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Jewelry manufacturer brings jobs back to city

February 14, 2013

PAWTUCKET -- The arrival of R & D Manufacturing Company in Pawtucket is a homecoming, of sorts, in several meaningful ways.
For one thing, the jewelry maker, formerly of Attleboro and Seekonk, Mass., brings some 50 jobs to the area in industry segments—jewelry and manufacturing--where both Pawtucket and Rhode Island as a whole have suffered major declines.
Secondly, the eight-year-old company has found a permanent home after bouncing around in several leased properties. This included having to relocate quickly last January after a roof collapse and subsequent fire at their Seekonk building.
And thirdly, owner Ralph Fontaine (the “R” in R & D Manufacturing), grew up in Pawtucket and he and his wife, Diane (the “D” in the company name) always retained an affection for the city. So for the husband-and-wife team, finding a vacant building at 60 Dunnell Lane that met their business needs was not something they had to think twice about.
Diane Fontaine said that she and Ralph purchased the one-story building, which formerly housed Denison Pharmaceuticals, in November. The building was basically in good shape but needed some renovations. Recently, all of the equipment and employees moved in and Fontaine says this is where she hopes the company will remain for quite awhile. “I tell people that we're hobos with a home now,” she joked.
The Fontaines began their company in a backyard shed at their Attleboro home. Ralph Fontaine is an experienced toolmaker for the jewelry industry who was working at another part-time job, and Diane was employed in banking. The pair found some success in jewelry manufacturing and eventually took on a half dozen workers.
R & D Manufacturing specializes in making jewelry items that range from costume to high-end specialty pieces. They take the concept from raw product to finish and sell to both wholesale and retail customers. Ralph, who has worked in the jewelry business for 28 years, heads up the design and production side of the business while Diane handles the financial and human resources functions. “I'm the mother. I cater to the customers,” she said, smiling.
Needing more space, R & D Manufacturing leased a section of an old industrial mill building in Seekonk, off Route 152. After about a year and a half there, the roof collapsed and the building was condemned. The Fontaines were told they had 10 days to relocate. While scrambling to deal with that, another vacant section of the building caught fire, reportedly due to vandals.
The fire was extinguished before it spread to R & D Manufacturing's space, so their equipment, materials and inventory was spared. However, the Fontaines were told that they wouldn't be able to occupy the building again until the spring. “We have every penny tied up in this company,” said Diane Fontaine. “We would have lost the whole company by then.”
Acting quickly, the couple found another space to rent on West Street in Attleboro and set up shop. However, Fontaine noted that this was a laborious task due to the heavy machinery, air lines, plumbing, electrical and other equipment. “We aren't just a 'plug in and go' operation. And we were elbow to elbow there,” she said.
The Fontaines wanted a place they could own and build on, and spent a good year looking at available properties in Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts. The building on Dunnell Lane fit the bill due to its size, condition, and location.“We went from about 6,000 square feet to 26,000 square feet,” said Fontaine. “We brought the business here so we can grow the company. We'd like to see it get to 150 employees.”
Fontaine said that with so much of the jewelry business having moved to China and other places overseas, the couple thought that “someone needs to stay here.” She said they are glad they did because while the shift in jewelry manufacturing might be slow, “little by little, some has come back.”
Ralph Fontaine, taking a brief break from the manufacturing floor, stated, “It wouldn't be that hard to bring manufacturing back.” Besides some changes being needed at the state level to improve the business climate, he said “corporate needs to change. Maybe making back $1.20 on something instead of $1.25,” he suggested.
Fontaine said she and her husband are trying to work hard with the city so they can be successful, and credited Herb Weiss, Pawtucket's Economic and Cultural Affairs Officer, for his assistance. The company was also greatly aided by an advisory firm, Cunningham and Associates, she said.
Fontaine said that she and Ralph have always had “a warm place in their hearts for Rhode Island” and Pawtucket in particular. Like the city itself, she said that she and her husband “are fighters. We're survivors.” After the fire at their Seekonk site, they thought seriously about shutting down. But since that time, they have enjoyed positive business growth.“We just dig in. Neither one of us are ones to fail,” Fontaine said.
Looking ahead, Diane noted that Ralph has hired a toolmaker apprentice so he can pass on the considerable knowledge and skills that he honed during almost three decades in the trade. She said that she and Ralph and the rest of the employees are very happy in their new facility. “Plus,” she added, “What better place to bring jewelry manufacturing back to than Rhode Island?”

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