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Cranston, R.I. - While U.S. Olympic officials faced criticism for dressing the American team in outfits made in China for the opening ceremonies, a small piece of the team's uniform was made in Rhode Island by a company that's reinvigorating the state's once-bustling jewelry industry.
Cranston-based Alex and Ani was selected by the U.S. Olympic Committee to produce the charms for the 2012 London Games. It's the latest sign of success for the company, which has gone from a small manufacturing operation with 15 employees and a store in Newport to an economic dynamo with 16 stores across the country. It's a rare economic success story in a state with an unemployment rate of 10.9 percent, second highest in the nation.
"You can do business in the state of Rhode Island," said owner and designer Carolyn Rafaelian. "You can thrive in the state of Rhode Island. You can make things here. It's about love, about helping your community. I couldn't say those things and make my stuff in China."
Alex and Ani makes colorful charms, beaded bangles and other jewelry, mostly priced at less than $50. Many feature symbols from the zodiac, gods from Greek mythology, or the logos from Major League Baseball teams. The products are manufactured in Rhode Island using recycled materials.
The Olympic charm has proven to be a hit, with silver medalist swimmer Elizabeth Beisel, herself a Rhode Islander, tweeting that she was "more than excited for the Alex and Ani charm" she found in her uniform bag.
The state was once home to hundreds of companies that churned out so many brooches, pins, rings, earrings and necklaces that for many years Rhode Island was known as the capital of the costume jewelry industry. As late as 1989, Rhode Island manufactured 80 percent of the costume jewelry made in the U.S.; jewelry jobs represented 40 percent of the state's factory employment.
Those jobs are mostly gone now, and economic development officials hope to transform Providence's old Jewelry District into a hub for biotechnology companies. But while those efforts have yet to pay off, Alex and Ani has found some luster in the state's jewelry legacy.
"They've got a relatively well-crafted, inexpensive jewelry and a great marketing plan," said Patrick Conley, the state's historian laureate and a former history professor at Providence College who has studied the state's manufacturing past. "It's running totally contrary to what we've seen in Rhode Island. They're bucking the trend."
Alex and Ani's roots stretch back to the heyday of the jewelry industry. Rafaelian's father, Ralph, ran a plant that produced inexpensive costume jewelry in Cranston. Rafaelian worked as an apprentice in the family business and quickly learned she had a knack for design. Soon she was selling pieces to New York department stores.
"I went to the factory and decided I'd just design whatever I would want to wear," Rafaelian said. "I was just supposed to be doing this for fun, until the day I turned around and saw all the workers at the factory were working on my stuff."
In 2004 Alex and Ani was founded, named after Rafaelian's first two daughters. Rafaelian said her company's success is driven by a sense of optimism and spirituality. New retail stores open on dates picked for astrological significance. Crystals are embedded in the walls of the stores, and in the desks at company headquarters.
CEO Giovanni Feroce, a retired U.S. Army officer who studied business at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, doesn't question Rafaelian's nontraditional approach to business.
"All I know is that whatever she's doing, it works," he said.
Savvy business moves play an equal role. Aside from Olympic charms and bracelets Alex and Ani is also licensed by Major League Baseball to produce wire bangles featuring team logs. The company also has licensing deals with the Kentucky Derby and Disney.
This year alone, Alex and Ani opened new stores in New Jersey, Colorado, New York, California, Maryland, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Rhode Island. The company also moved into other business areas, buying a local winery and opening a coffee shop in Providence. In June Rafaelian was picked as Ernst & Young's New England entrepreneur of the year in the consumer products category.
Hundreds of independent stores - ranging from small boutiques to major department stores like Nordstrom's and Bloomingdales - now carry the jewelry. Ashley's Distinctive Jewelry and Gifts in Windsor, Conn., began selling Alex and Ani merchandise this year.
"The price point is wonderful," said store partner Carissa Fusco. "People feel in this economy if they want to buy themselves a little something they're not breaking the bank. They stress the positive energy. People like that."