Good as Gold

Good as Gold

Good as Gold

October/November 2015 issue of American Craft magazine
Author Andrea DiNoto
Mediums Jewelry
Bario Neal Linear Diamond Ring

Linear diamond rings are among Bario Neal’s most striking designs; this custom variation showcases the unconventional beauty of rough diamonds. Photo: Courtesy of Bario Neal

The course of true love is rarely conflict-free, but here’s the good news: The rings you buy for those entwined fingers can be. At least they can if your jeweler is Bario Neal, producing designs using responsibly sourced materials.

Co-founded in 2007 by friends Anna Bario and Page Neal, the thriving Philadelphiabased company has, from the start, been committed to the use of conflict-free materials, including reclaimed precious metals, fair-mined gold, and ethically sourced gemstones. “Whenever possible, we use materials from fair-trade operations, where the labor, health, and safety of workers is guaranteed,” says Bario. In contrast, economic exploitation and environmental despoliation are endemic to much of commercial mining.

The partners’ mutual interest in these and other social issues, such as marriage equality, was one of the essential reasons they decided to work together, says Neal. “We wanted a company where conflict-free sourcing was as relevant as our design work.”

The two women met as undergraduates at Oberlin College, where Neal majored in visual arts and sculpture, and Bario earned a degree in psychology. Their friendship grew as they discovered shared ecological concerns. Postcollege, Neal took a course in metalsmithing, and Bario did an internship; independently, both women began to make jewelry. In 2007 they joined forces in a business venture, setting up a studio in the basement of Bario’s Philadelphia house. Initially, the pair produced everything themselves, honing both their metalsmithing and business skills in the process. They began selling their work to lifestyle boutiques and jewelry stores, a number of which did not survive the recent recession.

Observing that a lot of customers wanted custom work, “we decided to shift our focus,” says Neal, “to fine jewelry, wedding, and engagement rings.” In 2010, they felt confident enough to open their own storefront – in a former skateboard shop – with financial support from the Merchants Fund of Philadelphia, a local foundation. Although they find many customers to be somewhat aware of the conflict-free aspect of the merchandise, they produce an informative blog that goes deep on the issues, an important complement to the site’s display of their sculptural jewelry designs.

Pieces range from an impressive variety of custom engagement and wedding rings – consider an earthy matte gold band or a glowing ruby set in rose gold – to unusual casual pieces. One popular jangly pendant necklace features cast replicas of baby shark jaws; a textured bronze ring lined with gold is among the stunning designs for men. The company is also working with Linder, a boutique in New York, to produce a men’s line. Another collaboration, with ceramist Jessica Hans, resulted in one of the company’s most sought-after earring designs, featuring metal and ceramic elements that can be combined in myriad compositions.

All Bario Neal pieces, whether in gold, silver, palladium, platinum, copper, or bronze, are produced in the Philadelphia store-cum-workshop where, on any given day, visitors can view four skilled bench jewelers hard at work on the design and finishing for custom orders – sculpting wax models, creating sketches, and more. Casting and stone-setting is done off-site, often by artisans located a mere six blocks away on Philadelphia’s 150-year-old Jeweler’s Row.

The pair credits word of mouth and social media for their burgeoning customer base. “Most people come to us after researching us,” says Neal, noting that a growing New York-area clientele led to the opening in 2013 of a Manhattan showroom, overseen by Bario, who relocated there. (Designs are also sold on the website and in boutiques.)

While the company continues to develop and offer new designs for the various collections, one trade-off is that “Anna and I no longer make the work ourselves,” says Neal. It’s the kind of compromise, they’ve found, that’s required to grow a business, which in turn requires managing a staff of 10 while tending to clients in two cities and around the country. That said, as Neal points out: “It’s fun when things are busy.”

Andrea DiNoto is a New York-based writer on art, craft, and design.