How one South Philly jewelry shop elevated ethics and craftsmanship

Bario-Neal's artisans put their methods, their materials and their morality on display alongside the sale cases.

By Jared Axelrod
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 1 | Posted Feb. 19, 2014

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Jewels in their own right: The able staff at Bario-Neal pose in their workshop/store, as resident canine Kemba keeps watch. (Photo by J.R. Blackwell)

What makes jewelry precious? My first thought is usually What it’s made of, of course: precious stones. Precious metals. But—what if it’s not made of these things?

I was thinking on this as Anna Bario of the South Philly shop Bario-Neal showed me a bracelet she was working on. The piece was bronze, but the original it was cast from had been sculpted from a homemade paper-clay made of toilet tissue. Then another member of Bario-Neal’s team of jewelers, Aliyah Gold, showed me an intricate necklace she’d made of riveted stingray skin. A third, Stacey Lee Webber, makes cufflinks and pendants out of old coins; her supplies literally cost pennies, because they are pennies.

I don’t wear a lot of jewelry myself, as I find it distracting on my skin—as I write this, I’ve already removed my watch because it was rubbing against my wrist. But I remember shopping for an engagement ring, and I remember soaking in the common societal wisdom that what mattered was the size of the stone. To hear most people talk about it, every other detail was insignificant in comparison. Bario-Neal challenges that idea, and that’s apparent from the moment you enter the store.

Like its name—which combines those of cofounders Bario and Page Neal—the Sixth Street shop is split in two: brightly lit display cases on one side, a phalanx of tools and pieces in progress on the other. Rather than discordant, this combination of workshop and display room is strangely unifying. While the space is relentlessly modern, having the work area in sight evokes the kind of hands-on, old-world artisanship you don’t see in most jewelry shops today. The women who work at Bario-Neal, though, want you to know how these pieces were constructed. “Every piece gets fabricated a little differently,” Anna says. “A lot of our pieces start with natural materials, like a piece of shell or bone or things like that, for the model. And we start a lot with wax as well. But I’ve been trying to play around with clay and other materials as a starting point.”

The offbeat, organic style of the work on display helps make the whole place feel far more like an artist’s studio than a jewelry store. As does the shop’s resident canine: Kemba, a large red-brown dog with an sweetly lazy disposition, hangs out mostly on the workshop side but occasionally tags along as one of the artisans crosses to the display floor. Normally, a dog would seem out of place amid such shiny baubles; here, it just adds to the friendly atmosphere.

What impressed me most was how important the narrative of a piece of jewelry is here: where the materials come from, how they’re put together, whose expert fingers finished it. The women of Bario-Neal don’t envision jewelry immaculately conceived on a piece of black velvet. They want you to know its story.

“The designs aren’t informed by the standards that are already set up in the jewelry world,” says Melissa Guglielmo, one of the team’s younger craftswomen. “It’s not that they’re coming out of complete left field, but first there’s the idea, and then how we’re going to make it. I think that’s a different process than what a lot of people rely on.”

It’s not all paper-clay and stingray skin, mind you: Bario-Neal also provides the gold and diamonds you might see anywhere else. But, for those pieces as well, the story is what matters: The shop has declared a commitment to guilt-free gold and precious stones. In some cases, this means serious roadblocks in obtaining the materials they need, as most large suppliers don’t document every stage of a precious stone’s journey, which means it’s nigh impossible to ascertain whether any cruelty may have been involved in the production chain. “Because we are so focused on ethical sourcing,” Anna says, “we are a little more limited. With some of the new rings we’re working on, I have specific design ideas—but I may not be able to find the stones that I want. It’s always a balancing act between the aesthetic goals and the sourcing goals.”

Luckily, for Bario-Neal’s customer base, the ethical dedication is a selling point. “We’re lucky because our customers come to us a lot of the time for that reason,” says Sara Reckahn, who deals with custom orders and material purchasing. “Once you say, we’re not going to buy a ruby that we don’t know where it came from because there’s a good chance it came from Myanmar, then they go, ‘That’s why we came to you.’”

The team focuses instead on smaller, family-run mines and suppliers. Anna’s excited about fair-mined gold; like fair-trade coffee, fair-mined metal must follow strict guidelines for environmental protection and labor conditions.

“It’s a series of trust-based relationships,” she explained as she poured tiny, rice-sized segments of gold out of a plastic baggie. “That’s the amazing thing about the jewelry industry as a whole: There’s a lot of trust. When you’re dealing with objects of such high value, those relationships have to exist.”

The grains of gold in her hand gleamed in the shop’s light. It was only an ounce of metal—but I had to admit, knowing it had been taken from the earth by miners paid a fair price for their work, it felt far more substantial.

Jared Axelrod’s PW series, “Made New,” explores a broad spectrum of artisans, makers and thinkers who update old-fashioned practices to enhance 21st-century life. A West Philly resident, Jared is by turns an author, illustrator, sculptor, costume designer, podcaster and more.

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