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SD family business grows into jewelry design team

- Associated Press - Sunday, February 23, 2014

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - When Thomas Faini was a kid, he'd sit on his dad's lap for hours, watching him hand-engrave a couple's names inside a wedding ring or a family crest on the back of a watch.

The process fascinated the young boy, who admired his father's technical skills and creativity.

Larry Faini worked swiftly and confidently, Thomas says, but always stopped to show Thomas what he was doing and to teach him how to replicate his work. It took a lot of time and a lot of practice, but Thomas eventually excelled at the old-fashioned engraving technique.

Today, some simpler forms of jewelry engraving can be done by machine, Thomas says. But he prefers to use his old equipment - most of which is 100 or more years old - and the methods he learned from his dad.

"There are very few of us out here anymore that know how to do it by hand," Thomas says. "It's an art. I have a love for it. I grew up with it. I have a passion for it."

For three generations, the Faini family has shared their passion for jewelry with others from their studio in Sioux Falls. Renowned for their craftsmanship, the Fainis combine old techniques with new technology to create, make over and repair fine jewelry every day.

Larry Faini began the business as F&H Repair in 1950, with his primary focus on providing repair services to other jewelers.

His sons, Thomas and Gerard, grew up in the shop.

"I've been doing this since the sixth grade," Gerard says. "We learned the business from the bottom up. We learned how to appreciate jewelry and to understand how jewelry is made."

Gerard officially joined the family business in 1978, and Thomas followed in 1981.With the two of them - and the other artisans Larry had trained - F&H Repair began manufacturing its own line of custom jewelry, selling work wholesale to other jewelers.

After Larry Faini died in 1995, Gerard took over the management and direction of the company as CEO. Thomas is the facility operations manager and master craftsman. Two of Gerard's sons, Nic and Nathan, and one of Thomas' sons, Justin, have since joined the company. Nic takes care of sales and marketing. Nathan and Justin work in design and production.

In 2000, they decided to expand their business to offer jewelry and watches directly to the public, and they opened Faini Designs Jewelry Studio.

"We were done relying on retail jewelers for our business," Gerard says. "We decided to focus on what we do best. So now, we design things people can't get everywhere else."

And they do it by working in a way that's not done everywhere else.

Jewelry making and repair is somewhat of a lost art - particularly using the techniques favored at Faini, Thomas says.

"No one, it seems, wants to take the time to learn the craft anymore," Gerard says.

But at Faini, they do.

Thomas, for example, has a microscope attached to a video camera that projects what he's engraving onto a screen next to the engraver's bench in the lower level of the jewelry studio. This way, Thomas can more easily teach others what he's doing in hopes of teaching them like his father taught him.

In many cases, understanding these old techniques gives Faini a distinct advantage - especially when repairing old jewelry.

"We need to know how to make something like they did 200 years ago," Thomas says. "Otherwise, we wouldn't be able to service an heirloom piece."

That doesn't mean, however, they're not interested in any new techniques.

"I'm never done learning," Thomas says. "I can honestly say I'm a better jeweler this year than I was last year. That's how we operate, how we challenge ourselves, how we move forward. There's always something we can improve upon."

Team members at Faini specialize in specific jobs in the jewelry-making process, but they also do a lot of cross-training, Thomas says. When designing a piece of jewelry for a customer, it all comes down to teamwork.

Gerard likes to sketch out ideas with his customers.

"If you listen to what the customer is saying," he says, "you can pull out exactly what they're looking for, what they like and what they don't like."

From there, Nathan turns those quick pencil sketches into a computer rendering, and they analyze the concept. Can they do more with the design? What's going to make it better? Can they actually set the diamond that way?

This is when their collective years of knowledge come in handy, Gerard says. But just because something's been done before doesn't mean it's the only answer.

"These guys are learning how to design and create," he says of his sons and nephew. "It's phenomenal what they can design."

It's the next step, though - making a wax version of the ring or pendant - that's really cool, Nic says.

Sometimes, they'll carve the piece out of wax by hand. Other times, a milling machine will do all of the work. But it's the growing machine - one of the jewelry studio's newer pieces of equipment, similar to a 3-D printer - that's most exciting, Nathan says.

Instead of carving away the wax to form a model of the ring, for example, the machine grows it layer by layer, with extremely fine details, Nathan says.

"It's pretty top-notch technology," he says.

At this point, a customer can try on the wax model to see how the ring fits or how the pendant will look on the neck.

"It starts with that idea, but we make it come to life here," Justin says.

The next step is creating the mold.

Justin puts the wax model inside a metal flask and fills it with a liquid investment compound, similar to plaster of Paris. When he heats it up, the wax is incinerated, leaving behind an empty space he'll fill with molten gold or silver.

After the piece has cooled and been broken out of the mold, it looks dull and rough, Justin says.

"It's like a wood that hasn't been sanded yet," Nic adds.

But after it's filed and polished and any diamonds or gemstones are added, "that's when it starts to get pretty," Justin says.

From time to time, a new piece of equipment or a new technique will come along, and they'll have to figure out how to marry that new technology with their time-tested methods, Thomas says. Doing so "allows us to be more than just a cookie-cutter jewelry shop," he says. "We create designs."

That's important, Thomas says.

"As technology grows, people are more drawn to things that are done by hand. I really believe that," Thomas says. "That value translates to craftsmanship. You treasure something that's made by hand."

The Fainis have won many regional and national awards for their jewelry and were the first in South Dakota to win a national award from the Jewelers of America Affiliate in the design competition.

"It's really a feather in our hat to be judged and honored by our peers, by other jewelers," Gerard says. "It's nice to go to conventions and have people recognize our name."

But it's not the awards that keep the Fainis moving forward. It's their customers.

"Buying jewelry is an extremely emotional event," Gerard says. "It revolves around a moment in their lives - something they're always going to think about when they wear that piece of jewelry - and we're proud to be a part of it. It's personal, and we take it personally, too."

And when you're working with family, you can't help but take your business personally, too.

"Working with family is fun. It's challenging - and the kids call the boss the old man - but it has lots of rewards," Gerard says.

As to what direction the company takes next, that's not up to Gerard and Thomas.

"It's up to the kids," Gerard says. "We're going to let them shape the future. They have some great ideas, and we're excited to see what they'll be bringing to the table."

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Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com

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