CRANSTON, R.I. — On Saturday mornings, Armenian music would be playing as 12-year-old Rachel Ajaj watched her grandfather sit at a long, wooden factory table with his neck hunched down and the sleeves of his shirt rolled up.
Holding a soldering iron, Ralph Rafaelian worked, transforming bits of metal into a piece of jewelry — a brooch, a necklace, or perhaps a new concept.
There were 25 or so people on the floor in various departments: soldering, gluing, packaging, and casting. Thousands of casting molds were lined up, numbered, and categorized on shelves down in the basement. And by her grandfather’s soldering bench, countless drawers full of stones that he, the owner of Cinerama Jewelry, had accumulated since starting his business in 1966.
Cinerama Jewelry dates back to the golden age of Rhode Island’s manufacturing scene, when the smallest state was known as the country’s costume jewelry capital. Rafaelian started creating patriotic American flag pins, a best seller during the Vietnam War, during which a portion of the proceeds went to veterans.
By the 1970s, the state produced 80 percent of the fashion jewelry made in America. Nearly 900 jewelry firms employed almost 25,000 Rhode Islanders at the time, mostly in Providence and its surrounding suburbs, churning out products such as earrings, rings, cuff links, tie tacks, pendants, and bracelets.
Rafaelian kept his company afloat as labor and materials moved overseas and other local legacy brands declined. Companies such as Monet, Trifari, Swank and Speidel, among many others, closing down but Cinerama Jewelry endured because Rafaelian would pivot to other items to stay relevant, such as creating sun catchers in the late 1980s.
And Ajaj, Rafaelian’s first-born grandchild, would gladly spend her weekends, school breaks, and holidays inside the Cranston facility. She started designing when she was about 12, but she was 15 years old, was when she really started to work, in the late 1990s, hunched over a long table like her grandfather had been, looking over vintage finds, chains, and bundles of rhinestones. She learned how to solder different materials together, coming up with her own color combinations to make unique pieces, and ended up helping her grandfather with private label designs for clients such as fashion retailers Express and Bebe.
“I remember sitting in a meeting with Express and they would look at the hundred designs that I created and like two of them,” Ajaj told the Globe recently. “I was really learning firsthand.”
Rafaelian would sit down with her to examine each new concept and design.
“He would have this smile on his face like he couldn’t believe that I created it, like it was the best thing he has ever seen,” she recalled. “He was one of my biggest cheerleaders, but also wasn’t afraid to put me in my place.”
She added: “He taught me what it meant to build a business, to surround yourself with people who would eventually be called family.”
Rafaelian died in 2012. His daughter Carolyn Rafaelian, Ajaj’s aunt, had already taken over the family legacy as the founder of the billion-dollar jewelry empire, Alex and Ani.
“I ran my business very quietly, with blinders on. I had my vision,” he said in a video tribute posted in 2013. “My granddaughter came into the business, which is very pleasing to me that the Rafaelian family has grown, and is growing. It’s a legacy.”
Ajaj took over Alex and Ani’s Vintage Sixty-Six collection, which were specialty pieces that used vintage components, and learned the ins-and-outs of the modern jewelry industry in Rhode Island.
When Alex and Ani moved to a larger space in 2019, Ajaj decided to take over her grandfather’s factory, located on Pettaconsett Avenue in Cranston, and put it — and Rhode Islanders — back to work.
Enter: Air & Anchor.
Founded by Ajaj and her husband, Omar Ajaj, Air & Anchor opened right as the pandemic hit Rhode Island’s shores, but has quickly turned into a local lifestyle and jewelry brand. Their mission is to remind people to make time for the small moments, so wearable products have symbols and sayings on them that represent daily reminders to “enjoy the life in between.”
Their best-sellers are their customizable necklaces with “cuffs” that hold interchangeable charms, gemstone bracelets, and their ginormous 18 ounce mugs sourced from a local pottery artist. They are also branching out to offer soft, American-made blanket throws, weathered oak serving boards (in partnership with Providence-based Edge and End), and hats with their “Life in Between” slogan on them. This year, they will be rolling out a new peer-to-peer fundraising effort called “Give a Cuff,” where programs and individuals can create customizable charms to raise money for charities, schools, or projects.
Her grandfather’s factory now boasts an “Air & Anchor” sign alongside the Cinerama Jewelry plaque outside. It hasn’t changed much since Ajaj was a child.
The building’s two floors are filled with fashion jewelry that was popular in another era. Spools of colorful chains and links are sprawled across a back shelf on the factory floor. Walls of wooden drawers are covered with her grandfather’s scratched handwriting and filled with old designs from the later part of the 20th century. In the basement, bins and piles of clunky gold chains, ropes, and beads are ready to be worked into future pieces. Ajaj has old linking machines and foot presses, and still makes samples by hand before anything goes into production.
And the long, wooden tables her grandfather used to work at are still there.
“It’s a little more empty these days, but that’s why we are here starting our business from the ground up,” said Ajaj. “It’s to make this building hum again, build another family, and support the other small businesses in our community.”
Her grandfather was determined to keep production local, and Ajaj does the same, collaborating with local vendors and artisans and using recycled materials whenever possible, including in their packaging. They have about eight full-time and part-time employees.
“It’s super important to us how we make the products and who we are making them with,” said Omar Ajaj.
She and her husband bring their three children into the factory on the weekends. Her daughter sits in the same corners and plays with similar materials that Ajaj did when she herself was a child.
“There’s a love for designing, being creative, and making jewelry,” said Ajaj. “But there’s another love that I have when I know that I am sitting here, doing the work, and continuing my family’s legacy that I can someday leave to my own kids.”
She added, “Isn’t that the American dream?”