Jewelry museum

Hugo Kohl shows off a mold for a baby rattle at the Museum of American Jewelry Design & Manufacturing.

Bright show lights beam down on the glittering showcases of handmade jewelry. Intricate, detailed designs gleam outward from the glass cases to the customers of Hugo Kohl’s Museum of American Jewelry Design & Manufacturing. Music plays softly through the showroom’s atmosphere, but a faint tinkering sound can be heard in the workspace below. 

For those interested in watching the products themselves being created, the museum’s show room extends a unique experience. Through the glass separating the showroom from the workshop itself, customers are invited to observe as Master Goldsmith Hugo Kohl and his employees bring the antique and rare art of their handmade jewelry to life. 

Freshly established in its new downtown location in the Ice House, the Museum of American Jewelry Design & Manufacturing brings more than just average jewelry to Harrisonburg’s table. 

“Hugo’s a revivalist of jewelry from the period of the 1920s to the mid 1930s,” said Peter DiCristofaro, president of the Providence Jewelry Museum in Providence, Rhode Island, and an old colleague of Kohl. 

Over the past couple of years, DiCristofaro has helped Kohl in his endeavors to create a historically accurate industrial age jewelry museum in Harrisonburg, similar to the one in Providence. By bringing together a series of industrial and non-electric machines from the early industrial period and the molds that were originally used to create jewelry, Kohl has not only specialized his trade to the revival of this form, but created a historical sanctuary for this jewelry-making method. 

As DiCristofaro indicated, “[The Museum of American Jewelry Design & Manufacturing is] certainly one of the only establishments where you can see a retail store combined with a museum.”

Built around the premise of an old and steadily fading art form, Kohl’s jewelry is made using hubs, dies and rolls: technology initially implemented to create jewelry before the eve of a mass-producing industry. 

“Back then, computers didn’t exist; you had to do it through your own hands,” Kohl said regarding the museum’s favored practice of utilizing hubs from the ’20s and ’30s. These hubs are the casts that, through the aid of the goldsmith, are utilized to create jewelry by way of molds. Through a combination of heavy, industrial age machines and personal, human craftsmanship and refinement, Kohl’s jewelry is created through a hands-on process from start to finish, a large contrast to the automated process used in modern factories. 

The business is much more than a jewelry store in that not only is jewelry made and sold on site, but a rich history along with the trade is kept alive and well within the museum. 

“These skills are disappearing,” Kohl said. “We wanted this to be a storehouse for the history and the skills where we can pass them on so that they don’t disappear.” 

True to these words, Kohl did just that in his efforts to retain this rich tradition. He first began his journey to a career with this art form when he noticed, in the cleanup of a deteriorated warehouse in Providence, Rhode Island, that a truckload of hubs were on their way to be sold as scrap metal. 

“I got into my car and chased after them,” Kohl said. “It was a spur-of-the-moment decision that has had ramifications for me for the rest of my life.” 

Now, 28 years later, the museum holds the title of the largest collection of hubs in the United States with over 7,000 hub designs to choose from. To Charles and Ruth Hilliard, a couple who came in for repairs, the experience proved awe-inspiring on multiple levels. 

“I had a broken necklace chain and Charles lost his wedding band,” Ruth said. “We had heard good things about Hugo, so we decided to come by.”

The Hilliards were surprised when Kohl took the task straight to work, allowing the couple to enjoy their visit by browsing the displays and watching the process of jewelry-making play out below where they sat in the showroom. 

“We didn’t realize he would do it on the spot,” she said. “It’s great that they’re so accommodating. And it’s very interesting to be able to watch the process. It makes you want to come back.”  

The museum opened its new location to the public at 217 S. Liberty Street on Thursday and is already cultivating an expanding interest from Harrisonburg’s community.

“This is a life-long skill to learn,” Kohl said of his techniques for the production of the museum’s jewelry. He hopes to bring the same satisfaction he gets from the art to the city of Harrisonburg. 

“Our idea in creating this museum with this floor plan was to let people see what the process looks like, smells like and sounds like so they can get the whole experience.”

Contact Andrea Croft at croftah@dukes.jmu.edu.