For this, the second in a series of oral history interviews on Jewelers’ Row in Philadelphia, we speak with Rona Fisher of Rona Fisher Jewelry. Rona is a jewelry artist and designer who has been working on Jewelers’ row for a decade. Trained as a fine artist at the Philadelphia College of Art (now University of the Arts), Rona found jewelry design through a passion for crafts and has built a successful business that thrives in the Neff Building on Jewelers’ Row.
On September 28, 2016, Kevin Wohlgemuth spoke with Rona about how she got her start in the jewelry industry and made her way to Jewelers’ Row. Rona also discussed how her business works in the context of the industry and her thoughts on the proposed development. This interview was transcribed by Angelina Jones and Kevin Wohlgemuth.
PART 1: BECOMING A JEWELER
Kevin Wohlgemuth (KW): Tell me, how did you get into the jewelry business?
Rona Fisher (RF): I started off as a fine arts painter. I went to Philadelphia College of Art, now University of the Arts. I think a lot of people that go to art school after they’re out and then introduced to life in general and the realities of it. It’s like, “Oh, yeah, nobody really cares that much except me and my other artist friends.” So, you can choose to be an artist part-time and do something about your economic reality. Or you can take the chance of trying to bring both together, which I did… I didn’t want to do that with painting, because I don’t like the gallery scene that much. I went to a fine craft show in Berkeley when I was living in San Francisco, and all these great glass blowers were showing and selling their work, starting the glass movement from Seattle, they were coming down the coast and doing shows… the work just blew my mind. This is fine art and it is craft, because they’re making kind of functional things. The pieces are gorgeous . I realized that they don’t know what’s going on [over] on the East Coast. They have no idea about this. Because the fine arts department was very concerned that we stay with fine arts instead of deviating to these lower, lesser kind of kitschy, crafty things. I was like, “they don’t know about this, they don’t know this is happening.” Amazing work, amazing. Right then and there I thought, “Okay, I’m going to spend my year just scraping by financially, living as cheaply as I can, working as little as possible, and playing with different media and find out what else I want to do besides be a painter…” It’s kind of a shame to waste yourself on a menial job just because you need to pay the rent. I wanted to devote my whole life to being creative, not just part of it.
KW: How did you then focus in on jewelry in particular?
RF: I played with a whole bunch of different things and that was the intent, just to play with a lot of different things and see what would fulfill [me]… one that I wouldn’t get bored [using]. If I’m going to do something for the rest of my life, I’m not going to get bored with it… it had to be challenging, to have many layers, so that was pretty much it. Don’t get bored with it.
There were a lot of things I played with, they were fun, but for some reason I took a piece of silver to play with it one day… I knew nothing about jewelry making, but I just had a feeling. Now, twenty-some odd years later… it’s still amazing.
There are so many techniques and if you get bored, you just try to learn a new technique and suddenly you’re in student mode again, discovery mode and you get all inspired. Even if you never use it for anything. You’re in the inspirational mode and it just kicks on the creative juices again. From just making things by hand, doing all my wax models by hand, with simple tools, or fabricating from sheet and wire and then going all the way into CAD/CAM [Computer Aided Drafting/Modeling]…the adventure continues.
Kevin Wohlgemuth: One thing that we wanted to do in starting this blog is… to get a feel for the history of the people working here and their stories… I think the public knows Jewelers’ Row and what it is but not how it works behind the scenes.
Rona Fisher: Everybody knows about it. I’ve had three big moves in my career here. The first time I moved into Jewelers’ Row, my customers were very happy- they were saying things like, “Oh, thank God! Now we know where to find you.” Everybody’s heard of it. Everybody’s come down here as a child or their mom dragged them down here to get a little birthday tchotchke. I certainly did in the day. I was pretty excited to move down here. It’s convenient, everyone knows about it. We have our own designated police force. That’s really nice. My first studio was in Northern Liberties and it was an artist building at the time, which had its own fun ambience…
KW: When was that?
RF: 1991 and I was there about 15 years. Then the real estate boom happened and the owner, his wife was an architect, so they had bought the building as an investment property… [so when the boom came] they were happy to be selling it. Of course, we all had to scatter somewhere.
KW: Is that when you came here to Jewelers’ Row?
RF: That’s when I came to the area. To 8th Street and then about 5 years after that I moved into this building.
KW: Where on 8th Street were you?
RF: Right across, actually, Lynn’s Jewelers, right upstairs. I was there for five years and I kept my eye on this building. I heard it was for sale. It did get sold, and as soon as that happened I was over here every two days to see what was happening. And as soon as I heard the hammers I went looking for the owner. Okay, now I’m going to get a space, because it’s going to fill up. And it was raw space. This entire floor belonged to Metal Market Place, which is on Sansom Street now. The recession caused him to downsize immediately.
KW: You were able to build out your own studio space?
RF: Yes, I designed this myself in my CAD program… I’ve been here now for 5 years.
KW: You said that early on you were doing everything, you were doing the design and the bench work…
RF: Yes, in the beginning I was doing everything. First of all, I wanted to know how to do it and it was only me selling it at flea markets, actually, in Germany. That’s where I was living. That’s where all the crafts people took their wares because they weren’t allowed to take them anywhere else. They would hide them behind the dishes and stuff, and the public knew. The public came for it, they were thrilled with it. It was a cat and mouse game.
KW: Where in Germany was this?
RF: In Munich. So that was kind of fun. And you know, I was just learning. I was just sitting there with a tool or two and a file and a very detailed book. I didn’t have money for any elaborate tools. In the beginning, I didn’t know what I was doing and so that’s where I sold my pieces.
KW: When was that?
RF: That was 1984-1991.
KW: Before coming to Northern Liberties…
RF: And then I came here and everything was different. I felt like I had to learn it all over again. The tools were not as nice as they were over there. We just had clunky tools by comparison. It was like, “God, this thing is huge. What is this?” I mean, I brought all my hand tools with me but sometimes you need a replacement…they had nicer tools.
KW: Then how did you transition into what would become this business?
RF: There was a really good and important wholesale craft show at the Convention Center for a long time. And I didn’t know anything about how to sell my things to stores. I had been selling in Germany to a few stores but I didn’t know how to do it here. So I was just wandering around with some friends on South St. and there was this nice store and I wandered in and the proprietor said, “Wow, I like your necklace, who made it?” And I said I did. And he said, “Oh really, I want to buy it!” I said, “You can’t have this one but where do you buy the rest of this, where do you find your artists?” He said, “The Buyer’s Market at the Convention Center. Check it out.” I said, “I will and I’ll see you there. I’ll get it together and see you there.” So I went to walk it. I was a little nervous so I went the Convention Center at the time and took a look and everything was very nice, everyone was clean and had nice displays and were very professional. I felt very like, “Oh my god, I can’t do this.” So I walked up to someone that looked friendly and said, “Well, I’ve never done this before and I’m really nervous about thinking about doing it.”
And he said, “Oh just do it, it’s fine! We’re just cleaned up here. It’s fine, really. Take a look around and see what works and just start. It’s really ok.” He said of all the stores, most of them are artists anyway, just dressed up.
He was really reassuring. Most jewelers were not that supportive of each other. Since the recession, we are more supportive and more willing to talk to each other.
So I did, I got ready and the next year I just thought I’d make a lot of things and show up. It was juried so I got in. I had some nice slides made. I got in and I’ll never forget, I took $10,000 worth of orders that first time. I was like, “Yeah baby! Alright! How am I going to make this stuff…?” So, I immediately needed some help to fill these orders. I found art students and jewelers and had no idea what I was doing with employees. I didn’t know how to manage. But somehow it worked and we were profitable and I was kind of glad that things slowed down because I didn’t have time to think. It was just filling orders. The summers stores needed things; they’d call and say “We’re out of these and we need them right now.” They had a very short season. I was doing all the casting and, getting up at 5 in the morning coming in and casting. Getting done by 6 because it’s not healthy to be in that environment and I didn’t want to expose my jewelers to it so I had to air the place out and get everything up to code before the employees came in.
It just kept escalating from there. 10%-15% growth every single year and then I noticed things slowing down and then retail was getting better than wholesale. It really started before 2008 and I think a lot of people will say, at least in this business, that 2001 was their very best year. It was my best year at that point
I was really getting burned out so when things slowed down I was like, “Let’s check out the next phase.” And then things really slowed down… the economy is “low end” and “high end”, there’s no middle anymore… let’s see what the low end is like because at least I have the money to do a line “low end.” I really didn’t enjoy that at all… I didn’t like working like that so I was going to go for the higher end and just invest slowly. I’d make a piece in gold and sell it and then make 2 pieces in gold and, stuff like that. Just do a full-fledged better line. I still have less expensive pieces but they all have gold in them. So instead of starting at $35 we’re starting at $395 and up. But then we can take our time and enjoy our work and put some creativity in it. It’s more rewarding. My customers do appreciate the care and the design and the gemstones. They’re usually people that like art and jewelry a lot and are really excited to see new designs. They’re kind of like your patrons. They want to support studios that are interested in creating new pieces…
KW: Do you mostly work in CAD/CAM now?
RF: Yes, I do now. There are some things I’ll do by hand, because it’s a better way to do it. So, I have all of these tools at my disposal and I know exactly the limitations by now and what each can do and what is the right tool for the right project. Like I would not make one of these big bracelets in CAD/CAM, that would just be ridiculous. It would cost a lot to get printed and and it would be a lot of hand work anyway in the end, so it’s easier just to do it by hand in the first place. The look of the jewelry itself doesn’t look like it is CAD/CAM and that’s the entire point of it. It’s just a tool that you can master and use to express your artistic vision.
KW: It’s not cheating… You’re still designing.
RF: Yeah, it’s from your head. It’s faster and if you as a maker like the perfect machine made look, then go for it. It’s your own style, your choice. You’re free to do what you want…
KW: Is there a particular metal or stone that you really like working with the most?
RF: Lately I’m really into palladium, using palladium with 18 karat yellow gold, or rose gold. I like the contrast. I like the color of platinum, but there are a lot of things about platinum I don’t like. I was never very excited about platinum as a jewelry metal… [Rona pulls out some pieces to show Kevin]
KW: Was this done in CAD/CAM?
RF: Oh, yeah.
KW: I like the rustic look of it.
RF: I don’t want it to look like it’s made by machine. [CAD/CAM] is a really good way to sketch out your ideas once you get used to working with it, which takes a while. It’s not for the faint of heart after working by hand, it’s a difficult switch…
I especially love working with two metals, with this piece, palladium and 18 karat, and I created it in Rhino, the CAD/CAM program, and I figure out how we’re going to actually create it. So, there’s two castings that go on. One is the palladium, the other is the 18 karat. Everything has to be split up and then Lorelei [the bench jeweler] has to assemble it all. So, I go from creative mode to manufacturing/engineering mode. It’s like how we’re going to actually make the piece in a proper amount of time.
The communication between myself and my bench jeweler [is really important], so that she knows exactly which direction I’m going and where each piece gets fit without having to figure it out herself. So, I number everything. Everything gets a number that gets printed on the piece and it’s very clear. Then she just has to match numbers up…
KW: Is Lorelei the only bench jeweler that you have, the only one who is fitting the pieces together?
KW: You design the pieces…
RF: Yes. And [Lorelei] does what’s called “bench work.” Then my stone setter, who is a master diamond setter, so he sets the stones. When I started I did everything, including the casting and there was no time or energy left to design…
Everybody has their area of expertise, there are so many processes and it’s so labor intensive that it’s better if you have one person that just sets stones, because then they know every single way of setting stones…
I got to a certain point with stone setting and decided I really have to stop. [I decided] that design should be my major job, just design and running the company, that’s enough and that’s what I should focus on. I never really taught myself or learned to do complex stone setting… I’ll show my setter my master model on the screen and everything’s huge. And I’ll ask what he needs to set the stone to make it look really nice, so he doesn’t have to struggle setting the stones. He does everything by hand .
So, he will advise me a lot, which is a good thing, because he’s been setting stones since his father had a jewelry business. That’s typical. The jewelers have been in the business and if they don’t want to take part in their parents’ business, then they’ll work for somebody else or go out on their own, and will usually specialize in something. Which is what he did, he decided to specialize in stone setting.
KW: Did you know people on Jewelers’ Row already [when you decided to move here]?
RF: Not really, no. I was pretty isolated over there in Northern Liberties. I just went there and did shows and came back [to my studio]. I would come over here [to Jewelers’ Row] to pick supplies up, but I didn’t really know any of the other jewelers…
KW: Do you also live around here?
RF: I live in Northern Liberties. I live close by. I can always get here by foot or by car. Another reason, I like to be near the studio space, even if there’s a giant snowstorm and nobody can get to work, I want to come in and play. Because, it’s [a type of work] that is play also… [Jewelry design] can sometimes be aggravating. Little expensive things can cause some stress. I wouldn’t put these hours in if I were an accountant. No way.
KW: What kind of hours do you work?
RF: Oh, probably fifty to sixty hours, plus then I go sell on weekends like twice a month, so I don’t even count that.
In the second part, Rona talks about what it’s like to work on Jewelers’ Row and how the row inspires her.