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Small Business Profile: Metal Workers

Small Business Profile: Metal Workers

Riding the popularity of platinum, jewelry maker finds a perfect fit as it manufactures its own brand for celebrities and the average person alike.

By Claudia Peschiutta

Staff Reporter

Celebrities and socialites sometimes come to Philip Press when they want a Harry Winston knock-off, but the 37-year-old jewelry designer and maker won’t oblige them.

Ethical issues aside, Press has enough of his own following without copying anybody.

Philip Press Inc. Master Platinumsmiths has been growing since its launch in 1991, and Press’ handmade, vintage-style rings, necklaces, earrings and bracelets have attracted a star-studded clientele that includes the likes of Harry Hamlin and John Travolta.

The small boutique, tucked in between two high-end retail stores at Sunset Plaza in West Hollywood, has gained attention as the popularity of platinum has grown. The metal, which is more expensive, purer and more durable than gold, has captured a significant share of the engagement and wedding ring market since platinum producers began promoting its use in the early 1990s.

While the recent economic downturn hurt sales of more expensive pieces, the boutique posted $5.4 million in revenues and $960,000 in profits last year, Press said. He expected this year’s revenues to exceed $6 million.

If you’re core business is bridal jewelry, you’re “virtually recession-proof,” he said. “People will always get married.”

Press first became interested in working with platinum as a sophomore in high school in Buffalo, N.Y. A friend took him to a small Buffalo shop where he met David Levy, who had learned the centuries-old trade from some of the art deco masters in Paris during the 1920s.

The old man was a Holocaust survivor who worked alone and talked little. But he took the enthusiastic teen, who pestered him with endless questions, and made him an apprentice. Press later dropped out of college and went to work for Levy full time.

“Certain people, I’m convinced, are fascinated with metallic objects,” he said. “We take metallic objects and we give them life.”

Learning the craft

Under Levy’s tutelage, Press learned about everything from polishing to making filigree ornamental, lace-like work in metal. His rings have become known for this filigree work, which often takes the shape of tiny hearts and scrolls in his designs.

“You can’t go to school to learn this method of jewelry making,” Press said.

As a teen, he found his mentor’s attention to detail, which sometimes meant using dental floss to polish a very small surface, amusing. “How can you possibly make a profit?” he recalled asking Levy.

But the training led Press to seek perfection in his own work. He wants every curve, cut and etching to be as exact as possible, checking for variations down to a hundredth of a millimeter.

Despite his creative impulse, Press spent two years selling jewelry, not making it, because he thought it might be an easier, more lucrative way to make a living. He eventually became “completely burned up” because he couldn’t stand losing a sale.

A job with a jewelry buyer brought him out to the West Coast and led him to open his own business after he became disenchanted with the industry.

“(It’s) a hyper-competitive situation that we’re in,” Press said. “It’s very common for people to exaggerate the quality of their pieces, the stones especially.”

With $10,000 of his own and the help of business acquaintances who provided him with materials on credit, Press opened his shop in 1991. For months he worked alone in the small shop near the corner of Beverly and Robertson boulevards, selling about five pieces a month and slowly developing a clientele through word of mouth.

Now he has a full-time staff of 12 and the boutique produces and sells about 300 pieces a month.

Press’ jewelry is carried by East Coast jeweler Bailey, Banks & Biddle as well as Borsheim Jewelry Co. Inc. in L.A. Some 150 retailers throughout the U.S carry his “Renaissance Platinum” line of jewelry.

It is well made, but it isn’t the sort found at such places as Harry Winston, Tiffany & Co. and Van Cleef & Arpels, according to Jenny Luker, director of advertising for Platinum Guild International USA. The pieces range in price from $400 for a simple platinum wedding band to $250,000 for an 18-carat diamond ring.

Lengthy process

It can take Press anywhere from five minutes to five years to design a piece, and up to four weeks to complete a ring. Inspiration can strike him at any time and he usually carries a small notepad in which to sketch ideas.

The antique look he favors is popular now and the filigree work of his pieces “takes more time and more effort and more talent,” Luker said.

“There’s a huge platinum trend and (Press) is right at the forefront,” said guild President Laurie Hudson.

Platinum sales worldwide have jumped 1,500 percent since 1992, according to the guild, a trade organization that represents some 20,000 retailers and manufacturers nationwide. Commonly used in jewelry making in the early 20th century, platinum was declared a strategic metal by the U.S. government in 1940 and it has taken the metal years to become popular again for use in jewelry.

PROFILE: Philip Press Platinumsmiths

Year Founded: 1991

Core Business: Platinum jewelry

Revenues in 2001: $5.4 million

Revenues in 2002: $6 million (projected)

Employees in 2001: 12

Employees in 2002: 12

Goal: To have the Philip Press line carried by the top high-end jewelry retailers in the U.S.

Driving Force: To create jewelry that is as close to perfect as possible.

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