Early this century, an imposing billboard crowned with state-of-the-art electric lights greeted travelers pulling into the city's train station.
“Attleboro: The Hub of the Jewelry World,” it proclaimed.
One directional arrow pointing north read, Boston 32 miles; another pointing south read, Providence 12 miles.
Below that was a bit of hometown boosterism: “One of the most prosperous cities in New England. Best of transportation facilities. Factory sites plentiful. Yearly product 16 million $. We welcome new industries. Investigate and you will locate here.”
The line that boasted yearly product included a cutout section that could be updated as needed, not unlike McDonald's restaurant signs more than a halfcentury later that kept a running tally of the number of hamburgers the chain had sold.
Jewelry was king in Attleboro.
In 1900, just over half of the town's 11,335 residents were employed in the jewelry-making industry.
In 1907, S.O. Bigney & Co., at that time the area's most active manufacturer, ran the largest jewelry plant in the country.
In 1915, when the town of Attleborough became the city of Attleboro, the first mayor was Harold Sweet, a prominent jewelry manufacturer. Like the precious metal mesh turned out at Whiting & Davis in North Attleboro today, jewelry is intertwined in the fabric of life here.
Captains of industry formed familial and corporate bonds. Generations of workers passed through the same factory gates. Work merged with play at companysponsored social clubs, picnics, and athletic and bowling leagues.
Civic monuments such as the Attleboro Public Library, the Attleboro YMCA, Capron Park and Sturdy Memorial Hospital were endowed by scions of the jewelry trade.
“In the 19th century and early 20th century, communities tended to develop specialized industries,” said area historian William Hana. “In Attleboro, it was jewelry; in Taunton, it was silver; in Brockton, it was shoes.
“Companies carved out niches for themselves. “And it ran in families,” Hana said. “In Attleboro, generations of them worked in jewelry.”
Improbable as it might seem, the origin of jewelry manufacturing in Attleboro could date back to 16th or 17th centuryFrance and religious persecution of the Huguenots, a Protestant sect.
“There were social spasms and great dislocation in France,” said Edwin “Ted” Leach, president and CEO of Leach & Garner Co. in North Attleboro. “Terrible religious problems, even massacres.”
By the late 18th century, just prior to the American Revolution, the Huguenots fled France. Some settled in Germany, where they were chartered to make jewelry. Others headed for the New World.
“They were very clever jewelry makers,” Leach said. “They had discovered hubs and dies,” a process that allowed individual but identical pieces to be reproduced by the hundreds and thousands.
And one of them came to Attleboro, a legendary figure known today only as “The Frenchman,” possibly because his real name was all by unpronounceable to colonial contemporaries.
The Frenchman is reputed to have made buttons for the uniforms worn by American army officers, Leach said, “and he taught other people those skills.”
He was soon followed by Col. Obed Robinson, who built the first jewelry shop in Attleboro in 1807.
About that time, Ebenezer Tyler of Pawtucket and several partners, including Nehemiah Dodge of Providence, established a cotton mill in the district now known as Dodgeville.
Dodge also went into the jewelry business, Leach said, having developed a revolutionary process to bond gold to lead solder.
“Most people in America couldn't afford gold,” Leach said. “When you bonded gold to lead solder, you could make a piece that had weight and was less resistant to denting.
“It was the first costume jewelry.”
Gold bonded to lead had its problems, though: Over time a piece would crack and fall apart. But it was a precursor to gold plate, which involved the bonding of gold with lesser metals other than lead. That process eventually became known as gold fill, and it became the core of the jewelry business in the Attleboro area.
It set the stage for further development of jewelry manufacturing, though there were other factors, too.
While the area initially was agricultural, it wasn't particularly suited to farming because of poor soil and harsh winters. That made manufacturing more attractive.
The area also was convenient to shipping. Boston at the time was one of the busiest seaports in the United States. And it's no coincidence that many of the area's busiest shops of the 19th century sprang up in factories that fronted the railroad.
Add to that a steady influx of immigrants who developed new manufacturing processes and provided a ready source of labor. Eventually, it became skilled labor.
“Very special skills are required in making tools for the jewelry industry, hub and die making,” Leach said. “There are skills involved in polishing, engraving and finishing. At the same time, there are bonding and metallurgic skills.
“They were here more than anywhere else in the United States.”
Other factors included proximity to the Rhode Island School of Design. Thought of today as a universitylevel school, RISD after the Civil War was open to many grade levels and turned out students skilled in design in a variety of fields.
“Both my grandfather and father went to the Rhode Island School of Design as little children,” Leach said.
“All of this teamed up to say, `Gee! This is where you have to be,' ” he said.
By the mid to late1800s, jewelry had become the area's economic base. Jewelry companies formed, then begat other firms, which begat other firms.
Among some of the more important ones: S.O. Bigney Co. was formed in 1849; Horton, Angell & Co. in 1870; R.F. Simmons & Co. in 1873; Bliss Brothers & Everett in 1873; Short & Nerney in 1876; Daggettt & Clapp in 1882; Riley & French in 1883; D.E. Makepeace Co. in 1888; the Robbins Co. in 1892; the Attleboro Manufacturing Co. in 1897, which later would become known as Swank Inc.; Leach & Garner in 1899; the Sweet Manufacturing Co. in 1904.
Edwin F. Leach, one of the founders of Leach & Garner, had worked for Makepeace making watch cases. The new company would turn out gold fill and other precious metal findings.
Two of Peter Nerney's sons, Edwin and Frank, teamed up with another partner to form Bay State Optical, which made eyeglasses frames.
Another of Nerney's sons, George, went to work for Robbins as a designer of convention badges and insignia.
In 1913, George Nerney and a Robbins executive formed a partnership with a young salesman for a midwestern company that manufactured fraternity and college pins, and the L.G. Balfour Co. was born.
Eventually, L.G. Balfour Co. became the city's second largest employer and, when it moved into the class ring business, became synonymous with Attleboro.
In a sense, the creation of new firms from more established ones reflected the paternal nature of jewelry manufacturing in the Attleboro area.
“In those days, it was more important to have your proteges flourish than to hang on to them,” Leach said. “My grandfather had a manager who ran our findings division. He encouraged him to start his own business.”
That man was Rathbun Willard, who in 1916 formed General Plate.
General Plate eventually merged with Spencer Thermostat Co. to form Materials & Controls, which became the largest employer in the Attleboro area and merged with Texas Instruments in 1959.
Paternalism also was reflected in employeremployee relations.
“So many of these companies provided more than a work place,” said Hana, the area historian. “There were social and educational opportunities. Employees worked together and bowled together and married each other's children.”
“It was like a family,” recalled Mel Allenson, personnel director at Swank, and who has worked there for 44 years. “We had a bowling league. And when I first came here we used to have talent shows, with singers and dancers.
“The employees were pretty closeknit people.”
Ed Booth, quality manager at Jostens in Attleboro, still bowls in the Jewelers Industrial League, “even though there's not a team related to the jewelry industry today.”
He also recalls an industrial softball league.
“We were one of the driving forces to keep it going,” Booth said. “But eventually it just faded out.”
The relationship between jewelry manufacturers and their employees might have something to do with the nonunion flavor of the Attleboro area.
As early as 1903, the International Jewelry Workers of America announced an membership drive in Attleboro. It failed, as did several other attempts over the years.
“This has never been a labor town,” said George Babcock, who is nearing 80 and serves on the board of the Attleboro Area Industrial Museum.
“The manufacturers controlled things enough that they weren't concerned about unions,” Babcock said. “They didn't pay the highest wages, but there was no incentive for employees to join.
“A lot of companies more or less guaranteed them jobs, and this was in the old days when we didn't have the Unemployment. L.G. Balfour arranged things where he guaranteed his help yearround work.
“I can remember a couple of unions coming in and making spiels,” Babcock said. “But it didn't do any good.”
Even during the Great Depression, many Attleboro area jewelry shops kept their doors open.
Attleboro's industrial development actually increased by $13.5 million between 1933 and 1938. The value of goods had reached $32.7 million in 1929, fell to $15.3 million in 1933 and rose to $29.9 million in 1938. At that time half the city's workers were employed in the jewelry industry, and jewelry totaled 60 percent of manufactured output.
A number of factors may have made jewelry manufacturing more resilient to economic conditions than other industries. Among them, many area companies made findings and components, rather than actual finished products.
And most jewelry companies were locally based. Already, they had made significant civic contributions in area communities.
“In those days, captains of industry lived in the towns they worked in,” Hanna said. “They had a vested interest in the quality of life in town.”
“It made a big difference,” he said. “It's different if the owners are 1,000 or 5,000 miles away. They don't have the same feeling for the neighborhoods.”
But gradually, as manufacturing pioneers began to die off and family interest faded, outside interests moved in.
Minnesotabased Jostens, for example, bought the R.F. Simmons Co. in 1962.
When L.G. Balfour died in 1973, ownership of his company went to a bankadministered trust. The company was sold to a succession of outoftown owners and finally, in 1997, moved most of its operations to Texas. Only a vestigial presence remains in North Attleboro, where tooling continues.
Jewelry has faded in Attleboro, but this area still remains a hub of the industry.
Virtually all of the jewelry workers in Massachusetts remain in the Attleboro area, according to the state Department of Employment and Training. And up to 70 percent of the jewelry workers in the United States are found in the ProvidenceAttleboroTaunton area.
Jostens attempted to move its seasonal operations to Mexico, but moved back to Attleboro earlier this year when labor south of the border didn't work out.
“We brought those jobs back because the skills are here,” said Lenny Siravo, manager of Josten's Attleboro plant.
“I don't think jewelry will ever be what it was,” he said. “It exists today, but it's diminished with the loss of Balfour. And there's downsizing through automation and better technology.”
But, Siravo added, “Jostens was taught a valuable lesson. I don't think you'll ever see Jostens move out.”