Melvyn Bernie was a 23-year-old watch salesman in 1968 when he started a costume jewelry company in his garage. By day, he sold timepieces; by night he retired to the back of his Van Nuys home and crafted costume jewelry. He used a few thousand dollars of his watch commissions to buy tools and parts, and began hawking his wares to department stores such as May Co. and retail chains such as Judy's and Contempo Casuals.
Bernie said his motivation in those days was "not to starve." Today, at age 45, starving must be last on the list of Bernie's concerns. His Burbank-based company, 1928 Jewelry Co., takes in more than $100 million a year in sales and is one of the three largest costume jewelry concerns in the country.
The company has a 50,000-square-foot plant, where, depending on the season, 1,000 to 1,500 workers design, mold, plate and glue about 3,000 different types of jewelry pieces. The plant is the largest site of costume jewelry manufacturing in the world, Bernie says. Meanwhile, Bernie has also upgraded his living accommodations: He now has an oceanfront Malibu home.
1928 has made its mark by producing jewelry fashioned after antiques. Its earrings, pins, necklaces and bracelets--most costing less than $50, although prices run from $5 to $300--are all new and are made with gold and silver plating, but they have the look of estate jewelry that might have been worn at the turn of the century.
The company's jewelry, 80% of which is sold in major department stores such as Macy's, Broadway, Robinson's and Buffums, have proven popular among women of all ages. "The customer it attracts is very mainstream, from the young customer who wants an antique look to the grandmother who wants some costume jewelry to wear with old pieces," said Jim Litwak, senior vice president of Macy's California.
1928's designers scour antique shops in New York and flea markets in London and Paris, looking for ideas. An antique brooch, for example, might be the inspiration for a line of earrings, pins and pendants.
Bernie decided on the name 1928 when he saw a magazine article that referred to 1928 as "the year of opulence."
Bernie, who wore little jewelry himself during a recent interview, says 1928 is profitable, has little debt and is adding 20,000 square feet to its existing facilities with the purchase of a building nearby. Bernie, sole owner of the company, says his five-year goal is to double sales to $200 million a year.
But after 22 years of steady growth for 1928, it's hard not to wonder where more growth will come from.
After all, other large costume jewelry manufacturers, such as Monet and Trifari, which are owned by Southport, Conn.-based Crystal Brands Inc., are still tough competition for 1928 in the department stores. According to various industry sources, Crystal Brands and New York-based Avon Products Inc., which sells its jewelry and its cosmetics door-to-door, vie for the distinction of being the biggest seller of costume jewelry in the world.
"It's extremely competitive and there's a terrific fight for the consumer dollar," said Steffan Aletti, president of the Jewelry Industry Council, a New York-based trade group. "You can't grow unless it's at someone else's expense," he said.
According to John Harris, a Commerce Department consumer goods economist, sales by American costume jewelry manufacturers totaled $1.3 billion last year, up from $1.2 billion in 1988. But low-cost imports, which accounted for $530 million in sales in 1989, are growing faster, Harris said, at a time when the market is likely headed for a slow period.
"The best we could hope for during the next couple of years is for things to be flat. If we have a recession, you could expect a downturn," said Harris.
Meanwhile, 1928 also has to worry about fickle fashion trends. Mock vintage jewelry might be popular now, but will women continue to covet that look when clothing styles change?
"Styles can change so radically from one year to the next," said Helen Malavenda, a spokeswoman for Napier Co., a large costume jewelry manufacturer based in Meriden, Conn. "I think that any company that specializes in just one thing could be in danger of doing themselves in."
David Alverson, 1928's vice president of product development, says the company does rotate designs constantly, although there are certain "basics" that stay in demand year after year. "Antiques never go out of style," he said.
Yet, 1928 has obviously heard the diversification arguments. The company has already started a line of semi-precious, designer jewelry, called Alex Nicole, that uses stones such as rose quartz and onyx that cost as much as $300.
It has also introduced a line of fancy hair clips, a line of children's jewelry, men's pieces such as tie bars and cuff links and a new line of polished jewelry--the smooth, geometric-shaped gold- and silver-plated pieces often worn by businesswomen--that will compete with the sleek, contemporary looks favored by Monet and Trifari.