Hidden Histories: Peter DiCristofaro and the Providence Jewelry Museum
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