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A Museum Piece

Keeping the Shenandoah jewelry-making heritage alive

July 2023

by Audrey T. Hingley, Contributing Writer

In addition to the Elk Run Mining Company, Harrisonburg is also home to The Museum of American Jewelry Design & Manufacturing, operated by Hugo Kohl.

The museum debuted in 2015, becoming the third arm of Kohl’s part-retail/part-workshop/part-museum enterprise. Located at 217 South Liberty Street in downtown Harrisonburg, Kohl’s business is in The Ice House, a mixed-use development utilizing the rehabilitated 1934 Castco Ice Factory complex that includes retail and office space, apartments and restaurants.

Kohl preserves historical methods of jewelry making, creates new custom and reproduction pieces, and offers jewelry repairs. His jewelry boutique emphasizes fine jewelry in gold, silver or platinum, manufactured in-house. Customers can buy jewelry, watch the artist create it and visit a place described as housing the largest collection of jewelry hubs in America.

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From the 1790s until the 1940s, master engravers created jewelry by carving designs into a steel block by hand, resulting in a hub. Hubs are “casts” that goldsmiths used to create jewelry via a mold. Kohl’s museum showcases over 7,000 hubs used in jewelry manufacturing, from filigree rings to pendants to wedding bands.

Today, Kohl uses both vintage and modern jewelry processes, explaining, “The ‘age’ of a process as an attribute is irrelevant as to what is the best version of a thing. I use whatever process is readily available to get a particular result.”

The museum also features antique machinery like drop hammers and screw presses. Drop hammers, for example, were used in many processes, including the forging of precious metals; later, as electricity became available, such tools were retrofitted with electric motors and clutches for more efficiency. The museum focuses on “the American story through the preservation of our country’s jewelry manufacturing past.”

“The response [to the museum] has been very supportive,” Kohl says. “Some folks enjoy the artwork, some enjoy the machinery. Everyone seems to enjoy the narrative about the origins of the jewelry industry in America.”

Kohl’s retail operation is open Tuesday-Friday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Currently the museum is only open on Thursdays, but special tours can be arranged by appointment.