A lost art found in Downtown Blacksburg

Post by Karen Quina- Doyle

A Lost Art Found in Downtown Blacksburg

Faith Capone beams as she extends her free hand in a solid, introductory handshake. The other is firmly grasped around four-month-old Bennett, her first grandson who is hinged to her torso and is also, I surmise, the source of her prevailing glow.

“We were just over in the jewelry studio, and he was mesmerized by the torch.  I think he was taking it all in so he could go on to become the next generation of jewelry-makers,” she prides.  “He was really into it.”

The Path of an Artist/ Jeweler

Faith is the matriarch of the infinitely talented Capone family and owner of Capone’s Fine Jewelry and Design Studio at the corner of Main and Roanoke in Downtown Blacksburg.  Like her grandson, she enjoyed seeing her steelworker father pouring metal from an early age even if her calling wasn’t readily apparent.

“The college I attended in Edinboro, Pennsylvania at that time had 52 art teachers, three of whom taught jewelry, with an enrollment of just 6,000,” she says. “They even had their own jewelry department.”

By her own admission, an artist she was not really a “jewelry person”.  She didn’t enjoy her first jewelry class even though fellow classmates, some of whom offered to buy what she was turning out and others who went so far as to ask her to make their wedding rings, were quick to pick up on her talent.  Coerced by a friend into taking a second class over the summer, she flourished under instructor Roger Armstrong’s tutelage, Majoring in Art with a Minor in Metalsmithing/Goldsmithing.

After graduation and at the urging of husband Truman, teachers, friends and classmates who continued to follow and support her craft, she opened Our Friends Art Shop in Cambridge Springs, Pennsylvania.  It was here that she first officially marketed her own wares in a setting she likens to Downtown Blacksburg’s own Matrix Gallery.

The Move to Blacksburg

Reluctantly leaving that established business in 1973, she and husband Truman moved to Blacksburg where he pursued graduate work in Architecture and completed a Master’s of Science in Education at Virginia Tech. They both went on to teach a jewelry class there, but after three years and many state budget cuts, the jewelry program was phased out despite interest and enrollment that far exceeded capacity. Truman  worked as a  media designer and medical illustrator for the university and in 1993 received his Master of Fine Art degree and then went on to become  a professor of visual communication design, department head  and eventually the  first director of the School of Visual Arts (SOVA), which he helped found.

Last year, he returned to the shop, which he and Faith opened in 1986, with a hand in everything from designing the mixed media paintings, sculpture, and other works of art showcased and sold throughout the store to visual branding and physical space design, repairs, and maintenance.  He also creates the drawings that guide their custom jewelry designs.

Faith had no trouble establishing an equally loyal following in Blacksburg with most of her custom design work coming through referrals and word of mouth.  Over the years, she has adapted and extended her offerings to meet the town’s unique needs.

She has been commissioned to design the Steger Award for Poetry by Distinguished Virginia Tech Professor, the Poet Nikki Giovanni, each semester for the past 5-7 years, as well as a direct commission from President Steger himself, the gift of a lapel pin which he presented to the Queen of England during a recent visit to D. C.

Capone’s Studio create  hundreds of original design pieces each year from design concept to completion, as well as licensed Virginia Tech designs and price points for students, not to mention Capones has a reputation for being “technical repair specialists in the extreme” (think 17th-century silver teapot-leg reproduction, whose beneficiary proceeded to send silver from Jamaica just for polishing, pleased as she was with the mastery behind the repair) or seemingly easier fixes to costume jewelry and eyeglasses prized for their practical or sentimental value.  They are versatile, even going so far as to sell estate jewelry on consignment and appraisals and watch repair.

A Family Affair

Grandson Bennett and Faith’s daughter Harmony, were in town on an extended holiday stay.  She and her husband Will also have a hand in working remotely for the company (she with her  MBA degree and background in Environmental Marketing through photography and web design; he through computer systems/set-up), work from their home in Sausalito but are angling to get back to Blacksburg at their first opportunity.  She is eager to have a more direct hand in the family business similar to 5-year-old Bella, a bichon-frise adept at customer relations, and 28-year-old brother Austin, whose natural finesse and easy command of the jewelry trade are not only his birthright but a well-honed vocation that extends beyond the family fold.

“Austin was 3 years old when he first got involved in the business and worked here all through high school and college,” says Faith.  Austin remembers the jewelry studio in their basement.  “We ate, slept, and drank jewelry,” the two divulge.

After graduating with a Communications Degree from Tech, Austin went to work for a mom-and-pop jewelry store in Philadelphia before moving on to a three-and-a-half year sabbatical with Tiffany & Co. There, he worked on the sales floor, dealing directly with a broad clientele, as many as 30-40 customers per day.

“I learned right away to treat everyone the same, whether I was working with someone looking at a hundred-dollar silver bracelet or a hundred-thousand-dollar diamond ring,” he says. “It also taught me a lot about how to work with high-maintenance customers, not that we have any of those here in Blacksburg.”

That opportunity ultimately took him and his wife Caitlin to Miami, where she earned her Graduate Degree from Florida International University, before returning to Blacksburg a year-and-a-half ago.  He is currently pursuing certification through the Gemological Institute of America (GIA).

“My outside experience gave me a different perspective and unique appreciation of what our priorities should be,” says the handsome, urbane businessman who values the family’s reputation for achieving the highest standards in the industry through an unflinching dedication to both quality control and customer service.

“Each of our pieces is Cartíer-caliber,” he continues with a humble confidence that belies his age, “with the obvious distinction that each of our pieces is painstakingly made one by one at the hands of true craftsmen.”

Renaissance Man-part of a Design Team

That craftsman is Kirk Burkett who miraculously appeared in Faith’s doorway the fall she first opened asking if she needed some help.  Save for a brief vagabond stint that took him around the country, he has been with her ever since and is mentoring Austin, who shares his passion for making heirloom pieces from scratch.

“We have collaborated on zillions of pieces,” Faith provides.  “He’s the reason my hands stay cleaner and my fingers are no longer as warped,” she says, in reference to the way the physicality of such work can manifest itself.  “He has been a specialist from day one,” she continues.  “We at Capone’s establish an idea and he is integral  in  getting it done.  If he needs a jig, he makes it.  He’ll sit at the bench sometimes for ten hours perfecting a technique, defecting a finish.

A jeweler by trade since 1975, he was trained by the Lithuanian masters of the House of Fabergé, foremost among them, Bruno Sabonas.  He has gone on to perfect the vanishing, if not singular, craft of shaping raw materials into finished components for each stage of the custom production process.  (I am told there probably isn’t anyone within a thousand miles with his capacity for custom jewelry-making, though I am convinced after hearing more of his story that the range probably extends beyond that.)  His counterparts at Fabergé and Cartíer specialize in just one part of the process, whether that be polishing enamel, soldering shanks, or setting stones.  Kirk does each and then some.

During his years on the road, Kirk would stop in at jewelry stores and was surprised to find that the “jewelers” were mainly salespeople capable only of doing repairs or setting stones…if that.  In contrast, the number of component parts outsourced by Capone’s is negligible; Kirk  and team make nearly all of them (wire, sheet, and other raw materials) by hand based on the unique dictates of each piece.

As you might imagine, the tools of his trade are of equal weight and importance; he sourced each piece of his 100-year-old lathe one-by-one.

Enduring Designs

Faith and her design team are loyal to their reliable vendors, many of whom they have worked with for 15-25 years.  It’s an approach based on high trust, what Faith calls “the honesty factor”.  “We establish a relationship with our friends (she refuses to call them customers).  They trust us to pass along the faith we have entrusted in our vendors every time they choose to do business with us,” she says, citing a 25-year relationship with her diamond supplier; stones collected, sourced, and hand-selected exclusively from local vendors, sapphires from Sri Lanka, aquamarines from Brazil; a former apprentice, Anita Schultz, who honed her craft for 5 years at Capone’s before moving to St. Croix and is now back in the states turning out a line of handmade silver and copper chains and markings that is affordable in this economy.  “We don’t take vendors in from off the street.”

From there, they subscribe to a design philosophy of practical, wearable, durable, an approach that is conveyed through taking time to design things like jump rings thick enough to hold up for a number of years.  They are especially gratified when a customer returns after ten years saying “I still love my ring!” They appreciate being reminded that it is still holding up and that it has been designed well enough to transcend jewelry trends.

Collaboration is Key

Just as location, location, location is the formula for success in real estate, cooperation, communication, and collaboration (with a hint of mind-reading thrown in for good measure) are key to custom jewelry design.

“A piece of jewelry is a personal thing,” says Faith.  “If someone comes in with one idea, they leave with fifteen, without being confused about the choices.  At the same time, customers push us out of our comfort zone into more inventive designs.”

She goes on to relay a story about a woman who brought in three wedding bands from three generations wanting them to design them into something she could wear.  Originally thinking she wanted a ring, they sketched out a series of ideas,  such as taking them apart and linking the thin rings back together as a necklace charm  and ended up with birthstones from each of the three generation represented  suspended from the center.  “We ultimately created something that enhanced its inherent value even more,” Faith allows.

“It’s a long road between what customers envision and how you translate that, especially when the budget factor comes into consideration,” adds Kirk.  ” We at Capones prefer when they come in knowing exactly what they want and  I am satisfied when we nail it!”

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Has the talented design team at Capone’s nailed something for you?

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