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Fast Track

FASTTRACK/1stjc/mark2nd BENJAMIN MARK COLE Senior Reporter Making the new look old and turning tin into “gold” has proven the Midas touch for Burbank-based costume jewelry maker 1928 Inc. Started 27 years ago, 1928 today has a workforce of between 600 and 1,500, depending on the season, and ships out an average of 10,000 filigreed baubles each working day. Most pieces are reproductions of pins, pendants and earrings originally manufactured in the 1700s through early 1900s. 1928’s niche is “antique” costume jewelry, sold nationwide and globally, in the mid-point price range generally, well under $30 a piece. By picking out a market and largely sticking to it, 1928 has grown to about $100 million in sales, says David Sukonik, senior vice president. “Over the years, we’ve tried to get into other markets, and we’ve had our brains kicked in,” says Sukonick, a gruff, native Philadelphian who joined the company in 1976. “This is not a forgiving business.” Now, instead of trying new looks deco or modern, for example 1928 has broadened its line within the antique look. Today, in addition to rings, bracelets and pins, 1928 offers bookmarks, letter-openers, watches, small boxes, pens, picture frames, handheld magnifying glasses, scissors and even copies of Faberge eggs. But whatever the product, the look is consistent usually antiqued gold, sometimes silver, with filigree, around an enamel figurine or semi-precious stone. Changes in the domestic retailing market may have forced 1928’s hand towards diversification among products, if not style, relates Sukonick. Heavy mergering among mid- and upper-market retailers and booming discount chains has meant far fewer wholesale buyers for 1928’s wares. “Federated bought Macy’s which bought Broadway and Bullocks and Bloomingdale’s,” says Sukonik, in a shorthand rendition of department store mergers. “Now, instead of five buyers, you have one. Overall, you’ve gone from 1,000 to 1,500 department stores in the country, to maybe 100 or 80 today.” But with the additional product lines, 1928 no longer appeals only to the jewelry wholesale buyer. “We have a lot of different things out there, so we sell not only to the jewelry buyer from Federated, but the gift buyer, the watch buyer, the kids’ buyer. We have a lot more chances,” says Sukonik. Also, two years ago 1928 inked a contract with the Vatican to produce jewelry primarily pendants and pins and boxes based upon art and religious artifacts in the church’s vast Roman library. “They have to approve all designs,” notes Sukonik. For each piece sold, 1928 pays a royalty to the Vatican. “The Vatican Collection now makes up 15 percent to 18 percent of sales,” says Sukonik. In general, 1928 sells the Vatican iconography to much the same wholesale buyers as its other wares, but reaches a different retail buyer, says Sukonick. “We are reaching a new market with the Vatican Library. Our antique line sells most heavily in the Midwest, while the Vatican lines sell most heavily on the coasts, particularly ” he says. “I don’t want to reveal details, but we are looking at other religious lines as well,” he said. 1928 was founded by Melvin Bernie, the company’s original designer, as well as inventor of the proprietary antiquing process and some of the production equipment and processes used by the company. Burnie does not grant media interviews, according to Sukonik. The company was relatively small in its first seven years, reaching $3 million in sales. Sukonick, with marketing and distribution experience gained at the old Max Factor cosmetic company in Hollywood, joined two decades ago. “I already knew the buyers from the major department stores, so I had an in,” he says. “You have to make good stuff, but I could at least get them to try it.” In 1928’s 100,000-square-foot warrens near the Burbank airport, the alchemy of turning tin into gold begins with casting. First, tin (mixed with 4 percent bismuth) is made molten at 726 degrees, and poured into centrifigul molds, explains Norman Miles, production engineer. “In season (the summer-time peak manufacturing season) we pour about 2 million pieces a month,” says Miles. After a de-burring process, cast pieces are then gold- or silver-plated, and then set with stones or enamel. Sometimes a decal is placed onto the enamel, such as images of flowers or cherubs. Almost all work is done by hand. Small production runs are the reason, says Miles. “You can set up machines, when you have long production runs. But here, we are changing styles and models every day, every season. A human being can change in a heartbeat,” he says. At the heart of the 1928 operation is the antique-ing room. In an inner santuary, craftsworkers make new gold-plated castings look old, through a proprietary process. In minutes, maybe 100 years is added to the visual look of a piece. A visitor is sworn to secrecy before gaining admittance. For the future, 1928 will try to broaden its market in the antique look, and keep production in the United States. Importers of costume jewelry present ferocious, low-price competition, which 1928 tries to counter by offering quicker turnarounds, higher quality and better design, says Sukonick. “The customer right now is very pricey (price-sensitive). Our concept is to give them higher quality, something they can keep. But things are very competitive right now,” he says.

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