The Kim Craftsmen company produced jewelry amid changing cultural landscapes – from the post-World War II era through the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, the hippie flower power and peace movements, and beyond – staying on the cutting edge of the market for the duration. Creating and popularizing major fashion-forward jewelry movements over five decades, the jewelry and ideas of Kim Craftsmen influenced an almost unfathomable number of young women and the jewelry industry as a whole.
THE MAKING OF A JEWELRY COMPANY
The Schimel’s, Carl and Marty, were just teenagers in 1950 when they decided to open their own business and begin wholesaling jewelry in New York City. The brothers started under the name C & M Jewelry, and purchased finished goods from manufacturers to be resold to retailers. The company’s first few jewelry lines consisted of charm bracelets and monogrammed initial bracelets. As C & M Jewelry gained accounts and clients, its resale product line expanded accordingly. Carl and Marty Schimel took naturally to the jewelry business and their wholesaling enterprise flourished in its infancy.
It didn’t take long, however, for the Schimel brothers to discover they should forge their own path. In light of increased markups and dwindling profits, they realized their role as a wholesaler was constantly shortchanged by the industry and felt the crunch on both sides. Their business instinct and artistic nature led them to venture from wholesaling to manufacturing their own line of jewelry.
Learning the nature of the jewelry trade firsthand, they began their manufacturing endeavor with confidence. The brothers acquired metals and findings to work with, good quantities of copper in particular, which was proving popular during the 1950s. They used raw copper, hammering and manipulating it into pieces like twisted upper arm bracelets and rings, abstract shaped pins, and articulated necklaces.
The methods of Modernist Art Smith, which included surrealism, biomorphicism, and primitivism, influenced the design work of this enterprising duo. One can also see the influence of New York jewelry artist Paul Lobel in their animal and figural brooches (from cats and dogs, called “pet pins,” to comedy/tragedy masks and painter’s palettes). The brother’s animal pins were not only one of their first lines of jewelry, they were also their most popular. From the 1950s through the 1990s, they introduced many designs and colored finishes, including the use of colored enamels starting in the early 1970s.
THE EVOLUTION OF KIM CRAFTSMEN
The trade name C & M Jewelry changed to Kim Copper in 1952. “Kim,” the brothers felt, was a simple, feminine name, outlining exactly what they sought to achieve in the young women’s jewelry market. Around 1958, when the company expanded into materials beyond copper, the Schimels’ started a second line called Kim Craftsmen.
There was a large amount of “mental manipulation” that went into the design process. The brothers would look at a long flat finding and realize, if bent around, they could put it on a bracelet. Or, if they combined one finding with another and added a stone, they’d be onto something even greater. Through trial and error, armed with innate metalwork and design skills, they found ways of production that functioned wonderfully. The fact that neither brother was formally trained in design is remarkable.
Carl believes the self-taught nature of their skills benefitted them, as the brothers felt freer to explore more innovative techniques in their design beyond what other manufacturers traditionally used. They sought techniques from outside the industry as well, and were able to utilize these innovations to their advantage. For example: using radio waves, they would set up their jewelry, run it under a coil, and it would then solder without the aid of a blowtorch – phenomenal technology for the 1950s.
FINDING THE KIM MARKET
Young women searching for identity through fashion made an ideal market for Kim pieces, which were made to be talked about in an artistic sense. Carl and Marty took these self-made jewelry designs and sold them directly to college students in New York. They targeted the “movers and shakers” on campuses like New York University to establish their look. They also targeted visitors to NYC, whom Carl deemed the “weekend bohemian” girls, to get their jewelry in their hands. This popular would-be-bohemian girl would sport a pin and produce a flurry of sales when her peers sought to emulate the look.
Carl uses the term “mass individuality” to describe pieces like the caged stone necklace, one of their early designs which proved popular for decades. First made in the 1950s, a colored stone was encased in hand-bent metal wire and each pendant was slightly different in size, shape, and color. In this way, each customer could choose her own preferred design. In the past, women’s adornments were dictated by their income and interest; now, young women were free to explore and to imagine their accessories as an expression of their desired identity.
In the 1950s and 1960s, most jewelry stores were not interested in attracting young consumers, as they were focused on an older, more established client base with more disposable income. Kim Craftsmen built upon its customer base by bucking this trend and expanding sales to the untapped market of young women in college towns around the country. Kim pieces were less expensive than those in jewelry stores, but unquestionably crafted with skill. Stores took notice and bought the company’s products, willing to take the chance to build “confidence and familiarity” with a new generation of customers who might, in time, return to buy more expensive lines.
Although the Schimel brothers were now mass producing their designs, they used their own platers, hammerers, and solderers in the assembly process. They methodically trained all of their employees, and quality remained extremely important to them. Every piece was carefully checked before it was released to the market, and there was always an unconditional guarantee – any Kim piece could be returned at any time, for any reason. Customers could confidently buy Kim jewelry.
Though they started with boutiques, jewelry stores, and college venues, their jewelry eventually sold at department stores like Macy’s with the advent of Kim self-contained lighted displays. Kim Craftsmen was one of the first costume jewelers to use in-store shops, or kiosks, for marketing purposes. The company even made its own kiosk models for department stores and print advertisements. The moderately priced Kim jewelry atop these kiosks was used to lure young women into department stores and make them feel welcome; this is particularly true for Kim earrings.
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