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Sometimes you come across a piece of jewelry that doesn’t just speak to you; it sings. That's what I experienced earlier this year when I found a remarkable brooch and earrings set marked Jewels by Julio. Now that I've had the good fortune to talk to friends and family of the maker, I know exactly what that brooch was singing. It was opera. Julio Marsella played opera all day in his factory and sang along to the music. All who heard him agree that Julio's tenor voice was as beautiful as the jewelry he created.
Marner was the name of the jewelry company owned by Julio Marsella and Ralph Neri. Founded in 1946, soon after the end of World War II, it was originally located on Empire Street in Providence, RI, in three rooms over the storefront occupied by Harris Furs. Neri left the thriving company before it expanded and moved to the second and third floors of the Westminster Building at 43 Hospital Street, directly across the street from Coro, leaving Julio as the sole owner of the business. The employees worked day and night producing jewelry, and in 1953 the company moved to an even larger plant on Harris Avenue. Some of the pieces produced by Marner were marked with their own company name, but most were made for other companies such as Hobe’, Hattie Carnegie, Kramer, and many others.
Born in Rhode Island on September 17, 1911, Julio Marsella was the son of an Italian shoemaker and his wife. He was the youngest of their five children, and the only one born in America. At age 18 he worked as a foreman in a Providence knife factory. Ten years later, before the beginning of World War II, Julio worked as a foreman for Trifari. After his service in the Army during the war, he started his own company. Julio was a very talented and highly artistic individual, and he worked as the company's designer from the beginning, though later, after the company became large and successful, he had to hire five or six additional designers and sample makers.
Marner was a family affair, as was typical of Providence jewelry companies. Julio’s nephew, Larry Marsella, began working for his uncle in 1946, when he was only 11 years old. Two of Larry’s brothers also worked for their uncle. At one time or another, Julio’s nephews performed most of the activities of the company including: beadmaking, cover, plate, foot press, drill press, and stone setting. Louis Marsella, Larry’s older brother, was particularly talented. In addition to the jobs already mentioned, he became a designer and mold maker. He even had some engineering skills, and helped design the large plant. He installed the pipes which fed gas to the beadmakers’ benches. Larry was highly skilled as a polisher, creating a smooth, even surface on the jewelry before it was plated. His polished pieces were so fine that people sometimes mistakenly thought that they had already been plated. Julio set very high standards not only for his jewelry, but also for his nephews. Larry remembers Julio telling them not to put their feet up on the rungs of their chairs when they worked. When they complained that it was more comfortable that way, Julio said, “You can’t be comfortable when you work! When you work, you just work!!”
Julio Marsella employed many others besides family. After the move to the large plant on Hospital Street, Marner had about 60 or 70 employees. Like all of Providence, Marner was a melting pot. The employees included both men and women from a wide range of ethnicities: Italian, Irish, Jewish, French, African-American, and more. The Marsella family was strongly committed to nondiscrimination and fairness in wages and work conditions. Julio believed in keeping his workers happy. He frequently treated them all to sandwiches from the diner across the street. Larry Marsella, as the youngest employee, was often given the task of taking the employees’ orders, calling them in to the diner, and going across the street to pick up the food.
In 1954, picking up the sandwiches turned into quite an adventure for 19 year old Larry! Everyone was working as usual during Hurricane Carol. Julio believed that he and his workers would be safer inside on the upper floor of their large building than out in the wind. Larry was sent out into the hurricane to pick up food, and the storm surge came in while he was at the deli. He proved himself to be a truly heroic delivery person, wading back through waist-deep water with the sandwiches.
Most of the women working for Marner were on the third floor. Their main jobs were soldering, stone setting, finishing, and hand linking of beads. When linking the beads, the women used tools in both hands, working at amazing speed. Sometimes these tools were pliers held in both their right and left hands, but often the women used special crimping tools which were attached to rings which resembled wedding bands worn on both hands. The women also worked at the stone setting presses which made rhinestone chain. These machines were operated with a foot press which closed the prongs around the stones. The special drill press which set collets was harder to manage, so this heavier work was done by Larry and his brothers.
In the early days of the company, pieces were sent out for plating after they were polished in the Marner plant. Julio was sometimes unhappy with the quality of this outsourced plating, however. There were cracking and bubbling problems related to “burning” the finish. Also, outside platers sometimes skimped on the quantity of gold used. Julio was a perfectionist in all things, so he began plating in-house. After that he was able to tell his customers that “when you want 3 mils of gold, you got it! Not 1-1/2.”
An entire wing was devoted to glass bead production. All Marner beads were handmade, using torches. The glass came in four foot canes, in boxes six to eight inches square. These boxes were set up near the production area so the canes could be drawn out for working at the benches. Beadmakers worked on both sides of the long benches, with asbestos dividers to protect the workers from the heat of the torches of those working nearby. This room was a great place to work in the winter, as it stayed warm and comfortable. In summer, however, the room was terribly hot. The heat at the height of a standing man’s head was 120 degrees. Beadmakers wore cloth bands around their foreheads to keep the sweat from rolling into their eyes. Two women worked as beadmakers, but most of these craftspeople were men.
At that time, most American companies which made beads used only crystal and/or topaz glass because these colors were the easiest to work. Different colors of glass required different temperatures and different handling. Marner made beads in all colors and created a wide variety of fancy shapes. The company’s beadmakers were tremendously skilled, and their creations were so precise in size and shape that they could easily be mistaken for machine made. They made the beads by pulling molten glass into the desired shapes with tweezers (as in the case of Julio Marsella’s patented heart-shapes), or by rolling and turning the melted glass on a piece of wire.
The wire created the hole through the bead which was later used for stringing or linking with chain. After the glass bead was completed and cooled, the wire was held with a vise grip on one end and pulled with pliers on the other end. This pulling stretched and narrowed the wire, allowing the bead to fall off. Larry Marsella reports that the company experimented with hollow wire at one time because they hoped it would be easier to remove the beads from hollow wire, but they found that this type of wire melted if it became even a little too warm and was thus too hard to use. Some beadmakers coat the wire with ash to facilitate removal of the beads, but Marner did not use this process because it required that the beads be washed after removal from the wires and too many beads were broken during this cleaning process.
The many types of beads made by Marner included:
The primary customer for Marner beads was Larry Joseph, owner of Hattie Carnegie. Hattie Carnegie jewelry became well known for its richly colored and textured beadwork.
Beads were by no means the only products produced by Marner. They made cast jewelry for a variety of customers. Two of the most important were Hobe’ and Kramer. In-house mold makers, including Julio’s nephew, Louis, designed these cast pieces. Most commonly, rhinestones were glued into the cast pieces. Julio’s perfectionism showed itself in this area, as well. He insisted that all of the stones should be perfectly even, with none askew or sticking up further than the others. This drive for perfection required that the individual cups into which the stones were set be individually drilled with a press after the piece was molded.
The rhinestones were imported from Czechoslovakia and Austria because Julio demanded that only the best materials be used in his jewelry. All of the metals, glass, and stones used in Marner jewelry had to be of the highest possible quality because of the pride that Julio Marsella took in his work, no matter how small the piece. Some designs which Larry Marsella particularly remembers are a sailfish with a glass stone belly and fully stoned fins and a birdbath with three angels perched on its rim.
The Marner plant included an elegant showroom where customers were greeted, shown the jewelry, and entertained. This room, which was beautifully lit and featured velvet tables where the jewelry was displayed, was kept supplied with food, liquor, and soda for the customers. The showroom was flanked on one side by Julio’s office and on the other by the staff’s office. Julio’s office had fine mahogany furniture, and the staff’s office boasted new-fangled desks with typewriters which pulled out. One of the women employees made matching curtains for both of the offices.
Customers examined the Marner line in the showroom and ordered samples. One advantage of having a showroom in the plant was that changes could be made to the jewelry within minutes if a customer wanted to see a piece with a different color of stones or plating. These changes were made while they waited. Marner provided sample pieces to their customers free of charge. Salesmen for Marner’s wholesale customers then gathered orders from retail buyers around the country by showing them these samples, which the salesmen carried in heavy sample cases from store to store. If the wholesale customer’s order was large enough, Marner gave them an exclusive on that line and did not sell it to anyone else.
The marks which can be seen most commonly on Marner products include Jewels by Julio and Julio Marsella. The dates when these marks were used is not known at this time.
The Marner company closed its doors in 1957. According to Larry Marsella, the same downswing in business which affected all the Providence jewelry-makers at that time also took its toll on Marner. Julio found himself overextended in his large factory and fell behind on taxes and payments to creditors. Julio made a last-ditch attempt to save his business, traveling to New York and gathering many new orders. Sadly, when he returned to his factory, orders in hand, local officials had barred the doors and would not permit him to enter. He showed the officers the stack of orders and asked for the opportunity to continue working so he could pay back taxes and satisfy the creditors, but they would not relent. This was the end of jewelry making for Julio Marsella. He opened a small shop where he made novelty items such as metal statuettes and paperweights, but no jewelry.
Larry reports that his uncle Julio remained “sharp as a pin” until the day he died in 1985. Always busy with various artistic pursuits, Julio maintained a darkroom in his home where he pursued his hobby of photography, and even more important, he continued to study classical singing with a new vocal coach. His technique improved even further, and Larry reports that Julio’s voice was more beautiful in his 60s and 70s than it was when he was a younger man. He sang at the weddings of his nephews and nieces and in his church every week. And today that exquisite tenor voice reaches down through the decades and sings through the elegant jewelry he created.
© Copyright 2009 Vintage Fashion & Costume Jewelry - Used with permission