ATTLEBORO — With the closing of Swank's manufacturing facility in Attleboro, another segment of the city's jewelry legacy becomes history.
Swank Inc. was founded in 1897 as the Attleboro Mfg. Co. by Samuel Stone and Maurice Baer to produce women's jewelry.
The company, starting with 10 employees, was located in a factory at Mill and Union streets. The fire of 1898 leveled a good portion of Attleboro's jewelry plants, including the Attleboro Mfg. Co. However, volunteers managed to save the equipment of Attleboro Mfg. and within a day, the company was back in operation in the basement of a building adjacent to the present plant on Hazel Street.
In the search for a permanent home, Attleboro Mfg. Co. found space at Pine and Dunham streets before moving in 1902 to its present location in the block bounded by Hazel, Pearl and School streets and O'Neil Boulevard.
Six years later, Attleboro Mfg. Co. formed an association with Baer & Wilde Co. to manufacture men's jewelry. In 1914 the Kum-A-Part cuff button was developed and after World War I, the demand for this cuff button was so great that the company stopped making women's jewelry. By this time Baer & Wilde had absorbed the Attleboro Mfg. Co. facilities.
By the 1920s, Baer & Wilde was selling more than 4 million pairs of cuff buttons a year. The company started to grow with acquisitions and adding other lines such as belt and buckle.
In 1927, the company introduced a collar holder it called Swank and it was nationally advertised as “ the collar pin that looks like a pin but isn't.” Four years later the company had developed a full line of men's jewelry under the Swank name.
To increase sales, the company used seven major wholesalers across the country.
In April 1936, Baer & Wilde merged with the distributors and incorporated as a Delaware corporation under the name Swank Products Inc. which was shortened four years later to Swank Inc., its present name. About this time, Swank had 600 employees.
Help in war years
Swank and its predecessors churned out goods for three wars.
In World War I, the company produced dog tags and emblems. In World War II, its plant was devoted to defense materials including submarine parts and during the Korean War, the company produced fuses used in arms manufacture.
The fuses represented 10 percent of the company's sales.
Within 24 hours of the end of World War II, Swank initiated plans to expand so that it would have between four and five acres of manufacturing and office space under roof.
In 1948, as production of men's jewelry took off, so did employment with the company having 1,450 employees in 1948; 1,850 employees, in 1955; 2,500 employees, in 1969, about its peak with 1,300 in Attleboro; and in 1993, 1,500 employees, with 700 between Attleboro and Taunton, however Attleboro having the majority.
Swank Inc., in 1968, was described as the “ world's largest manufacturer” and distributor of men's jewelry and toiletries with more than 3,000 items including watches, wallets, French purses, key cases, clutches, credit card holders, travel kits, sunglasses and butane lighters.
The company's research and development department turned out 600 items every six months to remain a leader in men's jewelry.
On its drive to be number one in men's jewelry, Swank developed a jackpot scent in Jade East, which it manufactured at a plant in North Dighton. The scent could be found in a myriad of products from cologne, stick deodorant and bath soap to after-shave, shower soap and hair cream. Jade East in 1965 was the top attraction among all lines of prestige men's toiletries, according to Industry magazine.
Later as Jade East faded, the company moved to another plant on Warner Boulevard in Taunton, which is used as a distribution facility.
With interest in fragrances picking up, Swank added several more. By 1992, it discontinued its last fragrance Royal Copenhagen because of competition.
As interest in traditional men's jewelry waned because of changes in clothing style and dress habits, Swank again turned to women's jewelry. In 1975, in new women's line “ Biagi by Swank” included collars, chains, earrings, bracelets and zodiac pendants. The women's jewelry line was mostly gold or rhodium plate. Several other lines have been added over the years and in 1998 accounted for one third of the company's sales.
Costa Rican venture last year wasn't the company's first outside the confines of the United States. Previous, overseas production had been limited to a belt factory in Haiti. With unrest in that Caribbean country, Swank closed its Haitian factory in 1991 and moved production to its belt factory in Norwalk, Conn.