Rapaport Magazine

Florentine Renaissance

Vincent Wil Hawley crafts designs of classic Florentine engraving at VWH Jewelry in Cleveland, Ohio.

By Joyce Kauf

VWH Jewelry
Hanging from the door of VWH Jewelry, Vincent Wil Hawley’s new store in Cleveland, Ohio, is a sign in Italian —“L’artiginale del Incisore.” Translated as “the craft of the engraver,” it reflects his passion for the classical art of Florentine engraving, a detailed and time-intensive process that can take up to six months to produce a piece of jewelry. In keeping with this European tradition, Hawley, who also owns private design studios in Boston, Massachusetts, and Florence, Italy, strives to create an in-store ambience of a “little Italian workshop.”
   Hawley’s interest in engraving came out of a desire to find a specialization that would enable him to “stand out uniquely.” In 2006, he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degree from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) in Boston, but admits that at the time he focused more on conceptual work rather than on technique. While still a student, he opened a store in the city’s South End in 2004, just at the cusp of the area’s transformation from an ethnic enclave into a trendy art scene. But after a year, Hawley closed the store to pursue advanced studies at the Art Studio Fuji in Florence, Italy. It was there that he found his true métier.
   Hawley practices the traditional Italian style of engraving using rudimentary tools that he makes himself — a stick with a dowel for the wax and a bulino, an engraving tool. All the work is done by hand without any pneumatic engravers. He specializes in Traforo, the classical and complex Florentine openwork style. Hawley incorporates this pattern in his jewelry and liturgical collections and customized designs. Every piece he creates is one of a kind.

Art versus Work
   Following his return to Boston, Hawley opened a store in 2006 on Newbury Street, an area dotted with designer boutiques. However, given the expense of maintaining the store, Hawley felt that he was at a crossroad, with his output determined more by the number of pieces he needed to produce to pay the rent rather than by his creativity. Characterizing himself as “much more of an artist than a bench jeweler,” he closed the store to focus on designing for private clients.
   But the desire to own a retail store never left him. “I always wanted people to see my work, “ he says. Opening another store would be dependent on finding the right atmosphere and right location. And Hawley was adamant that it had to be financially attainable so he could focus on his work. He was invited to explore business opportunities in Cleveland by a local organization, Community Partnership for Arts and Culture (CPAC). “Everything clicked,” he recalls. He opened his store in July of this year.
   The location, the 5th Street Arcades, has a distinct European sensibility. Situated in the heart of downtown Cleveland, it consists of two century-old arcades, built in 1898 and 1911, respectively. As business declined, these architectural landmarks with their huge domed ceilings had fallen into disuse. However, an extensive redevelopment project, coupled with a burgeoning economic revival, convinced this Boston native that it was “the kind of place I was looking for and it is the kind of place affluent customers in Cleveland need.”

Watching Metal Move
   The 540-square-foot store has an open-concept layout with no walls. Windows cover the entire front façade. Reclaimed industrial workbenches serve as desks. One-quarter of the store is dedicated workspace that is visible to people walking through the Arcades. “Everyone can see how a piece is made — from fabrication and design to the engraving,” Hawley, who alloys his own sheet metal, points out. “A customer can see the moving metal in my hand.”
   The showroom area is filled with seven museum-quality showcases that sit atop walnut legs that were built by Domenic Fiorello, a local furniture maker. The customized cases, illuminated by LED lights, are all glass so customers walking around the cases can see every angle and detail of the jewelry. “They can see the how the piece is constructed,” Hawley notes, adding that his goal was to make the store interactive.
   Given the time it takes to produce a piece, Hawley does not carry excessive inventory, nor does he follow trends. Bridal jewelry is his best seller, but brooches also sell well, which pleases him. “I would like to see the younger generation wear more of them,” adds the 30-year-old designer.
   Enhancing the unique nature of his pieces, Hawley packages his higher-end pieces in a leather box modeled after one originally created for Catherine de Medici in 1533. Constructed in the same way today, this 100 percent leather box uses no glue and is custom made for him in Italy. The boxes are also featured in the window displays.

Sharing the Story
   Word of mouth, rather than advertising, is more effective because the latter fails to “capture the life of each unique piece,” according to Hawley. Sharing the knowledge of his craft is also an important promotional technique. More than just selling a piece, he wants customers “to be able to see the intrinsic value, the story and the history” of it.
   Believing “engraving is a lifelong process,” Hawley goes back to study with the masters. He also organizes trips to Florence, where he conducts classes in Traforo and Florentine engraving to introduce U.S. jewelers to that classic style of jewelry making.
   Hawley uses the “true luxury” of his engraving skills, their European origin and the time involved as points of differentiation in the market. “It is so nice when people recognize that because they are really appreciating a lost art,” he concludes.

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - September 2014. To subscribe click here.

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