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Her Family Business Is as Good as Gold

October 20, 1989|KATHRYN BOLD

As a small child, Paola Weingrill would crawl on the floor of her family's goldsmith factory in Verona, Italy, and play with the gold dust that fell from the goldsmiths' tables.

Sometimes the jewelry makers would pick her up and weigh her on the same scales they used to measure their gold.

Little wonder, then, that at age 49, Weingrill treats gold with the same casual air as a sculptor treats his clay.

"I might as well work with flour," she says with a shrug. "It's not the medium, it's what you put into it."

Weingrill has gold in her blood.

Her grandfather founded the Carlo Weingrill goldsmith company in Verona 110 years ago. She took over as chief executive officer of the firm in 1977 after her Uncle Gastone died.

"If my grandfather had been a brick maker, I'd be making bricks," she says.

Instead, she has traveled from her native Verona to Bullocks Wilshire stores in Southern California this month to promote a new line of jewelry to be carried by that chain and by I. Magnin stores.

She arrived at the Bullocks Wilshire in Newport Beach's Fashion Island Monday accompanied by Pietro, her 22-year-old son, and an heir apparent to the company. A petite woman, she wore a red shawl draped dramatically over one shoulder and one of her company's gold link chains around her neck. Because she speaks limited English, Robyn Lewis, president of the Italian Jewelry Guild in Beverly Hills that represents Carlo Weingrill, acted as interpreter.

In Italy, it's unusual, but not unheard of, for a woman to be in charge of such a large company. Weingrill has been preparing for the role since childhood.

"I've always felt it would be my destiny," she says.

Her grandfather, Carlo, started working as an apprentice in a goldsmith shop at the age of 11. In 1879, at 22, he decided to open his own factory.

He died in 1924, and his two sons, Armando and Gastone, took over. They transformed the small artisan business into a high-powered industry and gained a worldwide reputation for fine workmanship. Armando, Weingrill's father, died in 1959, and her uncle carried on the business.

As the third generation to continue the family operation, Weingrill has felt considerable pressure to uphold its reputation.

"The two generations before me demanded perfection," she says. "I have the heavy weight of tradition upon me. I feel it is my duty to carry on."

To that end, she has involved herself in every aspect of the business.

"She's everywhere in the factory," Lewis says. "She's very gratifying but very demanding to work for."

As it has for more than a century, the company employs goldsmiths who make the jewelry entirely by hand. Weingrill likes to note that "there's not a machine in the factory."

Workers sit three to a table, molding, shaping and polishing the gold until it gleams with a flawless finish. Weingrill helps recruit talent to fill these tables. Legally, one can become a goldsmith in Italy after two years as an apprentice. At Carlo Weingrill, the apprenticeships last seven years.

The result of their craftsmanship: streamlined pieces handmade in 18-karat gold. Invisible clasps give the bracelets an almost seamless look. The heavy link chains fit together smoothly. Earrings form tight, interlocking rings. One popular piece, the gooseneck necklace, has been wound by hand out of a single piece of gold instead of assembled from manufactured parts. It sells for $8,500.

Many pieces in the collection have been inspired by older designs used by the company in the 1900s to 1940s, particularly the curving floral motifs of the art nouveau works and geometric shapes of Art Deco pieces. The company's designers ignore fad jewelry, preferring to draw from their original molds for inspiration.

"I don't relate to American jewelry," Weingrill says. "It's more trendy. Everything is diamonds, diamonds, diamonds."

In contrast, only about 15% to 20% of her pieces are studded with gems. The designs are far simpler than the ornate, baroque-style baubles currently in vogue. A bracelet might consist of a single, shining ring of unblemished gold. Necklaces resemble flattened coils of metal.

The company has introduced about 50 new pieces for I. Magnin and Bullocks Wilshire, which sell for $950 to $20,000. Linking up with a department store represents one small break with the past. Traditionally, Carlo Weingrill jewelry has been sold only through exclusive jewelry stores, but Weingrill decided that the store chain would give her line the right kind of promotion.

That she took such a step illustrates what she calls her "sixth sense" for business and ability to realize the company's potential. In this way she takes after her grandmother, who kept a tight rein on the factory's finances while her husband acted as "the artiste."

Weingrill hopes to retire from her position early, having felt the weight of responsibility like so many bricks of gold upon her shoulders. Her husband, Arnaldo Mensi, works with her, and their sons, Pietro and Carlofilippo, are being groomed to carry on the dynasty.

"I hope the future generations will be as proud of me as I am of my ancestors," Weingrill says.

"I haven't invented anything new. I haven't revolutionized the company. But I think I've added a little breath of femininity."

Kathryn Bold is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

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