Discover a hidden gem in Harrisonburg, Virginia, at the Hugo Kohl Museum of American Jewelry Design and Manufacturing, where Industrial Age jewelry tools and techniques blend with modern innovation. The museum offers guided tours where you can witness the magic unfold in the workshop. It’s seriously worth experiencing firsthand!
Another Harrisburg gem within walking distance of the Hugo Kohl Museum is the Virginia Quilt Museum.
How Did The Hugo Kohl Museum Begin?
Hugo Kohl stumbled upon a pile of old jewelry tools in the late 1970s in Providence, Rhode Island, all set to be junked, and he bought them right off the back of the dump truck. Intrigued by the beauty of antique jewelry, he researched the tools and techniques of early American jewelry-making.
He dove deep into mastering old-school techniques like die striking, where intricate designs are stamped into metal. When Hugo Kohl launched his own jewelry company, he dedicated himself to recreating historical pieces with authentic tools and methods.
Hugo Kohl Museum Tour Highlights
As soon as we stepped into the Hugo Kohl Museum of American Jewelry Design and Manufacturing, Hugo greeted us and directed our attention to the bustling workroom below the boutique, where all the magic happens.
He briefly explained how the Industrial Age coincided with the emergence of the jewelry industry in Providence, Rhode Island. This marked the decline of artisanal craftsmanship and the dawn of mass production.
We began our official tour in the hub vault. Rooms like this were common in jewelry factories of the early or mid-1800s. Hubs are actual-sized, three-dimensional renderings of what a finished piece of jewelry will look like.
As we explored the details of the hubs, we noticed a wide variety of themes: Americana, Memento Mori, women’s suffrage, anti-slavery sentiment, militaria, etc. These weren’t just beautiful decorations; they carried profound messages and ideas of their time.
During this era, people began choosing their life partners based on romantic love, a departure from the traditional practice of arranged marriages. This shift reflected a broader trend toward personal freedom and individual expression, evident in the emergence of these early symbols.
Hugo Kohl’s challenge lies in modernizing these high-fashion trends from 150 years ago to appeal to today’s sophisticated and discerning consumers.
Each hub is accompanied by a box containing the corresponding die sets needed for crafting the artwork. A drop hammer stamps the die, while the accompanying tools in the box pierce the openings in the filigree designs.
Tools and Machinery
In the workroom, lined up in a row, sit three drop hammers, relics from the dawn of the Industrial Age. These machines pack a punch, delivering 125 to 170 tons of force when dropped from three feet, shaping jewelry metals with precision.
Hugo also showed us a series of screw presses that are used to trim and pierce the embossed designs. It’s a meticulous process to set the die tools in the screw press, requiring slow and precise adjustments. Then, operators hand-crank the machines to apply pressure gradually and compress the metals.
Finally, Hugo showed us a collection of meticulously hand-crafted brass and steel “rolls.” Metal pieces could pass under the rolls to imprint intricate patterns creating elaborate silver services.
Back in the day, rich industrialists wanted to show off their newfound wealth, so they splurged on fancy silver sets to flex their status. Gorham, the big name in silver manufacturing, used this machine with steel rolls to craft these luxurious items.
Silver services were prominently displayed to be visible from the front door. Ironically, these silver sets were never actually used; they were purely for show.
After the tour, we were set loose to explore all the jewelry for sale in the boutique: silver, gold, rose gold and beyond. Plus, they do custom work, so if you’ve got heirloom jewelry you want to spruce up, Hugo Kohl’s your guy!
If you can, I highly recommend touring the Hugo Kohl Museum. It’s fascinating! And the jewelry is exquisite.