Author and Connecticut native Kathryn Orzech writes mystery, suspense, and thrillers set in New England “and other exotic locations” where everyday women confront chilling situations, flirt with romance, and brush with the supernatural. Today she joins us to talk about how her first real job out of art school formed the basis for her one of her novels. Learn more about Kathryn and her books at her website.
Designing Costume Jewelry at The Napier Co.
Before my life as an author, before my graphic design career, and before my ad agency art director job, I designed costume jewelry at The Napier Company in my hometown. Costume Jewelry is defined as jewelry made with inexpensive materials or imitation gems. Napier was once one of the leading brands worn by celebrities like Grace Kelley and Marilyn Monroe. We competed with Monet and Trifari.
A brief history of The Napier Company
Originally The E. A. Bliss Company in Massachusetts, it relocated to Meriden, Connecticut in 1890, was re-named The Napier-Bliss Co. in 1920, and again re-named The Napier Co. in 1922. Newer owners, Victoria & Company, closed the Meriden plant in 1999. However, Napier jewelry continues under the Jones Apparel Group umbrella and can be found at Macy’s, Kohl’s, and Boscov’s department stores. Numerous online retailers offer vintage designs from Napier’s glory days.
Soon after art school, I began work at Napier in 1969. Wowed by the fancy, carpeted executive offices on the second floor, I was directed to my workroom—a different world of drafty windows and creaky wooden floors that seemed closer to circa 1900 yet farther from constant corporate oversight. As I recall, we passed through an Assembly Room where rows of women, 20 to 30 in all, were busy with handwork. I came to learn the women were piece workers, while I was paid an hourly minimum wage of about $1.50.
The fun begins
My new domain was located in the far left corner of that second floor. Small cardboard boxes and bags of beads, filigree stampings, rings and clasps, and spools of chains stored on shelves and in drawers encircled a sturdy wooden worktable in the center of the room. Assembly tools included round and flat-nosed pliers, wire cutters, and a yardstick affixed to the table.
I was free to design what I wanted, sometimes within parameters and always approved by the head designer who hired me.
What fun! Necklaces, bracelets, ring-bracelets, chain belts, and even a Juliet cap. I drew inspiration from an art background and interests in fashion, ancient Egypt, and the hippie era—which pretty much encompassed most of human history. The arrival of new beads, chains, tassels, and stampings, many from Providence, Rhode Island, formerly known as the Jewelry Capital of the World, sparked excitement and new ideas. I would artfully choose beads by size, shape, and color; and select accent beads, and a chain style to match.
When a piece was finished, six duplicate samples routed through departments for estimates of assembly and production time, component costs, and pricing. Depending on all that, the item was either added to the line or trashed.
From grime to shine
Responsibility for the gold plating process—and the gold—was above my pay grade. But I’d watched the preparation by others often enough as they removed oil and grime, and thought I’d give it a go. When my dirty piece needed its sparkle restored, I took it to a rectangular, industrial-size sink in a production area for an acid bath. Three shallow trays fit side-by-side in the sink: the first tray held acid; the second, a solution of neutralizer; and lastly, rinsing water. I’d loop my item, most often a filigree stamping, with a safe eight to twelve inches of copper wire. A quick acid dip turned grime to shine, then a swish in neutralizer and water. I didn’t realize acid had splashed until I felt my legs burn, smelled an acrid odor, looked down and saw smoke coming off my trousers. I was too embarrassed to seek first aid. Spotty scars have long since faded.
Napier design job inspires fiction
Several years of work experience at The Napier Co. inspired both the protagonist and the fictional family jewelry business in Asylum, a dark suspense saga. The real life acid accident served as the basis for a dramatic scene.
Designing for Napier was my first real job and one of the most fun, but I suspected early on that I’d never get out of that magical room. I seized an opportunity to work at a Hartford advertising agency on Constitution Plaza where carpets were thicker and skyscraper views offered a boundless world to this small town girl.
In 1899 while her father travels abroad, twelve-year-old Maggie Delito, daughter of the wealthy industrialist, unwittingly witnesses a shocking scandal. The next day, she's dragged from her family's estate and locked in an asylum to ensure her silence. Beneath the noted asylum's polish of respectability, a wicked villainy hides in dank shadows--and Maggie fears she will be its next victim.
Seventy-five years later Laura Delito inherits more than assets when her prestigious family's mysterious past comes knocking--a strange old woman, cryptic messages, and a rare antique key that might unlock the truth. As she pursues clues from the Northeast to North Africa, she fails to see danger looming close to home.