Editor’s Note: This is part one of a three-part series exploring the past, present and future of the Jewelry District in Providence.
Joseph DiBattista remembers opening his jewelry plant on Chestnut Street in Providence in 1964. Manufacturers, platers, wire formers, stampers, enamellers and other businesses lined the streets. Signs boasted the names of some of the biggest designers in the world. Blue-collar workers gathered for lunch and, inevitably, the topic of jewelry came up. There was little question that Providence – and specifically its Jewelry District – reigned as the jewelry capital of the world.
“It was a very lively, precious neighborhood,” said DiBattista, who sold his business in 1989.
In the early years after Europeans first arrived in the area, however, there was little to suggest that such an industry would rise to prominence. The city founded by Roger Williams was, after all, a simple seaside community filled with more farmers than jewelers.
“In 1786 there was nothing to indicate that a century later the flats and fields
of the west side would be covered with jewelry shops,” wrote Welcome Arnold Greene in a history of Providence published in 1886.
The industry received its start far from what became recognized as the modern Jewelry District – broadly defined as a pie wedge bounded by Interstate 95, the Providence River and Pine Street.
In 1794, Nehemiah Dodge established himself as a jeweler and clockmaker on North Main Street, near what is today Roger Williams National Memorial Park. Dodge took up a specialization in costume jewelry – relatively inexpensive necklaces, earrings and watches that appeal to the masses.
By 1810, competitors arose and about 100 people worked in the industry, according to Greene’s history. By 1820, that number had risen to 300 men producing jewelry valued at $600,000. Over the coming decades, the industry would grow and work its way south toward Broad Street and then Eddy Street, as jewelers searched for land to host their shops and factories.