In 1950, Ed Levin envisioned jewelry as exquisite little pieces of art. That vision lives on with Ed’s signature classic, elegant designs in precious metals that inspire new collections every year.
“When Ed started the company, this type of jewelry really didn’t exist,” says Peter Tonjes, now owner and CEO of Ed Levin Jewelry in Cambridge, N.Y. “At the time, it was either fine jewelry or custom jewelry. Designer or art jewelry was in its infancy.”
A group of artists around the country experimented in making fine art into miniature sculptures, Peter says. “That’s what Ed did. He was also a machinist at one point in his career in the early ‘40s, and he was able to take the skills of fine art and machining and create a company with the idea of making affordable art jewelry for the public. That sort of spawned into what is now considered bridge jewelry, and other manufacturers followed suit with that.”
Ed, who’d been trained by a master jeweler in Buenos Aires, took his designs to college campuses, thinking the younger generation would be more accepting of the innovative jewelry. “He would set up a card table and put hand-drawn posters around the campuses to sell his work, and he’d offer students a free pair of earrings if they could find a retailer who would take his jewelry to sell,” Peter says.
Ed first worked in New York City and later settled into a retail shop in Vermont before moving his business to the historic Cambridge village in upstate New York, where the business remains today. Marianne D’Allaird, who works with Peter on the company’s administrative end, recalls that Ed had gone from being a bench jeweler to realizing he could expand the business if he went into production. So he did, devising a business plan that allowed for the jewelry to be handcrafted by local artisans. “It’s still the production model we use today,” Marianne says.
“Everyone who works here is trained here,” adds Leslie Resio, Ed Levin Jewelry’s controller. “We hire people who are talented, and then we train them to make jewelry.”
New Face, Like Minds
Peter joined Ed Levin Jewelry in 1984. He arrived with a background in metal arts, having earned his BFA from State University of New York at New Paltz.
Ed, who died in 2007, wasn’t too involved in the business in later years, Leslie says. “Peter was the one person who understood the machinery, the process, the tooling, aesthetics, and he was able to step into Ed’s shoes and take over the business.”
Peter says the business has evolved slowly over the years since Ed’s passing. The evolving has been in the sophistication of the operation, he says, enabling services such as a four-day turnaround on orders. “We’re very old fashioned in many ways, but we’re very modern and sophisticated with our operation.”
Sophistication is key in everything Ed Levin, particularly in the elegant timelessness of the handcrafted pieces themselves. “If I give a piece of Ed Levin jewelry as a gift today, I know that person will be wearing it 20 years from now,” Marianne says. “It just doesn’t go out of style. It has classic appeal.”
Peter takes pride in the “quality and the engineering that goes into a piece, the multi-functionality of it. There are bracelets that will have a swing open, a spring open, a flip open, and they’re all hand forged but will have a unique design as far as engineering. We’re one of the best in the business for handmade jewelry. As more modern designs have been introduced, they’re all based on original concepts that were developed years ago. We have a number of pieces in our lines that we’ve been selling 40 or 50 years, and we have retailers we’ve been selling to for 30, 40 or 50 years as well!”
“We have people tell us that successive generations in their family will come along and get the same piece, a signature bracelet or ring,” Marianne says. “So they kind of pass it along as a family tradition. That’s the kind of continuity that spans generations. It’s not old people’s jewelry, and it’s not young people’s jewelry.”
Leslie adds: “I have a 92-year old aunt who just loves Ed Levin jewelry, and nieces in their 20s who just love it – and everybody in between.”
Treasure of a Shop
Ed Levin Jewelry trains all of its jewelers in house, using equipment from the 1800s to modern milling machines to create treasures from the finest metals and stones. “Everything is done in house that we possibly can do,” Peter says. “We don’t do casting. The pieces are either forged or fabricated.”
Antique equipment and age-old techniques fit naturally into the surroundings - the Ed Levin building itself was an old hotel from the late 1800s, complete with old pressed-tin ceilings. In 2000, a new section was added, doubling the square footage.
“Ed was a treasure hunter,” Marianne says. “I was living here and years ago, I’d run into him at the dump. He’d be looking through piles of stuff that people had left to get inspiration for designs, tooling. Ed never quite lost that sense of wonder in finding something that could be a treasure. A lot of what we have are old, old, old pieces of machinery that Ed found and modified. It’s interesting to walk through and see the old equipment.”
Ed Levin Jewelers is strictly a wholesaler, and most of its retailers are independent jewelers. The vast majority of its business is done through its clients’ brick-and-mortar stores, which span the country. “We experimented with doing more online at one point but it was too divisive with our retailers, and not who we are,” Peter says.
The company adds three new collections every year. “Some of our more recent collections have very different looks with new stones, new shapes, along with traditional gemstones,” Marianne says. “Innovation is a word we love at Ed Levin! It’s something we really shoot for without breaking away from our original design aesthetic. But we do add new stones and keep up with the times. Rose gold is really popular now, and we’re offering more of that.”
That innovation extends to how the company does business: Employees in different departments have a voice and feel welcome to chip in. The company invites and considers opinion and dialog from all of its workers.
With its holistic business approach, Ed Levin handles advertising and marketing materials in house, ensuring control over quality and overall look. Merchandising support is offered to independent retailers, including ads and images of designs that are available via Ed Levin’s website, along with merchandising displays.
Besides Peter, only one designer, Cindy Cook, works for the company. About 20 people are employed in all, including a tool and die maker, craftspeople, polishers, prep people, a stock room employee/raw materials liaison and salespeople. “We’re very hands on,” Marianne says. “If you call Ed Levin during business hours, you’ll talk to a real person. We have three of us in the office, overseeing customer service, order entry, inventory of finished goods, shipping and receiving, inspecting and quality control.”
It’s a great place to work, she says. “We’ve had a lot of people who have been here 20 years, 30 years, or have left and come back. Financial information is shared with everyone in the company. The information is there for everyone to look at, ask about and give input on.”
“It is a fun place to work,” Peter agrees. “Every week we have a company meeting where we bring all departments together to talk about whatever relevant is going on. If you have an idea or a question or you want to know about another department, we give a virtual dollar. We get $100 together and we buy pizza. We have a celebration!”