Atmospheric Differences

When you think about how a beautiful piece of jewelry came into being, you picture a skilled artisan in an attic studio surrounded by sparkling piles of diamonds and colored gemstones and bars of gleaming gold, right? Well, no. You probably know there are two types of jewelry factory: cramped, grimy back rooms where a half-dozen workers file, drill, set, and cast jewelry; and huge, sterile plants where rows of workers perform meticulous, repetitive tasks.

That situation may be changing. Today, a handful of manufacturers are proving that jewelry factories can possess enough charm and comfort to keep workers happy, production efficient, and problems at a minimum.

We visited the jewelry production sites of three such manufacturers: José Hess and Alex Sepkus in New York and Steven Lagos in Philadelphia. What sets them apart is that all three approached the design and setup of their factories with the same attention to detail they give their jewelry.

José Hess

José Hess has been producing and designing jewelry for more than 52 years. He began his training in early childhood and set up his first shop on New York’s 45th Street 37 years ago, in a space “just big enough for a desk and a bench.” Hess moved twice to larger quarters on 45th Street, but after enjoying rapid growth and success, he relocated to a building on Madison Avenue, where he took an entire floor and created a “state-of-the-art” production facility. The designer remained there until the late 1980s, when the threat of a huge rent increase signaled it was time to find a place of his own. That move, which he made about 12 years ago, took him to a 10,000-square-foot loft space in a former warehouse building in downtown Manhattan.

The deserted warehouse lacked plumbing and electricity, but Hess and his wife, Maggie, painstakingly fashioned it into the workplace of their imaginations.

Ever the artist, Hess retained the building’s charming touches, including massive iron fire doors that close off the central section from the rest of the building, elegant exposed brick walls and curving archways, and large windows that allow light in from east and west. The rest of the space was divided into smaller specialized sections earmarked for each type of work, such as casting and setting, design, sales, quality control, and shipping.

The building, located west of SoHo and Tribeca in an urban working-class neighborhood, houses a number of businesses. Tenants include a theater group, a printing house, and several street-level eateries. Diagonally across the street is an after-hours jazz club. Neighboring buildings range from dilapidated warehouses and auto repair businesses to upscale, remodeled buildings tenanted by advertising and publishing houses.

Hess employs about 30 workers in his shop, some of whom have been with him more than 20 years. Group pictures, soccer trophies, and other personal memorabilia decorate the offices and common space.

The first impression one has when getting off the elevator is of a chic showroom. Two overstuffed armchairs covered in leopard-pattern throws stand outside a glassed-in reception area. Inside, the feeling is one of carefully restored surroundings reflecting a past era, exemplified by exposed brick and hardwood floors.

Spaces are softened by live plants, fresh flowers, grapevine wreaths, and dozens of photos of José, Maggie, friends, employees, celebrities, and industry notables. The “Hall of Fame” greeting visitors is covered with photos and citations as well as countless design awards. Throughout the offices and shop are framed reproductions of ads showing some of the company’s award-winning pieces. Moishe, Hess’s orange tabby cat, patrols the premises.

The shop is located at the center of the loft and divided into four sections, two for jewelers, one for diamond setters, and one for model makers. A wide aisle separates the sections, which remain in close enough proximity for workers to talk, ask questions, or socialize while doing their work. Regular meetings are held in this space to allow workers to discuss new projects or technical issues and to learn about new promotional and advertising ideas.

Surrounding the shop are smaller offices around the perimeter of the loft. These house graphics, accounting, a showroom, sales management, and quality control. A walk-in vault is adjacent to the shop. It’s large enough for workers to wheel their steel work wagons into their own parking places to be secured for the night.

A small kitchen with stove, microwave, refrigerator, and tables is located at the back. The shop closes for lunch from 12:45 until 1:30, and workers are free to eat in, visit one of the neighboring restaurants, or run errands outside. A Portuguese restaurant on the corner knows José Hess and his employees well: They have their annual Christmas party there every year.

Alex Sepkus

What began as a cramped space on the 15th floor of a building on New York’s 47th Street, where one jeweler had to rise and move his chair before his neighbor could get out, has morphed into an elegant open space that employees of Alex Sepkus say they love to work in. Moving to a larger space on another floor of the building helped, but two critical factors were necessary to create the transformation. One was the work of a talented architect. The other was the realization by company principals that people work better when they have some say in the design of their workspace.

Today, the design and manufacturing of all jewelry bearing the name Alex Sepkus are done in an airy, open space occupying 4,400 square feet. The area is divided into a reception area, small offices, a design atelier, workshop and casting department, lunch room, and showroom.

The architect, the wife of the Sepkus factory foreman, designed the space with an eye toward providing maximum work area with lots of storage. She created closets and drawers not only for storage but also to camouflage essential but ugly production equipment like propane tanks and tools. Each bench is designed with the lighting fixture of the worker’s choice, shelves that keep tools within easy reach, and a microscope that allows detailed finishing.

“She did the design, and we did the hunting for materials,” explains partner Jeff Feero. The warm-toned cherrywood benches, doors, and shelves came from Ikea; the decorative iron chairs in the polishing room were used in the Sepkus booth at a trade show.

Although the light in the shop is good, the view is not: One side looks out on an airshaft. Making the most of the natural light, yet affording a degree of privacy, are a series of translucent Plexiglas screens hung in front of the windows. Their clean, glossy surfaces reflect light inside the shop and at certain hours produce a glowing light of their own.

“When people come to work for us, we tell them to forget what they learned in other shops,” Feero explains. “We reinforce a higher standard for work, and as a result, we get better work.” He also notes the importance of the comfort factor. “When our workers want to see if they can make more money at another shop, and they see the other manufacturer’s conditions, they often rethink what they have here and reconsider.”

Employees’ satisfaction with their environment results in increased productivity, a higher degree of quality-consciousness, and no theft. A quick tour of the premises shows workers taking pride in their work. “Our employees regard this as their own space,” says Feero. Their response when the new shop was complete? “Thank you for building us a better shop.”

Steven Lagos

Putting his unique stamp on a four-story building just outside Center City, Philadelphia, Steven Lagos has created a kind of signature work environment that dovetails perfectly with his designer collections.

Just over a year ago, he bought the Walter P. Miller building at 441 North Fifth St., a large brick edifice that looms over a quiet manufacturing center. Lagos totally renovated the top two floors, where he employs 115 to 120 people. The top floor is devoted to offices and support services, and the lower floor to production. They’re connected with elevators and interior stairs. There’s also a state-of-the-art security system.

Steven Lagos has racked up some impressive credentials. In business more than 20 years, he maintains four signature boutiques-in Philadelphia, Beverly Hills, New York, and Las Vegas-and will manufacture and ship 120,000 pieces of jewelry this year. Like many designers, however, he began small.

Lagos opened his jewelry business in 1977, working out of the basement of his Philadelphia home. He was partnered by his wife, Ann, also a jewelry designer. After a few years, they moved to a shop in the city’s jewelry district. When burgeoning sales volume demanded a larger space, Lagos took the giant step of buying his current building, where he occupies a 42,000-square-foot space. There’s enough room for the company to triple in size.

In addition to its spaciousness and modernity, the most visually stunning aspect of the workplace are the views of the city. Workbenches are positioned facing large plate-glass windows, which not only provide superior natural light but also afford workers a clear view of the financial district, low-rise industrial buildings, and residential neighborhoods.

The production floor is set up to facilitate a logical progression of steps-wax carving and drawing, stone-picking, color matching, casting, assembling, gem-

setting, polishing-allowing finished pieces to end up where they began, ready for final inspection and shipping. Wax models, samples, and design archives are arranged neatly throughout the premises so every design can be seen at a moment’s notice.

In addition to offices and production areas, special rooms are set aside for amenities such as a photo studio with a full digital setup, a spacious lunchroom that encourages employees to mix and mingle, and an elegant showroom housing a selection of the latest designs. Walls throughout are decorated with framed photos of Lagos designs and ads.

When describing his workplace, Lagos eschews the term “factory,” believing it connotes a drab, dingy working environment. Instead, he refers to his operation as “design studios.” We’re a totally vertical company,” he says. “From back-of-napkin designs to retailing on Madison Avenue.”

Because his gold and silver jewelry is not a traditional product, Lagos says his company is “manufacturing-centric,” meaning every step of design and production is “value engineered” using the skills and experience of his staff, some of whom have been with him more than 10 years. “This place is all about manufacturing,” the designer says. “Eighty percent of my budget for the move was devoted to manufacturing space, the rest on administration.”

By staying in the city, Lagos didn’t lose a single worker, and he was able to hire about 40 new employees.

“My goal was to create an environment that was safe, productive, clean, healthy, pleasant, and offering the same benefits as other industries,” Lagos explains. For example, a 401K plan and health insurance offer employees security, a company newsletter featuring personal interviews with employees inspires loyalty, and regular meetings in the “Welcome 2000” conference room keep everyone informed about company activities such as new collections, advertising, events, and promotions.

By all appearances, Lagos has achieved his goal: “I wanted to create a state-of-the-art environment where people want to come to work.”