow to move locations. He said, “I’m not gonna have this happen again. I’m gonna find a place on a hill,” according to his son. In early 1939, Frank Morrow moved his company to the 10,000 square foot building at 129 Baker Street in Providence, RI, where the company remained until its closure.
Over the next few decades, the company once again flourished in the turbulence of the 20th century. During World War II, the Frank Morrow Company joined the war effort by producing torpedo bearings, which Frank Morrow flaunted as superior bearings to those made by the Newport Naval Base. The company grew substantially, and the pay of Frank Morrow’s employees followed suit. In 1965, Frank Morrow passed away and left the future of the company in the hands of his son.
Robert Morrow was a different man than his father, but they shared the same trait of familial generosity. At the time of his father’s death, Robert Morrow was working at the company while maintaining his foundation Tools For Freedom out of Manhattan.
Robert Morrow founded Tools For Freedom after his term in the Navy. He explained that while on shore patrol in different countries, he was struck by the immense poverty of some of the communities in those nations. When he returned home, he concocted a scheme to give them resources:
“Concrete in developing countries was so scarce and expensive,” Robert Morrow said. “And my father had all this surplus machinery.”
The machinery in question sat unused, a remnant of over-cautiousness on his father’s part from surviving the depression and the war. It sat there just in case a piece of equipment in the shop broke during a time of crisis, during another war, and there was no machinery to be bought.
“Well, I was thinking, if my father has all that,” Robert Morrow continued, “how many tens of thousands of companies probably also have similar situations—surplus machinery, stuff standing on the floor that they have no use for?”
The project kicked off in 1959 when Robert Morrow met an engineer coming back from New York. Upon hearing about the project, he was written a check for $250, and he was emboldened to begin asking for funding from bigger industrial corporations. Robert Morrow went on to garner the support of the National Machine Builders, the American Welding Society, the Engineering Society, Brooklyn Tech and Rockefeller Brothers Foundation. For many years, Tools For Freedom was widely successful for a number of years until Robert Morrow left his seat to take on the giant that was his father’s company.
Tools For Freedom remained one of Robert Morrow’s most prideful accomplishments, and he continued to work on his project independently, giving communities software and funding out of his pocket. In February of 2020, he again visited friends in Columbia, Costa Rica and Honduras to say goodbye to some of the Catholic fathers he had worked with for so many years, including a Father Guerrero in Bogota, who Robert Morrow had known for 59 years.
Under Robert Morrow, the Frank Morrow Company changed with the sways of the market. Seeing the changing industry and wanting “everything possible automatic,” he shifted production from jewelry manufacturing tools to home decor in the late 1960s. After that, the Frank Morrow Company was no longer a jewelry manufacturing supplier.
“I’m not a toolmaker, but I have a very good eye for design, and I like to develop ideas and things of that nature,” Robert Morrow said. “But I didn’t have the mechanical background that my father certainly did.”
In 1978, Robert Morrow married Karen Morrow, neé Muhler neé Badhumburg. Karen Morrow was a force of nature in her own right. A brilliant artist, Karen Morrow designed everything the Frank Morrow Company sold by 1980. The Frank Morrow Company continued to be a family affair. In 1996, Robert Morrow’s son started to join the business side of things. He became acting President of the company after a time, though his father remained as chairman.
During the early 2000s, the home decor industry took a turn.
“Our sales just kept shrinking and shrinking. Every industry we made decorative metals for, the Chinese just took it over,” Robert Morrow explained.
Despite scores of customer groups finding cheaper materials from Chinese industries and American companies moving production to China, the Frank Morrow Company survived for another two decades.
The Frank Morrow company finally shuttered its doors in 2017. Its assets were auctioned off to a number of individuals and companies, with Potter USA being one such company. The long-standing building is finding new life as well. The graceful and ornate aesthetic of Frank Morrow Company die and pattern roll designs live on at numerous companies across the country to be reproduced for jewelry makers in the modern day, in memoriam of a goliath.
--Written by Amber Soland