To hear it told, Newark, N.J., was famous for three things: leather, beer and jewelry. These once-monstrous industries have shrunk over time. The number of leather tanneries dwindled before World War II, and the conspicuous Anheuser-Busch plant is the one remaining beer producer. Likewise, the Krementz & Co. building – plated with shiny gold just like the jewelry made inside – is the lone relic of a century of Newark jewelry manufacturing.
Ingenuity, a strong policy of service and versatility in product have kept Krementz & Co. alive for 131 years in Newark and made it one of the most well-known names in the jewelry business. When Chairman Richard Krementz Jr., the third generation to oversee the company, announced in April he’s looking for buyers for the bread-and-butter jewelry divisions, one thing was sure: the Krementz name will live on, but the legacy of the invincible, family-owned company is coming quietly to an end.
AN AMERICAN SUCCESS STORY
George Krementz, the company’s founder, was born in Germany in the 1840s and traveled with his family to the U.S. at age 8 or 9. The family of farmers settled in New Albany, Ind., a community of German immigrants.
Krementz had higher ambitions, however, and left for New York City as a teenager to become a jeweler’s apprentice. His cousin, Julius Lebcheucher, lived across the river in Newark, where manufacturing jewelers had converged since the early 1800s. In 1866, the cousins teamed up with three other investors to begin a jewelry manufacturing firm. The partnership quickly dissolved and the cousins claimed an equal partnership: Krementz made the jewelry and Lebcheucher sold it.
“It was a typical American success story,” says Richard Krementz Jr., George’s grandson. “George was a very good manufacturer, and his cousin was a very good salesman. One plus one made three.” The business grew quickly. After only three years, the cousins moved their headquarters to a former leather tannery. In the 1880s, they added on to the building, making it as long as a city block.
George Krementz saw his company’s first great opportunity for growth in the buttons that gentlemen used to fasten stiff, detachable collars on their shirts. “Every single man in the country needed a set, and there were millions of these things made,” says Richard Krementz Jr.
Jewelry manufacturers of the time made the buttons from two pieces of gold that were soldered together. However, a visit to the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Pa., in 1876 sparked George Krementz’s imagination. Among demonstrations of the first telephone, the first internal combustion engine and hundreds of other new products at the exposition was machinery for making cartridge shells for bullets.
“George was the kind of man who could see one thing and visualize something else,” says Krementz. “My grandfather saw the machinery for making cartridge shells and adapted those concepts to making the collar button.” He took the idea home and spent six or seven years experimenting with ways to make a collar button out of a single sheet of gold. Once he perfected the technique, he obtained a patent on the method in 1884.
Krementz & Co. became the “giant of collar buttons,” first making them in solid gold, then developing a gold overlay product that was cheap to manufacture and extremely profitable. The company began to export the buttons and, by 1900, manufactured most of the collar buttons used worldwide. Krementz also developed a line of men’s cuff links and dress studs. Men’s jewelry remained the cornerstone of the business until the 1930s, when the detachable collar began to disappear from men’s fashion.
QUICK TO GROW, QUICK TO CHANGE
At the same time Krementz was exploding with its collar button sales, the company employed jewelers who specialized in designing by hand fashionable, exquisite karat gold, colored stone and enamel jewelry for women.
“They were very much aware of the new designs coming over from Europe, and they were always very much interested in design,” says Krementz. George Krementz’s sons, Richard and Walter, studied at Yale before joining the company. Richard took a bicycle tour of Europe during one of his summer vacations in college, writing home about the Art Nouveau fashions that were the rage in Europe and letting the company in on design trends.
The brothers joined the company after graduating. Julius Lebcheucher’s son, Carl, also entered the company around this time. (Carl later changed his last name to Lester because of anti-German sentiments during World War I. Also around the turn of the century, George’s brothers, Tom and Frank, formed a competitive jewelry company called Frank Krementz & Co.)
The second generation began to steer the ever-expanding company into the 20th century. By this time, Newark was the largest producer of karat gold jewelry in the world, with 144 companies manufacturing 50% of the world’s karat gold jewelry by 1925. Historically, if the high-end jewelry industry was centered in New York City and fashion jewelry manufacturing in Providence, R.I., Newark became the capital of medium-priced, low-karat gold jewelry for the middle class.
The onslaught of costume jewelry in the Art Deco period and the Depression, however, brought certain death for many companies that continued to concentrate on karat gold. Krementz cagily moved into gold overlay and electroplated jewelry and grew strong enough to buy many of the failing Newark companies.
Acquisitions not only expanded Krementz’s gold jewelry and overlay business, but also added new lines. Gemstone and high-end jewelry came along with the purchase of Jones & Woodland in 1938; wedding and engagement rings were added with the acquisition of Abelson & Braun in 1940. Krementz also added the Diana by Krementz line of 10k and 14k gold jewelry and a line of plain gold wedding bands around this time.
During World War II, Krementz acquired the company George O. Street to get its gold license, which was helpful during the war years. The economic and strategic restrictions of World War II posed a challenge to the jewelry industry. “If everything was manufactured for the war effort and nothing for consumers, what would consumers spend their money on?” asks Richard Krementz Jr. “This would have a serious inflation effect on the economy.”
The government encouraged jewelry manufacturers to continue making consumer products, but there also was suspicion among consumers this production hindered the war effort. “Fortunately the U.S.A. has vast reserves of gold and its use by the jewelry industry does not hamper the war effort in any way,” Krementz & Co. assured customers in its ads in the 1940s. In the meantime, the company set aside part of its manufacturing plant to make dies for shells and metal parts the military used in radio tubes.
JEWELRY & SERVICE
From the beginning, Krementz & Co. offered a lifetime guarantee on its products. Jewelry historians attribute the company’s longevity amid a dying jewelry community to this and other long-standing policies of good service. Customers have been known to return jewelry some 50 years after its purchase, and the company keeps some of its old equipment in case aged jewelry needs to be repaired.
Richard Krementz Jr. inherited the history of service when he joined the company after graduating from Yale in 1949. The Lester family had long since sold its share of the company and stopped manufacturing jewelry, and Richard Jr.’s cousins, Robert and Walter Krementz, owned all the company stock. Richard Jr. spent the first two years apprenticing in all areas of the business, including on the bench, setting stones and enameling.
In 1960s, colored gemstones became increasingly popular in jewelry, and Richard Jr. discovered his passion. “It’s always been one of my loves,” he says. Company representatives traveled to Idar-Oberstein, Germany, to choose stones for the Jones & Woodland and Krementz Jewelry divisions, which specialized in karat gold jewelry and higher-end designs. The company
also moved upscale, buying George Schuler & Co., a producer of expensive, handmade jewelry in 1965, and McTeigue & Co., a manufacturer of 18k gold and diamond jewelry, in 1975.
By the 1980s, Krementz & Co. was not only one of the largest jewelry manufacturers in the U.S., it had been made into something many jewelry companies acknowledge they can never be: everything to everybody.
PHASING OUT THE MIDDLE CLASS
By 1990, Richard Jr. was taking a long, hard look at the jewelry industry and his company’s position in it. Krementz & Co. recently moved to a new building, leaving behind its home of 118 years and the landmark “This Is Newark” sign that sat atop it. (The sign was added before World War II by Richard Sr., who complained he never knew where the train was stopping when he traveled. The sign – and the building – have since been torn down.)
“The middle-range 14k gold jewelry was becoming a difficult business to be in,” says Richard Jr. “So much of it was coming from the Asian Rim.” Instead of trying to compete, Krementz sold three of the company’s divisions – McTeigue & Co., Krementz Gold and Krementz Wedding Rings – that concentrated on karat gold and higher-end diamond jewelry.
The company polarized to two extreme ends of the business. Krementz Traditional Jewelry (gold overlay) and Shiman Religious Jewelry (14k gold crosses) are marketed mostly to small independent jewelers. Krementz Gemstones, an exclusive line of 18k and 22k gemstone jewelry by designer Judy Evans, is geared toward high-end guild stores.
The gold overlay and religious jewelry divisions, representing virtually the entire company, are now up for sale. Richard Jr., who is semiretired, hopes to spend more time with Krementz Gemstones. With no fourth generation to carry on the family tradition (Richard’s son is not involved in the jewelry business, he says), the Krementz name will pass out of family hands and – if the buyers are located elsewhere – out of Newark. While the gemstone business will remain, all operations and the names of the sold divisions are expected to move to the buyer’s facilities. At press time, a deal with Colibri of Providence, R.I., had fallen through, and Krementz was continuing a search for a buyer.
Krementz & Co. thrived long after Newark’s active jewelry industry withered. Founded in a youthful country by enterprising newcomers, the company stayed afloat through more than a few changing tides, not only in the jewelry world but also through turbulent eras of history.
The Krementz family and its associates grasped every opportunity to grow and change, building not only one of the leading jewelry companies in the country, but also a successful depiction of the American dream. And like all dreams, this one has come to its end.