A Conversation with Pat Ciner

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The Ciner legacy is rich and impressive, just like the jewelry that the company creates. In 1892, Emanuel Ciner opened his namesake jewelry company in Manhattan, New York, where he, along with a small and skilled staff, began creating stylish gold and platinum pieces. With the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s, the demand for fine jewelry came to a sudden halt. However, the desire for stylish accessories remained. The Ciner family made a groundbreaking company decision: to become the first and only American fine-jewelry company to manufacture high-quality costume jewelry. Plagued with a bad reputation for its poor quality, costume jewelry was a tricky niche to enter into, and Emanuel Ciner worked tirelessly to master innovative casting techniques, methods that are still used to produce costume jewelry to this day. Since then, the Ciner name has been on the lips of millions of women around the world, including the legendary jewelry-obsessed Elizabeth Taylor.

During New York Fashion Week, we had the opportunity to sit down in the Ciner workshop and showroom in Manhattan with Pat Ciner, a third generation member of the Ciner family, Kris Ciulla, a designer‎ at Ciner Manufacturing, and Sophie Katirai, the Founder and CEO of Sophie’s Closet, whose online boutique has brought Ciner jewelry to the Middle East, to discuss everything from the family’s rich jewelry legacy to modern jewelry trends.

How did you and Sophie meet?
Sophie had apparently been in love with Ciner for a long time. She had bought, sold, and collected vintage pieces, but didn’t know that we still existed as a company. She found herself in this building, looking at the directory downstairs, and saw our name and thought, “Oh my God! I can’t believe that this company that I thought didn’t exist anymore is right here!” She burst through this door and has been an adorable part of our life ever since then.

Can you tell us about the history of Ciner?
The company began in 1892 with my grandfather. The story that I was told is that he had gone to work for a jeweler to learn the trade. The owner of that company thought that my grandfather would make a wonderful father to raise his daughters. When my grandfather was informed of this, he decided that he really had other ideas for his life, so he left and decided to start his own company. He worked in platinum and gold, precious stones, and diamonds. Around the 20s and the First World War, precious metals were becoming harder to get a hold of because they were being used for the war efforts. By then, my father and uncle had come to work in the business. They started working in silver, which was a precious metal but more affordable. In the 30s, they helped develop what is known as white metal or jewels metal, which was previously used for the production of fine costume jewelry. Then came the Depression. What’s really interesting is that Ciner actually helped the government make parts for the bombers because we had the technique of making small parts, but we were not permitted to use those materials to make costume jewelry.

Did Emanuel train himself?
Yes, and the Ciner family has always taken in talented young men [who have had extensive training]. Benny, for instance, who created the animal pieces, was a caster who wanted to become a model maker. Mr. Lemmeth and Jerry were two very accomplished model makers and Benny would sit at the table next to them and try to watch what they were doing. Mr. Lemmeth would sit with his arm like this [wraps hand around jewelry to hide it]. He didn’t want to share, so Benny would go home and practice what he had seen until he perfected it.

Today, it is very difficult to find people who are trained to do these skills because there is so little jewelry made in this country. This is not the way you find most pieces of jewelry. Each bracelet is created to fit exactly the owner’s wrist, so that it doesn’t spin. Gravity will always make it turn over and the motif will always be upside down, but we’ve figured out how to make it stay right side up. It’s all kinds of beautiful details that went into the Ciner casting through the years. We have hundreds of years of archives and castings from the best artists, which is so special because we are one of the very few companies that have that.

I am so fascinated by the archive; it has such a rich history. How much do you draw from the past in terms of motifs versus current trends? Can you speak a little bit about the modern jewelry trends that you have noticed?
[Points to the table] All these pieces were made through the years. Some are more recent than others, but unless the piece becomes something that we feel is totally obsolete, if it was a mistake to have even been created, or if it is something that has parts that are no longer available and we have to stop making it, we will keep it, because it may be the trend next year. Maybe we won’t sell pearls with clasps for the next three years, but the trend always comes back. So, basically, we try to keep anything that is beautiful because somebody is going to want it. It is going to be right for somebody.

How long does it take to make a piece of jewelry?
If you told me that you needed this tomorrow, I could make it for you for tomorrow. We take orders and we usually deliver them within four to six weeks. Each and every piece is made one by one, all here. The enameling, the stoning, the casting, and the plating are all done here. You can come up with your own color combinations. We can change colors of course and mix our own enamels.

Where do the materials come from?
The materials are of the best quality. We use Swarovski stones, German stones, and Czech bohemian glass. We think the best enamel is American.

How would you describe the Ciner customer?
As I was telling Sophie earlier, our customer base breaks into three categories. First is the traditional customer, so it’s the person who comes in and wants to order the original Ciner piece as it was made originally. They are collectors, small boutiques, and vintage dealers. Every single piece of Ciner is made today just like it always was, one by one. Then we have the cooler, younger boutiques that want us to update things. That would entail combining an old design with new materials, for example, to make it a modern piece. We bring older pieces to life in a new way, in a modern way for a young woman, and then suddenly even old pieces become more relevant today. Finally, there is our third customer, the private label. We do humongous numbers, but we do not have our name on it because we make it for other people. Unlike all the other pieces, which are made here, these orders are made in China, but with our point of view and perspective based and designed towards the specific genre of that customer.

In this county, large department stores do a lot of their business on consignment. They want you to provide full collections of jewelry, a lot of polished gold, which scratches. If you give the store a piece on consignment and they don’t sell it, they’ll throw it in a drawer and send it back to you, because it’s not going to affect their bottom line. That wasn’t what we wanted. Too much work goes into making these pieces. We’ve gone in the direction of doing a lot of private label. We were a big part of developing J. Crew jewels from the beginning.

You can see the Ciner influence!
We were working hand-in-hand to develop pieces exclusively for them based on some of our archives.

Do they come to you and ask what you have for inspiration?
Well, no. They send an inspiration package. One of our designers will have a look at the packages and will have three weeks to come up with what we are going to present to the client. We try to take pieces from the archives and make them more relevant to today. Old and new all get put together and shown. Once a decision is made and the design cards are ready, we will have whichever factory in China we are working with make the samples, using our models, using our way of manipulating them. So that is taking who and what we are and were.

We do that with a number of people. We work with the Metropolitan Museum of Art. With the MET, they’ll usually give us a direction, like a pin in a painting, that they’d like to recreate. A lot of the time, it’s not even a pin; it’s like a piece of hardware from a cabinet. It has to be something from there, from the museum. The latest holiday catalogue has a whole page of Ciner for the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a little history of the company with the pieces that they bought. We’ve also worked with Club Monaco, Brooks Brothers, Tory Burch, Talbots, and Saks Fifth Avenue.

This is probably an impossible question to answer because there’s so much history in these archives, but what is your favorite collection or piece?
I think what I love the most are our brooches, our pins, and our flowers. You can do them in whatever color combination you want and you can combine them. I would personally wear a flower and bee.

Brooches seem to be making a comeback.
Yes, they’ve already made that comeback. We were doing a show in May, and three days before the show we read a big article about how pins were coming back, so we took all of our pins, because previously nobody had asked for pins.

I read that Elizabeth Taylor was a big fan of Ciner jewelry. Can you talk a bit about that?
She was a big collector of Ciner. She had 40 pieces or such of Ciner. Elizabeth loved her jewelry. Apparently, one day, she was looking at Ciner pieces in a store, and then she said, “I will take all four pieces”. She pulled out her Amex card and said, “I will send my driver for these tomorrow”. The store called us to tell us that all of our jewelry had sold out. Madeleine Albright is a big fan of pins. A number of our pins are in her Read my Pins book.

Do Middle Eastern women have a particular style of jewelry that they request?
I definitely find that international people are so much more fun in their jewelry choices. They love color, they love big pieces, and they are not afraid to express themselves. It’s so exciting and fun for us. These ladies want to wear big pieces. They want to wear three bracelets together and lots of stones, lots of colors, which we appreciate! It’s not a challenge at all; it’s just totally fun. If you just want a little pearl stud, of course I can make it for you, but boy am I going to have a boring day.

Ciner jewelry is available for purchase at Sophie’s Closet.

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