Twenty years later, mail order still a boon for silversmith J.H. Breakell
Islander Jim Breakell opened his first shop in Newport in 1973, but it was his expansion into mail order in the mid-1980s that garnered a wider audience for his unique sterling silver and 14karat gold designs.
Last year, sales for J.H. Breakell, the company Jim runs with his wife, Joan, hit a record high. From the company’s two-building location on Newport’s Spring Street, a staff of 10 produces about 300 different pieces, handles the company’s customer-service operation, packages and ships the products, runs a retail shop, and manages a host of administrative tasks.
The only aspect of the business that doesn’t take place at its headquarters is telephone sales, which the Breakells moved off site to accommodate the growing mail-order operation.
J.H. Breakell first ventured into mail as a distribution channel when Jim and Joan decided to place advertisements for particular pieces in publications like the New Yorker, Yankee, Smithsonian Magazine, and Natural History. “For one bracelet alone, we received a couple thousand dollars worth of orders in one month,” says Jim.
Building on its initial success with direct marketing, the company launched its first jewelry catalog, which featured photographs that were taken, Joan recalls, on their kitchen table.
The setting was appropriate for what became the company’s first signature piece, the broccoli pin. Made in both silver and gold, the piece was a hit with the Park Avenue set and was even memorialized in a cartoon in the New Yorker. But its repute grew when Jim sent one of the pins to Barbara Bush after widespread news reports that then-President George H.W. Bush disliked that strong-tasting member of the cabbage family.
The Breakells received a thank-you note from the White House, but what surprised them more was a letter they received years later from the National Archives saying that the pin was to be included in a display of gifts given to presidents over the years. While no longer on exhibit, the pin remains in the National Archives.
A string of successful pieces followed the broccoli pin. Perhaps the most popular in the line’s history is a pendant in the shape of a flip-flop sandal designed by Joan. “I wanted to capture the nostalgia of the flipflops you find at the five-anddime in a piece of jewelry that was both simple and whimsical,” says Joan.
Another hit has been the annual snowflake, available as a pin, ornament, pendant, and earrings. First introduced 11 years ago, the snowflake was so successful that Jim and Joan decided to produce one every year. “They’re great as collectibles and as gifts,” says Joan, who personally gives one to a handful of family members each year.
Originally patterned after the famous black and white photographs of individual snowflakes taken by W.A. Bentley, Jim and Joan began incorporating themes into the pieces a few years ago. The 1999 Millennium snowflake featured a series of Roman numeral Ms. The 2000 version included the Breakell mark. And the 2003 Rhode Island snowflake featured anchors, fish, and pineapple.
Jim and Joan say nature is the genesis for most of their ideas. “The environment where we live is the source of so much inspiration,” says Joan. Animals, the garden, beaches, and the seasons are among the company’s collections. And while the pair continues to share in the creative process, it’s Joan who has taken over the role of jewelry designer since Jim’s sight began failing due to a genetic retinal disorder.
Today, Joan not only draws the original designs but also carves a three-dimensional wax model of each one in keeping with the company’s use of the traditional lost wax casting method. From the model, Jim or one of four staff silversmiths creates a hollow rubber mold into which molten silver or gold is shot using centrifugal force. When cooled, the mold is broken open to release the metal piece.
But while Jim no long creates the pieces, he’s certainly not idle. Now, he co-ordinates all aspects of the business — or, as he puts it — “tells everyone else what to do.” It’s not a small task for a company that produces a new catalog twice a year, runs an online store, and operates a retail shop in one of the country’s top tourist destinations.
After 30 years, the Breakells don’t seem to be slowing down. And neither does their enthusiasm. “We still enjoy the business,” says Jim. “It’s fun and that’s why we still do what we do.”
“There’s always something different,” says Joan. “It’s not very routine and we enjoy that.”
What also changes regularly is the company’s inventory. To make room for new pieces, J.H. Breakell will be holding a special sale of discontinued items from Sept. 29 through Oct. 1 at its retail store located at 128 Spring St. in Newport.
The Breakells have lived in Jamestown since 1991.